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ICAEW 100 2020 winner Sam Jones on changing careers

From an engineering degree to a career in finance: advice from our ICAEW 100 winner

Sam Jones, engineering student turned aspiring accountant, talks us through his move from civil engineering to finance – and how to succeed in your career change.

In April 2020 Sam Jones, a civil engineering student at Imperial College London, won the annual ICAEW 100 competition, securing himself £5,000 for his personal development and a one-to-one employability session with a member of the ICAEW student recruitment team.

The ICAEW 100 competition involves testing your skills through an online exercise; the top 100 students make the leaderboard. It is run in collaboration with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), a professional body for accountancy. As well as providing the ACA professional qualification to become a chartered accountant and supporting experienced professionals, it offers help and resources to university students interested in accounting.

A few months on from taking the top spot on the ICAEW 100 leaderboard, TARGETjobs caught up with Sam for a quick Q&A to find out more about his career change from engineering to finance – his reasons for the switch, how easy it is to do and how other students can make the transition.

You can also hear more from Sam in another Q&A on upskilling and how the ICAEW 100 competition has helped him.

Were you interested in finance careers before the competition?

Finance is a ginormous industry and, over the past two years, I’ve looked at a few different sectors of it – investment banking and financial consulting, in particular. I hadn’t considered accountancy before, although I was familiar with what it is and how it works – every business needs accountants. The competition was a good chance to learn more about what skills are needed to be a good accountant and the different areas of accountancy, such as audit.

Since the competition, I’ve been finding out as much as possible about accountancy through reading and watching YouTube videos and I’ve talked to a few people working in the industry. It’s extremely hard to know 100% if an industry is right for you so it’s important to research as much as possible. I’m looking forward to seeing where I end up!

What is it about finance that has drawn you away from your engineering degree?

My reasons for being interested in both finance and engineering overlap. My engineering degree might not help me with a balance sheet but it is about applying knowledge to solve problems and make an impact, whether that’s socially, environmentally or economically. The skills I’ve picked up are transferable.

For me, a priority is a workplace that is fast paced, dynamic and can build me as a leader. I feel that a career in finance offers me all of this. Watching how the industry is reacting to Covid-19, it’s been really interesting, if unprecedented and a little scary!

In your opinion, how easy is it to change career path from engineering to finance?

Lots of engineers will consider a non-engineering career at some point and I’d say a larger than normal proportion of engineering students at Imperial go into finance than at other universities. However, it’s not easy to change direction without any finance knowledge or experience. Finance is a competitive industry to get into and you don’t need a finance degree to apply, so you’re in the company of many more students from a range of degree backgrounds.

Do you think those from a non-finance background would be at a disadvantage in the workplace?

As an engineering graduate, you might not know some things that finance graduates do, but an employer will provide on-the-job training. In fact, engineers can often bring different, important skills and perspectives to the table. Engineers have a good reputation for our problem-solving skills and adaptability, for example. I attended an RBS insight day last year and they were talking about how to finance civil engineering projects, which is what my degree is in!

Have you done any work experience?

I’ve done a couple of placements with engineering consultancies, which I did enjoy and was very different to what I’ve done at university. I’ve tried to get a finance placement but I’ve found it harder to catch the eye of finance recruiters than engineering recruiters – hopefully winning the ICAEW 100 competition will change that.

What would you say to other students considering a switch from engineering to finance?

For anyone planning the switch, I’d recommend talking to contacts through family and friends, applying to employers' spring weeks and completing free online courses on topics such as corporate finance or finance modelling. All of these things will help with the basics and give you something to talk about at interviews. Joining a finance society at university will also give you access to contacts and opportunities that may be hard to get otherwise.

Not everyone can do a finance internship and recruiters appreciate this, but everyone can use the internet to do some research and develop their skills. If you put the time in and do this, you’ll be able to show finance employers that you’re dedicated.

Feeling inspired by Sam's story? Head to the ICAEW 100 competition website to find out more.

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