Life as a CA in Sydney
There are more ICAS members in Sydney than in any other foreign city. And yet, despite appearing to have it all, the Harbour City is crying out for more top-quality finance professionals, two resident CAs tell Rachel Ingram
Each year, thousands of Britons move to Australia in pursuit of a new life filled with beaches, barbecues, year-round sunshine – and a vibrant economy. One thing the county currently lacks, though, is enough chartered accountants. Since the pandemic closed the national borders for two years, causing some foreign workers to return home, there has been a gap in the skilled jobs market, which means increased opportunities for qualified candidates from the UK, particularly in the financial capital of Sydney. While the government insists there is no scarcity – accountancy has not appeared on its national skills-shortage list since 2008 – industry experts suggest quality, not quantity, is the issue.
Indeed, the 2022 CommBank Accounting Market Pulse report found a net 93% of firms said finding quality staff was “challenging”, while in a survey of Australia’s 100 biggest accounting firms for Financial Review, lack of talent topped the “problem” list for the second consecutive year.
So opportunities abound, especially in Sydney – currently ranked the 10th richest city in the world, by number of millionaires, according to Henley and Partners. To learn what awaits, we speak to two Sydney transplants – both on the committee of the local ICAS network – about their move and whether the city has lived up to their high expectations.
Michelle Campbell CA – M&A and Corporate Advisory, Endeavour Group
I picked accountancy for the ability to work around the world. While at university, I did a year abroad in Miami as part of my degree, which was fantastic. It was a stereotypical American college experience, just like you see in movies. It really broadened my horizons and perspective of the opportunities and experiences that were out there. This was what gave me the travel bug.
I completed my training contract at Johnston Carmichael in Edinburgh and moved into corporate finance where I worked with a great team in infrastructure and renewables. I enjoyed it, but it was very niche, so I decided to join BDO’s M&A team for a more generalist experience. It was another great team to work with and they supported me with moving to Sydney when my husband, who works at Deloitte, was offered a job there. That’s one of the benefits of working for an international firm – as long as you work hard and you’ve got a good reputation at your home firm, you’ll generally be supported to go wherever you want.
My husband and I had wanted to move abroad and the CA opens so many doors. We focused on English-speaking markets, deciding on Sydney due to the opportunities it offers, the work-life balance we’d heard about and the weather. BDO helped me to get settled but I felt drawn to working in industry, so I decided to move on. Through the ICAS network, an opportunity came up at the ASX-listed drinks and hotel company Endeavour Group. I was introduced to my ultimate boss by someone from the committee. At Endeavour, I work between the internal finance function and strategy division across capital, corporate advisory and M&A, looking at internal capital spend – where we deploy our money and how.
BDO in Sydney was much the same as back in the UK, except they hire graduates here, which they tend not to in the UK, so a lot of my team were in their early 20s. The work-life balance took some getting used to as people work hard but flexibly. It was almost encouraged to put life first, which is great but different. It wasn’t frowned upon to do training on the beach or to go surfing before work.
Everything in your life changes when you move abroad, but I was fortunate that I moved across with my husband. We got married in April last year and flew out a month later, so it’s been like a prolonged honeymoon. It feels like we’re on holiday every weekend. We live in Paddington, which is 15 minutes away from Bondi Beach, and we love to walk down and sit watching the whales.
There is a high population of young professionals, making Sydney a vibrant and exciting environment to work in, with lots of energy. At night, you’ll walk past restaurants and pubs and they’ll always be buzzing. I think everyone is genuinely quite happy because the sun’s always out. Body clocks are also slightly different. In the summertime, everyone will be out at 5am walking, running or cycling, and the kitchens stop serving food at 8pm.
One thing that surprised me is the wild property market. Rents are sky-high, so it takes a higher percentage of your salary than in Edinburgh. And because you’ve got good weather for nine months of the year, the houses aren’t insulated and they don’t have heating.
Culture shock is a real thing when you move abroad. There are significant differences which can be quite hard to cope with if you’re not prepared. My advice is to research what you’re getting into, especially with the time difference, as the hardest thing is being away from friends and family. But it’s a fantastic experience that I would encourage everyone to do. The job opportunities in Australia are huge for an expat, and firms are keen to take on talent from the UK, especially people with an ICAS qualification. And the ICAS network here is fantastic – I’d be happy to talk to anyone about the pros and cons.
Jonathan Hannah CA – Manager, PKF International
My international escapades started during university. Long before I began my journey with ICAS, I studied law at Glasgow and did an exchange programme in Hong Kong. I was there for six months and absolutely loved it. When I came back, I decided to pivot into accounting. I did my training contract at Grant Thornton and then started looking at opportunities to move abroad with the firm.
In my mind, Australia was a little bit far. I didn’t feel Singapore was right for me, I didn’t fancy the Middle East as an openly gay man, and I never clicked with North American culture. The Caribbean was an option – Grand Cayman is only a 55-minute flight to Miami and is one of the largest of the Caribbean islands with decent infrastructure, so that’s where I toddled off to.
I had this idea that I would be sipping on pina coladas at 5pm every day and Panama hats would be essential office wear. But much to my dismay, people worked quite hard. I was also upset to find that it got dark at six every night, and that the wet season was almost nine months long. But the island is full of life, and it’s a pretty small community so you get to know each other despite the high turnover. And it’s beautiful; it really is paradise. Having a tax-free salary was fabulous too, but it is ridiculously expensive in the Cayman Islands – I was paying nearly $14 (£10.50) for a single pepper.
From a work perspective, I was dealing in quite a niche section of the financial services market, so after a year there, it was time to move on. I’d always wanted to move into M&A, so I pursued an opportunity that had come up with a friend from the ICAS network who worked in M&A at Deloitte in Sydney. I have family in Sydney and I liked the beach lifestyle, so it made sense. I’ve been here four and a half years now and I’m a permanent resident, on track for my citizenship this year.
When I joined Deloitte, I moved into the transaction services team. After Covid hit, Deloitte restructured and took the transactions part out of my role, which made it a normal audit role – so I decided to move on. The problem was, I was tied to what was on my visa, so I took a mainstream audit role at a mid-tier firm and then, when things started to come back around, I moved back into M&A at PKF International.
Sydney is one of the greatest cities on earth. There’s normally one great downfall of any city, but Sydney has everything. You can be in a national park within 15 minutes of the city centre and there are lots of beaches and wonderful things to do for free. It’s very outdoorsy, but there’s good shopping and nightlife as well. It has a wonderful LGBT community, which has been great for me. The only downside is being on the other side of the world – even then, Scotland’s only a day’s flight away.
Australia has a really good work-life balance. Everything is more relaxed, my salary is better, and the quality of life is very good. Everything just works better – I reckon if I want a doctor’s appointment, I could get one tonight. I think the greatest metric of its success is the fact there are 25 million people in a country almost the size of the US. When you compare that with the UK, where there’s 67 million people, it’s nuts.
There’s a real shortage of accountants and finance professionals in Australia currently, so there are big opportunities here if you want them. The ICAS network is a good place to start. It’s really picked up here – each year we try to do two big events and two catch-ups. The network is great for opening doors professionally but also for building relationships – I’ve made some good friends.
I can’t put into words the level of growth I’ve experienced from living abroad. Reflecting on the past five years since I left Scotland, I’ve lost 25kg, I have met my partner, I’ve had four jobs on three continents, and I’ve built a whole new family on the other side of the world. Moving abroad has continually pushed me out of my comfort zone and I am proud of the person I am because of that. It has allowed me to become the man I am today and continues to inspire me to keep growing.
There are 635 CAs in Australia, of whom:
222 are in Sydney.. the most of any foreign city, ahead of New York (95) and Melbourne (91)
120 Sydney CAs work in business and 69 work in practice
Connect with ICAS networks abroad