South Africa should institute mandatory public sector traineeships for accounting graduates if the country is to attract qualified financial managers to a sector hampered by a drastic shortage of skills, according to advisory firm Grant Thornton.
With one in three municipalities regarded as “dysfunctional”, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Pravin Gordhan has identified as a critical the need to attract qualified and competent staff, such as municipal managers and chief finance officers, into key financial management positions. Mr Gordhan has stated that as many as 170 financial officers throughout the country do not have the required qualifications.
“By introducing a mandatory public sector component for article clerks as part of their three-year traineeship to qualify as chartered accountants, the number of graduates who will consider the sector as a viable alternative would increase significantly,” says Zak Sadek, Head of Public Sector Assurance at Grant Thornton Johannesburg.
The mandatory 36-month traineeship for audit trainees which is overseen by the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) is currently only conducted at audit firms, the Auditor General (AG) and certain corporate institutions such as banks and most trainee accountants receive absolutely no exposure to the public sector. Once they have qualified as chartered accountants virtually all graduates get absorbed by the private sector or within the professional services firms, while very few candidates are placed in the public sector.
“Most third year trainees completing their traineeship leave the firms to go and work in the commercial world whilst a few would remain within the professional firms, for most of these trainees the public sector is not an option as they have never had any experience in this sector,” said Sadek.
“Should a mandatory public sector traineeship component be incorporated – be it even three to six months – it would afford candidates the opportunity to experience the dynamics of public sector organisations and therefore could become a career opportunity.
“As an example, we had an audit trainee who we offered a short term contract to work in our public sector department. When his contract ended he went on to work for the AG. Had we not given him the opportunity, he may never have found his passion for public sector audit work.”
Sadek said that while the development and implementation of the proposal was a medium- to long-term journey, it had the potential to significantly benefit the country. The benefits included professionalising the public sector; improved efficiencies and management processes; cost savings; and improving the largely negative perceptions about working in the public sector among professionals.
Sadek said: “For example Minister Gordhan has lamented the billions of rands that municipalities and provincial government have spent on the use of consultants. A better functioning system with enough skilled individuals would therefore be less reliant on consultants to assist in the financial management function. More professionals would be drawn to working there as perceptions of bloated, inefficient and stagnant environments would gradually improve.”
The implementation would need cooperation from government, the private sector, universities and the SAICA, said Sadek. The change would affect the way companies hired and how they structured their audits, while universities programmes would also have to adapt accordingly.
“It’s really my challenge to SAICA and the nation as a whole – if we really want to fix the country up – if we don’t want the public sector to continue to lament poor skills in the financial management processes, then we seriously need to make a plan - today,” Sadek concluded.
Notes to editors
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