Compliance isn’t the easy path to fortune

Tom Welsh
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A RECENT Thomson Reuters survey of 500 compliance officers at financial services firms emphasised two things about the extraordinary growth in the importance of the profession in today’s job market. Firstly, it showed how lucrative compliance roles have become – 70 per cent expected the cost of senior compliance staff to be higher in 2012. Secondly, it highlighted how financial service firms are struggling to surmount an increasing burden of regulatory information.

These points are linked. Fergus Hooley, director of compliance at Hays Recruiting, says “the changing regulatory landscape is fuelling a consistent demand” for experienced compliance professionals. Demand has risen “across most areas of financial services”, but particularly in asset management and hedge funds, insurance, and corporate and retail banking.

At the same time, there’s an “ongoing shortage of the suitably qualified”. A relatively young profession, there’s no huge pool of newly-qualified candidates to flood the market. This finite reserve of experience has meant that “good people are being rewarded, challenged and retained” and are therefore unwilling to leave existing posts.

Base line salaries are high, and employers are increasingly willing to offer extended benefits. Robert Half, the recruitment consultants, project that salaries for regulatory accounting managers within the financial services industry will average between £78,750 and £95,000 in 2012.

So why is there such a shortage? And how can those looking to pursue a career in compliance take advantage of these broad trends and position themselves for a potential role in a zeitgeist profession?

Tara O’Neill, head of risk and compliance at Bruin Financial, a leading recruiting firm for financial services, says that the idea that compliance is boring is “old-school”. It’s as dynamic as any area of financial services and prospective candidates need to prove “the ability to hit the ground running”.

She relishes the challenge of finding candidates who are right for the role, but admits that it can be difficult at times. Often that difficulty stems from personality. “Our clients aren’t compromising on what they want. These professionals need gravitas as well as knowledge, they must be culturally right and they need polish”.

Effective compliance professionals need “the ability to say no but be able to explain why”, to be able to “identify a problem and then create a solution”, and crucially “to make money in line with FSA regulations.”

The job is not just about crunching numbers, but robustly communicating the implications of these numbers, making a decision and sticking with it. The ability to demonstrate a combination of analytical and communication skills is essential.

Alongside personality, employers put a premium on experience. But this creates an apparent paradox. It is not easy to enter the profession in the first place because employers only want those they can trust to make the right decisions. They don’t want to suffer the financial or reputational impact of an FSA fine. But if you can’t already provide that confidence then you’re unlikely to get the experience.

O’Neill says that some firms, a small number, are willing to take on those without specific compliance experience if they show the necessary attributes and the required personality. You must already show potential through your academic achievements, and although there is no specific compliance qualification, “a regulatory-orientated degree in business or economics could help.” Equally, proven ability in a business-facing, solution-orientated role will help any application.

Crucially, however, candidates must demonstrate that they know what compliance is, that they don’t want to be a lawyer, and that they specifically want a career in the profession.

James Beale, partner at ADL Partners, relegates experience to second place, behind the candidate “first and foremost” demonstrating they “genuinely want a career in the profession.” This has not always been so important. But with firms “upscaling the quality of their compliance teams”, they want the genuine article.

There is still time, however, to act and take advantage of this lucrative employment trend. According to Beale, although “the upsurge in demand is short to medium term” as a “direct reaction to regulator requirements and political pressure, the demand for better compliance is long-term.” Since it is a “defined function and in the limelight, it will attract more professionals.”

Choosing a career in compliance should not be a thoughtless, easy step. But for those with the savvy to know what employers want, and how they must be reassured, there are plenty of opportunities to thrive.