ONE OF THE biggest challenges that accountancy firms have to deal with is finding the right people.

Now, with tuition fees going up (not going to get into whether it's right or wrong just now, I'm undecided - ideally education should be free, but then again why shouldn't those who benefit the most pay for it, I do) it looks like we'll be seeing fewer graduates in future.

Should we be worried?

There are some who would point out that there are many more applicants than jobs anyway, in fact the sheer numbers of applications at the moment make it harder (and more costly) for firms to unearth the best talent. Perhaps the higher fees will help ensure that only the best and most determined graduates are applying to be our future.

Others would say that if, as many fear, entire sections of society (notably the poorer ones) are excluded, we'll be missing out on a huge pool of talent and potential.

Furthermore instead of being swamped we'll be starved of suitable candidates, making it harder to find strong employees for the next generation (more cost).

Still more would share their concerns and point out that higher fees will push young people into work much sooner than perhaps they would like, bringing into question whether they have the maturity and perspective both to decide on what they really want to do and be able to perform effectively in the work place (even more cost).

Some may see gap years as a soft option, others (myself included - I have a personal bias) believe that in many cases they lead to much greater benefits in the future.

There's going to be plenty of well-intentioned parents out there pushing their kids into work, but if it's not for them they could be unintentionally wasting several years of their children's lives (and yes, adding to our costs).

What's my point? Well, as you may have guessed by my cunning subtlety, I think there's a decent possibility that it could cost us money. And let's face it, we're accountants, we don't like that sort of thing.

So what are firms going to do to secure the right people for the future?

One increasingly popular strategy is spotting talent and building relationships earlier; this helps firms find the right people and start equipping their recruits with the skills required from an early stage. A number of firms now offer degree courses with work placements; not just the Big Four but mid-tier firms are now exploring this option too. But it can be an expensive option, especially for smaller firms.

So now it seems it's time to go back to school. Firms are now starting to recognise the benefits of building a relationship at the earliest stage.

I know that recently here we've been running the PKF Experience, where we've been building relationships with local schools and inviting pupils in to gain work experience, and also learn a bit about professional life and some career skills.

Working with schools also has the added benefit of being able to promote non-graduate routes, such as the AAT course, as a viable alternative to university. Because of the fears over university fees, this is proving an increasingly popular option, with both students and firms - our own intake has greatly increased in the past few years.

Traditionally, university campuses have been the battle ground of recruiting firms, but as the impact of tuition fees is felt there are many who expect to see this shifting to the school yard, and I think I'm one of them.

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