Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Business leader offers employment tips

Jamie O’Rourke

A Senior Partner of National accounting firm RSM Bird Cameron Mr Jamie O’Rourke gave Warrane residents some tips on getting a job after finishing their degrees when he spoke at the College 22 October 2014.

Mr O’Rourke, a former managing partner of the Sydney office and current Executive Director of the National practice has wide expertise in providing tax, accounting and business advice to many Australian businesses.  Mr O’Rourke has assisted businesses in their accounting and tax affairs including business planning, restructuring, business acquisitions and sale, venture capital, debt financing and growth strategies.

He emphasised the importance of having a career plan from the outset but also urged students to be ready to make changes to it if needed.

Reflecting on his personal experience post university his first employment role did not fulfil his objectives although the starting salary was impressive.

“My friends had a starting salary of $15,000 per year and that was really good in 1985,” he said. “My starting salary was $18,000 a year and I thought, wow, that is really good. I thought I have hit the big time.

“(The organisation) had a graduate program rotating around different departments, but there was just something that was missing. It was a large and bureaucratic workplace that was slow to adopt change.  I didn’t feel that I was having any impact, even in the smallest way, because it was so bureaucratic. I became disillusioned.”

Mr O’Rourke said he decided to travel overseas, something that he encouraged all young people to do.

“Understanding and living in another country where you have to adapt and fit in with the local cultures and different values of other nations, I think is one of the greatest learning experiences in life,” he said.

“I worked in London for two years and travelled extensively and on my way home I travelled overland hitch-hiking for two months through Africa.”

It was on the trip home that a friend told him about the challenges small-to-medium businesses faced in Australia and he realised that helping those businesses would be something he could find rewarding.

“I went back to Goulburn, to home base and joined the local branch of RSM Bird Cameron and stayed there for six years after which I was transferred to Sydney,” he said.

Mr O’Rourke said that when students graduated, their professional journey would probably be close to 50 years! He advised the Warrane students that “it is not a sprint – it’s a marathon and you can develop and succeed at different points in your 50 year career”.

“It doesn’t have to happen in the first two years, or first four years, or first 10 years. It can happen in your 30s or 40s. Please remember that.”

One trend that had been noted with Generation Y was that they tend to work in as many organisations as they can, staying only about two years before moving on, but Mr O’Rourke did not agree with approach.

“The last thing that we are looking for when we recruit people is someone who is looking to stay with the organisation for only two years,” he said.

“We don’t think it is in anyone’s best interests to stay anywhere for two years because you’re just starting to learn the culture of the organisation and how it works. In our profession it is important that our clients receive consistent service and advice and that is difficult if the team is continually changing. You need patience and you need time and I think if you stick with an organisation for as long as you can, I think you will reap greater rewards from this approach.

Mr O’Rourke emphasised the increasingly competitive employment landscape in Australia. He said his own firm received around 600 applications from graduates each year and took approximately 10 in Sydnet.

“Think about the way that you are going to present yourself and think about the things that you are doing outside of the pure academic environment,” he said. “What we are looking for in people is application, attitude and people who are going to be able to fit into our culture,.

“I have seen in the short time that I have been here with you tonight that culture is a big part of Warrane College and if you join a good organisation, it is the culture that will keep you there.

“It’s the culture that will keep you there, rather than other factors like money. A lot of people when they are young, are very focused on their remuneration and the empirical evidence will tell you that remuneration usually ranks fourth or fifth among the most important things about working.

“When I came back and joined RSM Bird Cameron I was nearly 28 years old and my London salary immediately prior to that was $70,000 a year which was a good salary in 1990, and the offer from RSM Bird Cameron was $30,000.

“The decision I had to make was whether I was really willing to try this business advisory role servicing the small-to-medium enterprise group.  There were many thoughts in my mind, thoughts of failing, and of course the embarrassment of telling friends – because everyone asks how much you are making and I had to tell them I was earning $30,000 a year while they were all earning $70,000 or more.

“So I did it, and I have no regrets because I have received such a great reward out of my career.  I am privileged to serve the many client groups and really have enjoyed working with all of the people in the RSM organisation.

“RSM is a great place to work and we try to have a very friendly feel about it and that’s important to me, because I probably work 10 to 12 hours a day and spend a lot of time there.   You really need to make sure that you get along with the people that you work with.”

Turning to the question of what employers look for in new recruits, Mr O’Rourke said they wanted “something a little bit different”, for example a sense of humour.

“But you have got to be a little bit careful with that,” he said, “because humour can sometimes be misinterpreted. And if you try humour to differentiate yourself and it doesn’t come off, it is probably a risky strategy.

“We are looking for things that are different, and we are looking for team players, people who are there to help others, people who will put others before themselves.”

On the topic of work culture, Mr O’Rourke mentioned that he went to Harvard in 2011 for further study and came across one law firm that had an extremely demanding culture.

“They had among the highest paid lawyers in the world and they had compulsory retirement at the age of 42 because they worked so hard,” he said. “They expected you to work 16 to 18 hours a day every day of the week and if you ran out of work you had to go around and ask other people if there was anything you could do. You weren’t allowed to leave.

“If you were going to get married, the managing partner would probably interview your wife and ask her whether she realised and understood the firm what she was marrying’.

“That culture worked for a certain style of people, but that is not our culture and that certainly wouldn’t be attractive to me.”

Mr O’Rourke said the first thing an organisation would see from applicant was their written applications.

“Because of the sheer volume that professional firm receive each year if you know someone at the organisation it would not hurt to call them and let them know that they have applied for a position for no other reason other than the application will be thoroughly reviewed.  Also if you are not experienced or masterly in writing employment applications then seek assistance – ask for advice.”

“There are plenty of people out there who can help you write an application. Make sure it is clear. Do some research on the organisation, what you can gather from their web site and people you know – that’s all really important”.

“If you are trying to connect with the organisation and you have made the extra effort you are more likely to get to the next stage, which is an interview.”

He said in his own organisation initial interviews were not conducted by older partners, but by people in their 20s – people with whom a young applicant would feel comfortable with.

“We want to see the real person in the interview and so we have our younger managers, who have probably be working there for around five or seven years, conduct those interviews. There will always be two of them, so they can help each other and it creates a more relaxed environment”.

“Having said that, don’t drop your guard – you must still be professional. You might find that you went to the same school or you played the same sport or have a common interest, but that doesn’t mean that you should dispense with the formality of why you are there. You are there to try to win a job.

“The other part of that is your personal presentation. People are looking for a way to distinguish you from someone else and most people who get to the interview stage are pretty capable. So if you haven’t shaven or combed your hair or your tie is down…, well you would hate to lose because you haven’t cleaned your shoes or you are wearing a white belt with a dark suit or your trousers don’t match your coat.

“You would be surprised. Some people come in in night-club shirts or they have a skinny leather tie that they have borrowed from their father.”

Mr O’Rourke said the world was becoming more globalised and digital. Only 10 to 15 years ago there was little chance of bringing in a workforce from overseas to work in Australia in professional services. But with technological advances and higher levels of education in countries like India, Malaysia and the Philippines. it was now easier to set up and to replicate the services that generally get performed in Australia.

“There is a lot of off-shoring going on,” he said. “In our profession there are only two firms in the top 20 that don’t use off-shoring and we are one of them…

“We have been around for 92 years, and what is very important for us is to generate opportunities for young professionals. We have a long and proud history of playing the role of educator  – preparing and developing the best accountants, auditors and tax advisors that the individual can be.  For us that is very important.  We may however ned to consider offshoring in the future due to the strong competitive pressure.

“The type of work that is easiest moved offshore is the lower skilled work which is the sort of work we use as our traditional training ground for our young graduates.

“Ultimately, that will change. We are not in a state of denial, but we are hanging on for as long as we can while at the same time redesigning the graduate work and using technology so that we can continue to create opportunities for the young professionals who are a very important part of our organisation.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]