We will try every issue to have a Q&A session with someone in an interesting VAT-related field. We are kicking off with Alex Mann, who is an indirect tax recruitment consultant with Harvey John, who will be telling us something about the indirect tax jobs market.
What is the funniest/oddest thing that has happened to you in your career?
When you interact with people for a living, there are lots of stories to tell! But as a fresh and modest graduate entering the world of recruitment, one of the oddest things to happen to me was quite early on in my recruiting tenure!
About a month in as a trainee, I was about to make an arranged candidate call. I would over analyse the CV, I would over-prepare my line of questions, and entered the call with the good intentions of understanding this candidate’s career motivations. Without going into too much detail, the only motivations I was getting from the candidate were those you would expect to receive from an adult hotline. Not wanting to be rude and hang up on a ‘candidate’, I stayed on the call until a timely interval and then politely interrupted that I needed to take another call.
Mortified at what I experienced, I checked the number after the call to make sure it was not some sort of prank by a colleague. It was not a prank and the candidate was not the right profile we were looking for.
What is the overall health of the current indirect tax jobs market?
This is a question that we have been getting a lot from candidates and clients! It has certainly been a turbulent 18 months with Brexit, Trump, and the various other political/economic uncertainties that we are seeing. All of these occurrences do not help for a simple answer!
Broadly speaking, the good thing about indirect tax is that it has always been one of those sectors that thrive on change and uncertainty. Of course, there have been ups and downs, but whilst some industry sectors are suffering, the indirect tax job market does – more or less – pass its health check. Whether it is with the in-house teams bolstering their tax offering ahead of Brexit or the professional services catering for an increased demand for outsourced work, we have been incredibly busy at Harvey John.
Certainly, there are some clear highlights for us. The in-house market across continental Europe has been buoyant, as with the regularity of interim positions in the Benelux & DACH region. It has also been great to see that the number of junior hires has scored across Europe, with the demand for 1-3 year pan-European VAT compliance specialists remaining incredibly high. Equally, we have seen an ongoing demand to identify talent and leadership at the senior level across the UK professional services too, with more Partner and Director moves taking place in the last couple of years than we have seen before. And with VAT now being implemented across the GCC, this has also given the global indirect tax market a very healthy outlook for those European, Australian, and SE Asian specialists considering being involved in The Gulf’s VAT implementation.
There are some more ‘unhealthy’ portions of the market, as senior in-house professionals will have noticed! The volume of UK in-house roles at the strategic/advisory level still seems limited, and this has certainly been one of the ‘aches and pains’ for Manager to Direct level candidates. There is very much a long queue of European candidates waiting for their next in-house move right now. Fortunately, however, we seem to be turning a corner now with more senior industry roles becoming available, so we are positive about 2018!
What are the most interesting current hotspots and trends?
An obvious ‘hotspot’ is that VAT is moving to the sunny Gulf region (excuse the pun). It seems you cannot go two scrolls down LinkedIn these days without this coming on your newsfeed. This has obviously been a big focus on our recruitment since the summer and we expect this to increase as we go into 2018.
Aside from this, the ever-changing nature of tax technology is creating a lot of new positions for indirect tax professionals to take advantage (blockchain, robotics etc). And amongst the more junior candidates, a big talking point has been how one can start breaking into the taxology world with many identifying the importance of this role in the future tax professional.
What does the future hold for indirect tax professionals? Are the required skill sets changing?
From a recruitment perspective, the need for ERP expertise and IT capabilities (paired with tax technical knowledge) is certainly shaping a lot of the job descriptions we are getting. This will only increase and one can assume the level of IT skills required will only become more sophisticated. So, technically, the variables of what tax professionals will need to know are changing. But I do think the fundamental soft skills will always need to be there. In fact, they will probably become more important. No matter how good technology is, people like to deal with people, and that goes for every industry. Can you imagine trying to let an automated insurance line know your house is burning down? Empathy and the ability to deal with nuances of human problems are key. Robots cannot win new business, make connections within their organisation, lead a team of different personalities, or they will likely struggle to find a solution with unprecedented VAT legal cases. So I think soft skills will become more important as technology advances. I am sure this is an exciting prospect for the tax teams out there who are bogged down with compliance as it will free them up to work collaboratively on strategy, advising, and influencing the different business units.
What is the impact of AI in indirect tax? Will you still be placing humans into indirect tax jobs in 20 years’ time?
AI will have a huge impact on indirect tax compliance and operations, there is no doubt about it. As to whether we will still be placing humans in 20 years’ time, I would hope so! It is the million dollar question in every sector. But, as previously mentioned, I think this will force us humans into acquiring a more sophisticated set of ‘soft skills’. For now, that seems to be the missing gap in AI!
There is a lot of talk about the onset of the “gig” economy. Will the humans you’re placing in 20 years’ time be long-term employees or professional contractors?
There is certainly a rise in the need for interims on the market, but I still think this is a trend more evident in the US. Whilst the need for flexibility and ‘being your own boss’ is prevalent in the European market, I still see that many people (both candidates and clients) want the security of a permanent role. Candidates like to see that they progress within a company and experience the full life cycle of the projects they are involved in. Likewise, many of our clients want the same in terms of developing a stable team. In general, it is such a candidate-driven market that companies do not want to lose the talent they have been developing. And this is particularly true with the professional services/advisory firms… these guys do not want to be letting go of their ‘industry expert’ too easily as recruiting a replacement is just too difficult!
Do you have any advice for someone joining the indirect tax profession right now?
The key bit of advice I would give is to be patient. One of the most frustrating things I see when looking at CVs each day is how many candidates change jobs every year or two years. Of course, you need to work in an environment that allows you to be successful and in a company that values you, but many tax professionals these days do not always stick around long enough to see this. I speak with a lot of candidates who leverage their promotions or salary increases simply by moving to a competitor or new employer. If you commit yourself to business and prove your value, they should commit themselves to you and your long-term career. The development and money will come; you are a specialist, be patient!
So the future indirect tax professional needs to be patient in their progression, willing to learn for the long-term, and open-minded to responsibilities outside of their job description.