Time for a little something different for this week’s #Futures50 as we hand over the reigns to One Manchester’s James Highmore. A former GEM and a newly qualified accountant, this week’s guest shares some knowledge about what makes social housing finance a great home for young professionals.
It can be an uphill struggle for back-office staff to convince colleagues in other teams that their work is worthwhile to an organisation, let alone deeply important to its success. Finance teams are perhaps most afflicted by this; often perceived as the introverted beancounters, they are the ones you quietly curse when told your budget is overspent and silently thank after your bank balance has had its monthly fattening-up.
For finance teams in the social housing sector in particular, their work is too often a mystery both inside and outside their place of work. This has implications for attracting talented apprentices, graduates and professionals.
Adam Clark has already written an excellent blog on why the housing sector deserves more attention as an attractive career option for young professionals in the job market, so I won’t repeat his points here. What I would add is that there is significant overlap between the housing professional and the traditional finance professional.
Finance professionals in the housing sector need a particularly diverse range of skills to navigate its multi-faceted nature. Housing is rather an outlier in the sense that it’s not strictly for-profit, neither is it surplus-averse; not entirely commercially-driven, yet increasingly less reliant on handouts. This means the skillset demanded of a social housing finance professional is similarly varied. Just like the field they work in, they need a social heart and a commercial head to succeed.
I may be biased, but some of the developments within the social housing sector finance world over the past few years have been nothing short of incredible. We’ve witnessed the first home-grown sector-run borrowing vehicle, MORhomes, launched to great interest. We’ve seen the development of an entire set of performance and value for money metrics led by social housing organisations in collaboration with the regulator. And these innovations have not gone unnoticed. More financing is arranged now from the capital markets than ever before; in the last year alone, over £10 billion was raised by housing associations in order to fund their strategic goals. The sector is increasingly viewed, quite rightly, as an ambitious, pioneering and trustworthy partner to investors.
If the above sounds like a sales pitch, that’s because it is. It’s a sales pitch to all of the talented and innovative finance apprentices and graduates who may be, just as I was, confused and overwhelmed about where to start their career. And if any recruiters are reading, feel free to nick it for your next social housing job posting.
Personally, I knew that I wanted to forge some sort of livelihood from accountancy at around the same time I realised I wouldn’t be getting as much work as a philosophy graduate as I’d hoped. Music has always been my passion and, in many ways that I would be happy to bore you with, music is inherently mathematical. Finance and accounting is the (relatively) cool older sibling of maths. I’d played around with Excel and appreciated the satisfying yin and yang of debits and credits, and this all led to me thinking about finance as a career. The main problem was that I had little desire to work at one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms. Equally, I’m sure these firms’ desire to hire a socialist philosophy graduate with no direct finance experience was just as low. So, I started looking around into organisations whose ambitions I cared more about.
It was a conversation with a friend that led me to delve into the wonderful, but at that time mysterious, world of social housing. I started to dig a bit deeper and stumbled upon a graduate position, administered by the GEM Programme. It was based in the finance team at South Yorkshire Housing Association, a well-regarded organisation, and really stood out against other more generic corporate job postings, so I successfully applied.
I am grateful that I was then given the freedom, advice and mentoring at SYHA to learn and grow as a housing finance professional, and in 2018 I became a chartered ACCA accountant. But I stumbled upon that job posting by chance, not on purpose. Times have changed since then of course; careers within housing are more visible now thanks to continued and growing initiatives such as the GEM Programme. But it’s unlikely I would have ever seen that job advert if I hadn’t gone looking specifically into social housing.
A quick informal poll of my finance colleagues at One Manchester, my current employer, tells an interesting story. Most respondents have always worked in finance roles, but all of them came into the sector from elsewhere. Not a single person who responded actually started their career in social housing. However, all said they loved working in the sector, and many have spent the majority of their careers in it. These findings really sum up the achievements, but also the challenges, of recruitment for social housing. Those of us already in the housing sector know how special it is — but in the vast majority of cases, it wasn’t the starting point. It tells me that opportunities are being missed to attract those social-minded finance professionals who are just embarking on their careers.
That’s not to say that the sector is failing to attract and retain talent. Many organisations, including One Manchester, run heavily-subscribed and very successful apprenticeship schemes which include finance roles. But, equally, I have a feeling that not all young finance professionals in other sectors relish the thought of spending most of their career working merely to inflate the share price of the corporate hand that feeds them. Those who are motivated by more than just their salary alone would find a great home for their aptitudes in the social housing sector, and as the concept of a housing finance professional gains ground, so too will outside interest. We need to nurture this interest so that we can continue to attract talented finance professionals with social hearts and commercial heads.
James Highmore, One Manchester