Usually, it’s pretty easy to distinguish between a financial centre and a holiday resort. But back in the 1960s, faced with competition from cheap international flights and worrying about long term decline, one of the UK’s favourite seaside resorts decided that it needed to become a financial centre. Fifty years later, the Isle of Man is one of the top ten richest countries on earth according to the World Bank, and its main economic problem is attracting enough skilled labour to maintain its growth rate.
What kind of skilled labour? Basically, accountants. The island’s largest non-government sectors are, in order, insurance, online gaming, banking and fund services and all of these industries need people to audit them. According to Matt Bainbridge, Deloitte’s local boss, “'I’ve worked on audits in the Isle of Man that have been as complex and challenging as anything I've done in the UK”. Tax specialists are also in demand; although the Isle of Man is not exactly a tax haven in the conventional meaning of the term, it has lower tax rates than many places (including a flat income tax rate of 20% which makes a significant different to higher earners). Non-residents who take advantage of this to invest in assets or structures there need help to ensure they are compliant with the tax rules of any other relevant countries.
There are not very many places where you can get this sort of experience working with high-profile financial sector clients on technically demanding tasks. In the UK, it’s mainly London. And London has some big lifestyle problems if you’re planning to live there but you also want to live in a house and have children who go to school.
Which is why so many of the people who come to the Isle of Man are in a particular stage of life; a certain amount of post-qualification experience, aged in their early thirties and beginning to understand the importance of work/life balance. Or to be accurate, work/life/commute balance – auditing and advisory work is never going to be free of crunch periods and year-end rushes, but these seem to matter a bit less when, as Laura O’Sullivan Spiers of KPMG puts it “you can walk out the office door and be riding a horse thirty minutes later”.
On the other hand, it’s easy to overstate the lifestyle aspects of island living and understate the career values. One of the features of a small island (with an equally small financial community) is that everyone knows everyone else. While this can sometimes get claustrophobic, Debbie Scrimshaw of local recruiters Paragon points out that if you’re good at your job and well networked personally and professionally, new opportunities often find you. And one of the features of a growing economy with close to full employment and endemic skill shortages is that there are always roles to move into; plenty of staff on the Isle of Man seem to have initially arrived through the internal mobility schemes of Big Four audit firms, and then transitioned “into industry” in insurance, fund services, banking, trusts or gaming.
There are disadvantages. The phrase “holiday resort” is modified significantly by the adjective “British” and the climate is what you’d expect on an island located half-way between Ireland and Manchester. On a sunny day, the waters sparkle and the Snae Fell mountain calls, but rainy days are frequent and the winters are dark and long if rarely freezing; people who immigrate from warmer climates don’t get used to them. And it’s a small place; if you’re young and single you might find yourself making frequent trips to Manchester or Liverpool.
The main reason people don’t consider working on the Isle of Man, though, seems to be that they haven’t heard of it. Unless you’ve got family connections to the Manx diaspora, it’s not necessarily a place you’d think of (it’s even left out of lots of maps of the British Isles). Although the corporate register is opening up, the island itself might be the best kept secret in financial services.
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