Mark O'Sullivan writes that an increasing number of employers in the professional services sector have realised that engineering qualifications, experiences, traits and credentials are very much ‘transferable’ to their industry
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Author: Mark O’Sullivan, BEng Tech Mech Eng, BEng Man Eng, MSc Medical Physics, MIEI, senior R&D tax consultant, BDO Ireland 

The work of engineers can be seen everywhere we look and the value of their qualifications and expertise are extremely well regarded. However, the potential applicability of engineering qualifications and skills to other industries may not be fully realised by all.

Having received degree qualifications in both manufacturing and mechanical engineering followed by a master’s qualification in medical physics in 2011, I was in the position of having strong academic qualifications applicable to several engineering sectors, including mechanical, manufacturing and biomedical engineering – but bleak job prospects in the Irish and European markets. The opportunity to gain employment was limited due to a number of factors such as job vacancy shortages, the competition for available job positions and a desire to remain within Europe.

Some engineers may consider the above as points which are beyond their control, matters which cannot be helped or matters which will work themselves out. Having run into many dead ends in seeking employment, I broadened my search and decided to apply for a consultancy role within the professional services sector.

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I was subsequently successful in achieving employment as an R&D tax consultant within one of the four largest professional services providers globally (such providers specialise in the areas of tax, audit and advisory and service a significant number of multinational and Irish indigenous companies in all areas of engineering). This role was attained as a result of my engineering background – my lack of credentials in the professional services sector was not a concern to my employer.

I have since come to realise that a significant number of engineering qualifications, experiences, traits and credentials are very much ‘transferable’ to the professional services sector. Since gaining employment in the professional services sector, I have continued to progress my career and I have recently been afforded the opportunity to join BDO, another of the largest professional services providers globally, in a more senior tax consultancy role.

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

My role as a senior R&D tax consultant with BDO involves assisting claimants with both the preparation and defence of research and development (R&D) tax credit claims filed with the Irish Revenue. At a high level, the R&D tax credit scheme provides a tax credit of 25% on all eligible R&D expenditure incurred by eligible companies. The purpose of this tax credit scheme is to incentivise companies to carry out R&D in Ireland as well as promoting the employment of highly skilled personnel in Ireland.

This is a highly valuable scheme which resulted in €261 million being paid to Irish companies via this scheme in 2011 [1]. As with most valuable incentives, there are a significant number of tax technical criteria, scientific/technical criteria, and financial criteria that need to be met in order to qualify for the R&D tax credit scheme. These criteria, in particular the scientific/technical criteria, can be quite difficult for traditional consultants to apply in practice.

In addition, given the specialised nature of the criteria to be met, internal company engineering/scientific staff can struggle with the application of the quite complex legislation in this area. As a result, a number of professional services providers employ personnel with engineering backgrounds to specialise solely in this area of tax.

For me, a typical week would involve liaising with numerous diverse clients in order to investigate and analyse the nature of the scientific/engineering activities being carried out by the client and the potential for inclusion of such activities in an R&D claim. My role also includes defending the eligibility of scientific/engineering activities in the event of Revenue audits of clients R&D claims. Within my position as an R&D tax consultant, I have been afforded the opportunity to keep up to date and be involved in some of the latest state-of-the-art R&D projects being carried on in Ireland.

For example, since 2011, I have been involved in preparing R&D tax credit claims for clients ranging from some of the largest multinational medical device and software development companies in the country to Irish indigenous SME (small and medium enterprise) companies in areas as diverse as livestock and concrete production.

My most important role involves assisting clients in the identification of qualifying R&D activities. The R&D tax-credit scheme is very broad and applies to many industries and activities, a number of which may not be apparent to people with limited or no experience of the scheme. The language of tax legislation can be quite vague and as such it is often the case that clients will feel that some qualifying activities are non-qualifying and therefore, they miss out on the valuable relief. Equally, there are occasions where clients overestimate the eligibility of their activities for the scheme and it is my role to ensure that any such overestimations are not made by the client.

SUPPORT AND INSIGHT

I believe that my engineering background, together with my experience gained working in this specialised area, has provided me with the platform to make informed decisions in such scenarios across a very diverse range of scientific/engineering disciplines. Furthermore, with the support of the BDO R&D International Centre of Excellence, I have access to over 50 scientific/engineering staff globally who can provide additional support and insight in to a diverse range of industry-specific sectors.

Over the course of my employment in the professional services sector, my engineering experiences have come to bear in every respect. It is well known that a high level of mathematical competency is common across engineering and financial members of our R&D team. However, a number of other engineering traits, such as problem rationalisation and solving, inquisitiveness and innovation, are commonly drawn upon in developing/structuring suitable processes both internally and for clients along with determining the potential eligibility of R&D claims being proposed by clients.

Furthermore, I believe that there is value in experiencing life in sectors outside engineering in order to gain new skillsets which may be transferrable to the engineering sector going forward. For example, as part of my role I am required to manage and co-ordinate upwards of 30 clients at any one time. In doing so, I have achieved significant experience in both internal personnel and client management, which is an extremely valuable experience to bring to bear on any and all sectors.

The multidisciplinary approach BDO takes, through the employment of individuals with diverse backgrounds, bridges the gap between financial and technical activities and provides experience across wide ranging industry sectors. In support of this statement, I would point to the fact that professional services providers are continually seeking to recruit engineers from a range of engineering disciplines to work in similar teams to myself due to the successful nature of this partnership to date.

It is interesting to note that I am not the only engineer in BDO. The managing partner Derry Gray is a qualified engineer who subsequently attained an MBA. From here, he built a successful consultancy practice in BDO before becoming managing partner in 2011. In addition, our internal audit and risk partner, Brían Gartlan attained a theoretical physics qualification and significant software engineering experience prior to joining BDO in the professional services sector.

I firmly believe that roles in industries similar to my own can provide great experience to both graduate and experienced engineers from all sectors and it is a career path which I would greatly encourage people to consider. I would also urge all engineers who may be in a similar position to the one I found myself in during 2011 to include business related sectors in their employment search, as I believe my current role acts as an example of the limitless employment opportunities available to people with engineering qualifications.

Mark O’Sullivan has worked in the professional services sector since 2011, during which time he has worked with two of the largest professional services providers globally specialising in the area of research and development tax credits. O’Sullivan is currently working with BDO Ireland as a senior R&D tax consultant. He is also part of BDO’s R&D International Centre of Excellence, which is a group that co-ordinates a team of over 50 scientists and engineers to provide best in class global solutions to client’s needs. 

  1. [Department of finance (October 2013) ‘review of Ireland’s Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit 2013]
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  Author: Mark O’Sullivan, BEng Tech Mech Eng, BEng Man Eng, MSc Medical Physics, MIEI, senior R&D tax consultant, BDO Ireland  The work of engineers can be seen everywhere we look and the value of their qualifications and expertise are extremely well regarded. However, the potential applicability of engineering qualifications and...