Professional firms must focus on graduate retention, according to a top accountant.

It is partly their own fault there is a skills shortage as training was cut back in the wake of September 11.

Ronnie Bowker, Ernst & Young's Birmingham office managing partner, said: "The economic slowdown that followed the dot-com crash and 9/11 disaster caused firms around the world to reduce their graduate training programmes.

"Companies were not taking on the volumes of trainees they once were, and now, three years down the line, this has significantly affected the supply of newly qualified accountants."

This shortage, said Mr Bowker, had been magnified because the demand for accountants is at one of its highest levels for decades as a result of increased regulation.

He went on: "Practices have been busily recruiting skilled staff to cope with client demands brought about by the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the transition to International Financial Reporting Standards.

"This high demand has made the recruitment market for accountants highly competitive, with some companies offering over inflated salaries

to attract recruits. Investment banks are also adding to the competition.

"As a firm, our response has been to increase the number of top graduates we recruit each year, raise the investment we make in the development of each of our people, and develop our staffing models to allow people a greater degree of flexibility at various stages of their careers.

"We are also making sure that we are fully engaged with our people to understand their individual needs and to be able to respond to them."

Accountancy practices in the region also face direct competition from London and large regional business centres to attract the best people - according to recent research, 37 per cent of graduates in Birmingham said that once qualified they would hope to move to London.

Mr Bowker said that extolling the qualities of Birmingham to the region's graduates was something that all companies needed to be doing.

He said: "I think the real challenge for the city is to focus on graduate retention from the region's leading universities.

"It is important to build relationships with these students and communicate the prospects of developing their careers in this great city."