By Jason Bramwell
For the third year in a row, accounting and finance is among the top ten jobs that are the hardest for employers to fill, according to a recent survey from Milwaukee-based workforce solutions firm ManpowerGroup.
Among the more than 1,000 US employers who participated in the 2013 Talent Shortage Survey, 48 percent report they're having difficulty filling open positions because candidates lack technical competencies/hard skills, 33 percent say candidates lack workplace competencies/soft skills, and 32 percent state there's a lack of or no available candidates.
Jeff Thomson, CMA, president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), told AccountingWEB it's easy to see how soft skills might be overlooked by accounting and finance professionals.
"Ten, twelve, or fifteen years ago, hard skills would have been at 60, 70, or 80 percent, and soft skills would have been at 20 or 10 percent or less", he said. "What has happened over time is softer skills are influencing leadership: leading teams versus managing teams or working cross-functionally to influence and work with operations to achieve goals or implement systems. I think you're going to see the softer skills continue to increase in the mix relative to the talent gap."
To fill the talent gap, professionals must be dedicated to becoming more than "number crunchers" by developing their own business and leadership skills, according to Thomson.
Thomson cited trends data from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and other sources that claim approximately three-quarters of undergraduate accounting majors who follow an audit track, such as in a Big Four firm or a regional firm, find their way inside a company doing business or managerial accounting in two to five years.
"Most undergraduate accounting majors are trained or educated to be financial accountants – doing audits, attestation, and compliance", Thomson said. "Yet, if they go to work at a company, in addition to the financial accounting work, they're also going to have to do performance management, budgets, forecasts, work with IT on enterprise resource planning, and be involved in strategic discussions."
Differentiation Is Important
How can accounting or finance majors differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack? First, they need to have a willingness and a thirst to learn about business, Thomson said.
"CFOs are looking for differentiators", said Thomson, a former CFO for business sales at AT&T. "A lot of that comes out during a face-to-face meeting. I can find candidates who have CPAs, CMAs, or MBAs, but the best finance team professionals are those who have taken the time to learn the business: how value flows in the enterprise, some of the cultural nuances, and how leadership is viewed inside the organization."
Thomson recommends that young accounting professionals ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening when they start a new job.
"We know 90 percent of the people we hire are going to be able to nail the technical aspects of the job. They wouldn't have been hired otherwise", he said. "But at the end of the day, their success if going to be primarily driven by their attitude, their thirst for continuous learning, and an understanding that the finance or CFO team doesn't operate in silos like it did perhaps a decade or two ago."
Second, accounting and finance students need to develop their leadership skills while in college. Thomson recommends joining an on-campus organization, such as IMA, and being in a leadership position within that group.
"IMA has close to a hundred student chapters throughout the country. Each chapter has at least five or six leadership office positions. It's a great way to learn how to develop a business plan, figure out how you're going to attract speakers, maintain a budget, and grow your chapter. It really is a low-risk opportunity to develop your leadership skills", he said.
Talent Management Plan
Participants in the Talent Shortage Survey acknowledge they're taking steps to overcome difficulties in filling critical positions by adopting new people practices, modifying work models, and sourcing talent differently. Among the most popular approaches are expanding training and development for existing staff (23 percent) and recruiting more from untapped talent pools (20 percent).
Thomson believes the number one way companies can fill the talent gap is by having a talent management plan.
"They must view talent management and filling the talent gap as a business imperative", he said.
In September 2012, the IMA partnered with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) on the 100 Drivers of Change for the Global Accountancy Profession report. In the study",reinventing the talent pool" was listed as one of five imperatives for the accounting profession.
"An increasingly broad, complex, and demanding remit will influence the type of people that the [accounting] profession seeks to attract", the report states. "Alongside the traditional characteristics typically associated with the profession, traits such as entrepreneurship, curiosity, creativity, and strategic thinking skills will become of increasing importance for tomorrow's accountant."
Thomson said IMA is developing a systematic talent management program that will include internships, ongoing employee development, and conversations with and career plans for every individual in the company.
"It starts with that recognition and having an articulated management plan", he added. "Beyond that, other ways to fill the talent gap include internships, mentoring, and certification."
Why is it urgent for the accounting industry to close the divide in the skills gap? Because it can hurt companies through lowered performance, poor decisions, and higher personnel costs, Thomson said.
"It's people, processes, and systems that make these things come together; it doesn't just happen magically", he concluded. "Businesses have become more and more complex. Globalization has created more complexity and opportunity. Technology has made consumers more savvy with higher expectations. Competition is tighter than ever, even in a not-for-profit environment. When you go into battle and fight for your market share, you have to have people with the right skills going in and fighting that battle. That impacts people's individual careers, choices, and progression as well as the organization at large."
About the survey:
ManpowerGroup surveyed nearly 40,000 employers in forty-two countries and territories, including more than 1,000 US employers, during the first quarter of 2013 as part of its annual Talent Shortage Survey.