A New Bottom Line for Next Generation Accountants
The objective of RHI's project, the Next Generation Accountant, was to determine how today's trends will shape the future of the accounting and finance professions, and to identify the skills and competencies accountants will need most to be successful.
In compiling this research, RHI drew on its own expertise gathered over more than 50 years in financial staffing and recruitment, interviewed a wide range of leading experts in accounting and academia, and surveyed 1,400 chief financial officers.
The Future of Accounting
- Accounting will become a knowledge services profession. In addition to traditional audit and reporting roles, financial professionals will serve as analysts, forecasters and managers.
- Rather than concentrating on compiling and presenting the numbers, tomorrow's financial professionals will have to mine data, turn information into knowledge and share their forecasts with senior management.
- Accountants will no longer be statisticians, but strategic partners. They will consider past performance, analyze existing data and evaluate changes in the economy. Then they'll use this information to help position companies for future success.
- As financial professionals spend less and less time on traditional functions and more time using their knowledge and insights to help companies grow, the term "accountant" will be replaced by "financial manager" or similar titles.
- As investors insist on setting standards that can be used to accurately gauge a company's performance, financial professionals will furnish the factual basis and strategic advice for management's decisions and help demonstrate the impact of those decisions on the bottom line.
- Major growth areas for corporate financial professionals will be cash flow forecasting and analysis; computer systems and other technology procurement; strategic planning and management; and international finance.
Consulting: A Promising Career Path
- The vigorous growth of independent financial consulting as a career will continue as businesses rely on these professionals to introduce new concepts, provide expert advice, solve problems and conduct financial analysis and strategic planning.
- Hot specialties for consultants will include: supply chain management and business-to-business integration; resource planning; staff training and mentoring; financial systems conversions; reengineering and e-commerce (from advising on the business implications of a web initiative to testing for security, disclosure, integrity and delivery on all of the site's promises).
- As the workforce becomes more entrepreneurial and mobile, an increasing number of accounting and finance professionals will elect to work for themselves, rather than one corporation. More young people will go into consulting because of the variety, fast pace and challenge that it offers. Retired professionals will return to work as consultants.
- Consultants will be called upon to serve their clients as mentors, strategists and acting or interim CFOs.
- Advanced degrees and certifications - MBA, CPA, CMC (Certified Management Consultant) and CPM (Certified Project Manager) - will be increasingly important for consultants.
The Evolution of the CPA
- As businesses seek to turn information into knowledge, CPAs will move from the backroom to the boardroom. They will assume more consultative roles, combining traditional services with nontraditional ones such as technology consulting, assurance services and e-commerce consulting.
- Many professionals with public accounting backgrounds will become information managers. Others will sell securities or become investment or asset managers.
- The CPA credential will remain highly portable. A public accounting background provides a strong foundation in business and can be adapted to a variety of functions within companies.
- A CPA designation by itself will not be enough, however. Professionals will need to specialize in another area, such as information technology.
The Impact of Technology
- Accounting professionals will be called upon to bridge the gap between technology and business. With the rise of integrated systems, technical expertise will go hand in hand with general business knowledge.
- With the growth of e-commerce, safeguarding assets in the digital realm will be a critical area in accounting. Financial professionals must know their company's web systems and functionalities in order to ensure the integrity and security of internal computer systems.
- To work productively with CIOs and the IT staff, accounting professionals must be conversant with computer code and programming language; possess a working knowledge of new business applications and be proficient in database, spreadsheet and analytical software.
- The Internet will continue to transform accounting's basic foundation of service and delivery. Financial professionals must develop familiarity with Internet engineering as well as Application Service Providers and other web-deployed applications.
Booming New Specialties
- Information Technology Services: Accountants who have multimedia expertise will be asked to work with IT to implement specialized, advanced computer systems.
- E-commerce Experts: The growth of e-commerce will drive the need for financial professionals who are systems security experts and Internet strategists. A comprehensive knowledge of Internet regulations and the ability to manage e-commerce initiatives will be indispensable.
- Assurance Services: Using both financial and nonfinancial information culled from past performance and/or present conditions, assurance services providers will put business intelligence into a financial context. They'll convert data into knowledge, especially in sectors such as elder care, e-commerce, risk assessment, performance measurement and information technology.
- Personal Financial Planning: Financial professionals in this specialty will help their clients reduce debt; develop investment and asset allocation plans; control expenses and minimize their tax burdens. Personal Financial Planners also may get involved in insurance analysis and retirement planning.
- International Accounting: Cross-border transactions, overseas trade agreements and other daily activities in the expanding global economy will require the expertise of financial professionals who understand foreign laws, tax structures and business practices. Fluency in one or more foreign languages (particularly French and Spanish) will be crucial.
- Environmental Accounting: As businesses strive to be environmentally responsible (as well as more profitable), they will enlist professionals with the CPA credential to handle projects ranging from environmental compliance audits to managing and preventing claims and disputes.
- Forensic Accounting: Experienced professionals who can identify and track computer fraud, particularly in the realm of e-commerce, will be in high demand as corporations increasingly rely on technology. Forensic Accountants will work closely with the other financial and IT professionals to solve problems related to systems integrity and security.
Mandatory Skills for Accounting Professionals
- Technical: To perform their jobs effectively, financial professionals will require broad-based expertise in every area of technological development -from an understanding of new applications and software to a working knowledge of wireless technologies.
- Communication: Because they'll be speaking with everyone from the CEO and CIO to coworkers on cross-functional teams, strong written and verbal communication skills will be critical. Accountants must be able to explain financial data in nonfinancial terms and offer clear, concise recommendations.
- Interpersonal: Tomorrow's financial professionals must be flexible, proactive and able to relate to colleagues from diverse backgrounds and professions. With increased interaction between accounting and other internal departments, accountants will need to hone "soft" skills such as persuasion, diplomacy, negotiation, coaching and teambuilding.
- Managerial: In addition to financial knowledge, accounting professionals must develop management, marketing and operational expertise. They will need to understand all areas and functions of a company, anticipate the needs of the business and conceptualize solutions.
- With continued interaction between technology and finance functions in the workplace, the accounting curricula of the future will be revised and expanded. Accounting majors will minor in Information Systems, or may ultimately seek a combined accounting/IT degree.
- To better prepare accounting students for evolving workplace trends, business and academia will collaborate to create more mentoring programs and internship opportunities.
- At many universities, the traditional accounting department may eventually merge with a broader MBA-track program to educate and prepare future knowledge managers for both finance and general business issues.
- The accounting curriculum will incorporate more classes in which students will learn through team projects, rather than via the traditional model of lectures and tests.
- Critical instructional areas for tomorrow's accounting students will include entrepreneurial thinking, creativity, leadership and communication. The accounting major will embrace liberal arts and business courses.
- CFOs predict that issues and responsibilities outside of traditional accounting functions will occupy 37 percent of a senior accountant's time five years from now.
- Asked which skills, aside from financial expertise, will be most important for financial professionals in the future, CFOs ranked technology expertise (44 percent) first, followed by strong communication skills (24 percent); general business knowledge (16 percent) and leadership abilities (11 percent).
- 52 percent of CFOs say IT training will be their first priority in supporting professional development for their accounting staff in the next two years; 22 percent ranked traditional financial skills development as most important.
- 82 percent of CFOs said their accounting departments have become more involved with their companies' technology initiatives in the last five years. More specifically, almost half (49 percent) of CFOs said their accounting departments have become more involved with e-commerce in the last three years.
- 52 percent of CFOs polled said the most effective way for accountants to build their nonfinancial skills is through classes and seminars; 36 percent said on-the-job learning was most valuable.
- 85 percent of CFOs believe that a professional certification, such as CPA or CMA, helps in career advancement.
- There are more than 46,000 public accounting firms in the U.S., ranging from small local practices to large international firms. (Source: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants)
- Women currently comprise approximately 60 percent of the accounting workforce and earn more than half of all undergraduate degrees in accounting. (Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Women's Bureau and American Institute of Certified Public Accountants)
- 35 percent of today's accounting graduates find small- to mid-size companies the most attractive employment environment; 22 percent favor large corporations.
- 43 percent of CFOs say the number of management-level posts held by female accountants has increased since 1995, most notably in such positions as controller, vice president and chief financial officer.
- 58 percent of CFOs believe the number of women accountants who hold management-level positions will increase in the next five years.
- 73 percent of CFOs say accountants will use e-mail as their primary method of business communication in the future.
- When CFOs were asked which factor, other than compensation, is most important to college graduates when evaluating job offers, 51 percent of the respondents said the possibility of career advancement; 17 percent said the company's financial stability and 12 percent said corporate culture.
- 73 percent of CFOs today work more than 40 hours each week.
- 37 percent of CFOs said the greatest source of professional stress is rising workloads.
- Asked which aspect of their jobs they would like to change, 32 percent of management accountants said they would decrease job stress; 22 percent would like greater professional autonomy; 16 percent said they'd want a more flexible work schedule, while 15 percent cited fewer hours at work.
- 75 percent of CFOs say a career in consulting is attractive to senior-level accounting and finance executives. When asked which is the most appealing aspect of a consulting career, 35 percent of CFOs said the variety and challenge of the work; 30 percent cited the flexible schedule; 13 percent said the compensation.
Note: All research was provided and conducted by Robert Half International Inc. unless otherwise noted. You may obtain a free copy  of the research guide associated with this report from RHI.