CPAs: Visionaries, Strategists, Tech Experts of the Future

The future of the accounting and finance profession is changing daily. According to an report from Robert Half International, tomorrow's accounting and finance professionals will shatter longstanding stereotypes as they shift from being backroom statisticians to boardroom strategists.

Accountants will also play a greater role in technology and information systems initiatives over the next five years, according to 39 percent of 1,400 chief financial officers surveyed by Robert Half International Inc. (RHI). These are just two of the major findings of a recent research project conducted by RHI, the world's first and largest staffing service specializing in the placement of accounting and finance professionals.

The objective of the Next Generation Accountant project 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 addition to drawing on its expertise gathered over more than 50 years in financial staffing and recruitment, RHI commissioned surveys of 1,400 chief financial officers nationwide and interviewed a wide range of leading experts in accounting and academia.

Research Highlights:

  • Thirty-five percent of today's accounting graduates find small- to mid-sized companies the most attractive employment environment; 22 percent favor large corporations.

  • Fifty-eight percent of CFOs said they believe the number of women accountants who hold management-level positions will increase in the next five years. When CFOs were asked which issue, other than compensation, is most important to college graduates when evaluating job offers, 51 percent of respondents said the possibility of career advancement; 17 percent said the company's financial stability; and 12 percent said corporate culture.

  • Of CFOs surveyed, 73 percent said they work more than 40 hours each week, while 37 percent said their greatest source of stress is increasing workloads.

The Accountant as Strategic Advisor

"Increasingly, accountants will be relied upon to provide a predictive interpretation of financial data," said Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International. "A finance professional's analytical abilities make his or her involvement in strategic business decisions critical." In fact, in a survey conducted for the Next Generation Accountant project, CFOs predicted that five years from now issues and responsibilities outside of traditional accounting functions will occupy 37 percent of a senior accountant's time.

In their new strategic roles, accounting and finance professionals will be expected to provide big-picture thinking and an understanding of how financial data impacts every aspect of a business. Many accounting professionals are already removing the word "accountant" from their job titles, opting instead to refer to themselves as analysts, forecasters, advisors or financial managers, according to RHI's research.

The Influence of Technology

"Tomorrow's financial professionals must have a firm grasp of technology, including new hardware and software applications, data mining efforts, online assurance and security issues, Internet engineering, and wireless technologies," Messmer said. "They will use the Internet to store and retrieve information and, as a result, will interact more frequently with CIOs and other technology staff."

Eighty-two percent of CFOs surveyed for the Next Generation Accountant project said their accounting departments have become more immersed in 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 projects in the last three years.

Not surprisingly, when asked which skills, aside from financial expertise, will be most important for financial professionals in the future, CFOs ranked technology expertise first (44 percent). In addition, 52 percent of CFOs polled said technology training will be the top priority for their accounting staff in the next two years.

The Importance of "Soft" Skills

The team-based workplace of the future will require solid coaching and mentoring skills, as well as the ability to manage and motivate others, RHI's research shows. When asked which interpersonal skill is valued most in accounting candidates, 38 percent of CFOs surveyed said a positive attitude is most important, followed by team player skills (30 percent).

To work with nonfinancial colleagues and clients, accountants will need to be strong oral and written communicators who can convey complex information in simple terms when necessary. In addition, accountants in international finance will need to be fluent in two or more languages. When surveyed, 52 percent of CFOs said the most effective way for accountants to hone these skills is through classes and seminars; 36 percent said on-the-job learning was most valuable.

Certification and Specialization: Keys to Career Success

Some of the hottest specialties for accounting professionals include e-commerce, information technology services, forensic accounting, personal financial planning, assurance services, environmental accounting and international finance, according to experts surveyed.
Certification will be a considerable asset in the accounting and finance fields. In a recent RHI survey, 85 percent of CFOs said they believe that a professional certification, such as a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CMA (Certified Management Accountant) designation, can boost career advancement opportunities.

Robert Half International Inc. is the world's first and largest staffing firm specializing in accounting and finance. The firm's Accountemps, Robert Half and RHI Management Resources divisions provide temporary, full-time and senior-level project professionals, respectively. The company has more than 300 offices throughout North America, Europe and Australia, and offers online job search services at

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