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Here's What Firms are Really Looking For in Talent

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Oct 16th 2015
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The accounting profession has more jobs than people, and the gap is growing. Firms are looking for top talent, but that talent looks nothing like the stereotypical accountant of old.

To catch the eye of firms, the next generation must be attuned to trends sweeping the profession, and be ready to evolve with them. You know the old saying in real estate that the three keys to value are “location, location, and location.” Well, in accounting, the three keys to firm growth and success are “talent, talent, and talent” – and it starts with recruiting.

Three of the current, top influencers for the profession are:

  • Technology revolution: Much of the “low value” work historically done by entry-level accountants simply doesn't exist anymore thanks to automation. Young professionals now need to acclimate much more quickly to higher-level, higher-value work. People skills and relationship management are as valuable as technical accounting skills; they're vital to progressing in the firm and operating in a broader context.
  • Increased regulation: Magnifying the changes brought on by technology, increased regulation, including Sarbanes-Oxley, has forever fundamentally changed the relationship of a business and its accountants. If the primary role of the accountant of the past was reporting on the business, the new accountant is a premier partner to his or her client, helping them to navigate an increasingly complex web of laws and regulations relating to transparency and ethics in financial reporting.
  • Changing mix of services: Part of the same trend of accountants morphing from “reporters on the business” to “advisors to the business” finds the mix of services offered by accounting firms of all sizes is changing rapidly. While traditional audit services are growing at a moderate 6 percent per year and tax services are growing at a more accelerated 14 percent per year, advisory services are growing at a staggering 91 percent per year.

Are accounting firms still looking for accounting skills? Yes they are, but those basics are assumed. The differentiators are emblematic of the skills needed for a fast-paced, highly specialized, highly competitive field that is increasingly about being a trusted advisor more than just a number cruncher. Skills in high demand are:

  • Business, computer, and communication skills: In addition to fundamental accounting skills, young accountants also need fundamental business and computer skills (i.e., analytics and statistics), as well as Excel and Adobe. So much of the success of an individual accountant or firm is based on building trust and relationships. This means communication is truly a differentiator – business writing skills, presentation skills, and networking skills are the types of abilities that will make a young accountant really stand out.
  • Knowledge management: As with law or medicine, the complexity of the accounting field means that general practitioners are giving way to specialists. Knowledge becomes obsolete at an alarming rate and has to be renewed throughout one's career. Sifting through new information, making sense of it, and understanding what matters and how it relates to the needs of clients – that's what makes an accountant an asset to his or her firm.
  • Soft skills: Because of increasing specialization, technical skills are often learned post-hire – either on the job or through continuing professional education. In addition, accounting is becoming more of a people business than a purely numbers business. This means that firms are looking more for personal attributes than textbook skills. They look for things like the ability to work as part of a cohesive and diverse team, leadership ability, creativity, problem solving, and adaptability. To uncover these attributes, firms will be looking at extracurricular activities, as well as the transcript.
  • Hard work: While the skills and attributes needed to be successful in the accounting field have changed dramatically, one thing has not: To be successful in the accounting field, you have to have a positive attitude and be willing to work hard. These days that might mean working from home one or two days a week, having a flex time schedule, or even being freed from the ubiquitous time sheets of the past. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions, busy season is still busy season and filing deadlines are still filing deadlines, and the young accountant still needs to be willing give it their all.

So where are firms finding all these amazing multitalented young people? Before the firms can find these young people, the educational system has to create them. State accounting societies are taking an active role in working with the profession to fuel the pipeline.

For example, at the MSCPA we have specific programs that target students, as well as their main influencers: parents, faculty, and guidance departments. Our programs include high school conferences, educator conferences, college workshops, career fairs, and scholarship programs all geared to attract, inspire, and engage high school and college students to enter the profession.

Our own research shows that having a family member who is an accountant is a strong indicator of the likelihood that a young person will enter the profession. Therefore, to increase diversity in the profession and broaden the applicant pool, it is important to make a special effort in communities of color. One of our diversity initiatives is a partnership with UMass Amherst to host the participants of the UMass Careers in Accounting and Management Professions (CAMP), a weeklong, residential program offered by the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst to introduce the accounting profession to students of color.

Despite efforts to fuel the pipeline, firms are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their growing needs for talent. Increasingly, they are looking to nontraditional schools and majors for recruitment, and are relying very heavily on internships and co-ops as a way to create a pathway for students into their firms.

Like the state societies, firms are working to promote the profession earlier and earlier. One senior HR professional at a top firm joked that, “we need to keep educating students as early as high school on the benefits of the profession. Before long we might be visiting the baby wards in the hospitals.”

I'll keep you posted as that develops.

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