In early 2018, the US in particular was facing an increasingly hot job market and companies across industries were having difficulty finding workers to fill open positions. Now in 2019, the market has cooled somewhat and a considerable amount of jobs have been added around the world, particularly CPAs.
The unemployment rate for the accounting and financial sector is roughly half of the general unemployment rate in the US, which further illustrates the dire need for competent employees across the profession. Safe to say, the accounting profession continues to struggle with staffing and retaining qualified talent.
As of April 2019, the United States has added around 140,000 new accounting and auditor positions to the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's a start, however, the global workforce pool is still too small.
So, why is finding talented accountants and retaining them over time so difficult? The answer lies in the emergence of sophisticated automation software and artificial intelligence, as well as antiquated, industry-wide notions about what makes a good accountant.
Increasingly, businesses are looking for trusted advisors, not just bookkeepers. Here are few ways the accounting industry can invest in the future to secure more qualified talent:
1. Embracing a New Educational Standard
Institutions are hiring talent based on an outdated and outmoded understanding of the responsibilities of an accounting firm or department in today's market. Things have changed. Over the past decade or so, software has eliminated the need for many repetitive tasks required of accountants—scorekeeping, in other words.
The onset of do-it-yourself software has resulted in many businesses handling their own bookkeeping and payroll, without relying on CPAs. Businesses are now relying on accounting departments to provide valuable analysis based on their access and understanding of financial data. In order to find, develop, and retain talent in this industry, businesses need to adjust their criteria for what makes a qualified candidate.
According to an article last year on BizCommunity, "The type of problem solving, critical thinking and analysis that is needed for accountants to provide this type of advisory service isn’t included in curriculums at traditional tertiary institutions." In other words, students aren't being equipped with skills necessary to fulfill the new responsibilities being asked of today's accounting professionals.
In 2017, The CPA Journal noted that a major setback to finding skilled workers in the field of accounting is rooted in education. CPA Journal wrote, "The IMA [Institute of Management Accountants] estimates that within three years, half of those young professionals will leave public accounting to work in management accounting roles, where the work is more focused on value creation and advisory skillsets." The article goes on to say that higher-education institutions need to adopt new frameworks that "prepare students for long-term, diverse careers in accounting beyond entry-level audit and tax jobs."
2. Partnering with Universities
In that same CPA Journal article, the author identifies a possible solution to combat the outdated, standard accounting curriculum offered in most colleges and universities. In many cases, school curriculums are created in a vacuum and not subject to change often or on pace with movements in the professional world.
In order to make a longstanding impact on what is being taught in colleges and universities around the world, businesses need to advise educators on where their profession is headed and what types of graduates they're looking for to fill positions.
3. On-the-job Training
Ten years ago, organizations relied heavily on on-the-job training of their existing labor force to accommodate changes wrought by technology. “Firms today are giving a little more training to new recruits than we got 30 years ago, and it’s more often Web-based," Richard Caturano, president of Vitale, Caturano & Co. and chair of the AICPA’s PCPS Executive Committee told the Journal of Accountancy in 2005. "Thirty years ago, senior accountants and managers were trained solely on technical issues; today, a lot of firms are training on softer issues such as leadership, selling, and managing and motivating people—all skills you need to be a successful CPA.”
Caturano's point was well taken, and organizations continue this practice as one way to close the skills gap. That being said, technology has advanced profoundly in the accounting profession since 2005, and more on-the-job upskilling needs to be carried out by organizations if they hope to secure qualified talent. This tactic is only part of the solution to combat job shortages in the profession.
Unless we change the educational expectations, training programs, and the general hiring structure for accountants globally, no amount of up-skilling is going to move the dial.
About Val Steed
Val Steed, CPA, CITP is Director of Accountants at business application maker Zoho Corp. where he is responsible for maintaining industry relationships with national and international accounting organizations and top accounting experts. He is known for his 30 years in leadership at K2 Enterprises, where he also oversaw CPE and consulting for the profession.