Problem-Solving, Software Skills Stand Out as Talent Needs Evolve at Accounting Firms

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Allegra Nagler
Columnist
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Accounting firms face many challenges in seeking and retaining talent amid a constantly changing environment in which skills needed to do the job are always evolving, according to a 2017 talent survey by Karbon, an accounting practice management software company.

Responses from accountants and bookkeepers around the world reveal the challenges and gaps firms are facing acquiring, training and retaining their staff — including demand for software expertise and,  among new recruits, soft skills such as problem solving.

The five key insights from the survey are:

  • Acquiring, managing and retaining accounting staff is potentially more problematic than in other professions. The industry has changed, and the profession has evolved into something very different than what it once was.
  • Remote workplaces are on the rise.
  • Recruiting is a given and yet is one of the biggest challenges. The survey discovered 91 percent of accountants expect their firm’s staff numbers to increase in the short term, yet very few of these firms feel confident that their current recruitment process is reaching, attracting and identifying the best candidates.
  • Higher education is failing in its role to properly develop the accountants of tomorrow. Only 8  percent of firm owners and partners believe the right skills are being taught to prepare students for real-life work experience.
  • New skills are needed, but what skills? According to survey results, 93 percent of accounting firms are providing time and resources to train their staff. However, soft skills are being neglected. While most respondents believe that universities and colleges are ill-preparing future accountants, 49 percent of firms have no clear on-boarding process for new hires.

Not Your Father’s Accountant

With the rise of cloud computing and a focus on client relationships, the skills required to perform the job have evolved, and the expectations from employers and the definition of the office have changed.

Globally, there is agreement that the industry is moving away from number crunching. A modern practice requires the team to possess traditional technical skills as well as be software savvy.

For junior staff, respondents placed an emphasis on soft skills, such as problem solving, time management and written and oral communication.

Only 45 percent of firms said they offer soft skills training, and 35 percent make use of personal growth training skills.

Responses differed across countries.

Views on the importance of innovation differed more than did any other skill across regions.

Eighty percent of those in the U.K. believe innovation is one of the most essential traits, compared to 66 percent in Australia and New Zealand, and 47 percent in the U.S.

In the U.S., leadership was deemed to be most important, with 36 percent agreeing, compared to only 18 percent in Australia and New Zealand.

Despite an expectation for growth, finding and acquiring great talent is the biggest challenge facing accounting firms.

In the survey, 91 percent of accounting firms say they expect their practice to expand in the coming five years.

Forty-eight percent of respondents say recruitment is their top challenge, followed by 40 percent who cite training and development, and 38 percent who say performance management is their top challenge.

Many firms cite difficulties in finding candidates with the right fit.

Fifty-nine percent say finding candidates with the right attitude is a challenge, followed by 56 percent who cite finding candidates with the right skills and half who say they can’t find prospective employees to fit their corporate culture.

The survey also revealed that almost half (49 percent) of accounting practices have no clear onboarding process for new hires. The majority (81 percent) of firms use free online webinars and lectures to train their new staff.

The second most popular training method used by 59 percent of firms is internal workshops and knowledge sharing, followed by 58 percent who say they make use of external courses and workshops for new hires.

Tracking Staff Performance

Surprisingly, 87 percent of surveyed accountants reported issues or challenges related to performance management. And, nearly one third of practices do not measure the performance of staff at all.

Many still use timesheets as a key performance measure, although they have lost favor in the U.S., possibly because 42 percent of all accountants surveyed said they are unsure about what key performance indicators they should measure.

Retaining Top Talent

Staff retention is a top challenge for 15 percent of surveyed practitioners with 57 percent of respondents saying staff remain for less than five years. Only 11 percent report their staff remain for more than ten years.

Results indicated large practices may lose staff by not offering a clear career path.

For smaller firms, an inability to compete financially is a challenge. Forty percent of respondents from 2-5 employee firms believe their employees may leave because they cannot afford to offer a more competitive salary.

Conclusion

The role of accountant is changing with the times. Attracting and identifying talent is a challenge, and the method and focus of internal training and staff development leave much to be desired.

To identify and retain top accounting talent, firms — both large and small — must look for well-rounded candidates and offer him or her a competitive salary and a clear career path.

About Allegra Nagler

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