The staffing company Robert Half is projecting a 3.4 percent uptick in salaries for accountants next year, according to the 2014 edition of its annual salary guide.

That’s compared to a 3.7 percent increase across all sectors for which the staffing company does recruiting. However, some jobs are expected to earn even more next year, with senior accountants getting an average increase of 4.0 percent more next year, and financial analysts 4.3 percent.

“Employers want employees in the accounting field to be really strong technically in whatever the finance and accounting focus is, plus technology skills,” said Robert Half senior executive director Paul McDonald in an interview last week. “To differentiate yourself if you’re looking for a position, make sure your technology skills are really strong—Excel, some ERP system, Access. Maybe your experience with a cloud computing installation is going to set you apart.”

Individuals who have an eye for a particular business can also stand out among the job candidates, he advised.

“Do you have a bigger picture focus on the business that you have been involved with? Can you articulate the company’s overall strategy and do you align with the company’s overall strategy? We’re seeing this being demanded by employers earlier on in employees’ careers, to substantiate, for example, the spending of the capital expenditures,” said McDonald. “Can you demonstrate the ROI? How does that capital expenditure fit into the overall strategy of the organization? Are you mindful of the competitive threats and shifts in our industry? That bigger picture, a decade ago it wasn’t being asked of financial analysts and senior accountants and accounting managers to be able to articulate those types of things. But now we’re finding that it really is, and to differentiate yourself, you have to be able to do that.”

Soft skills and nontechnical skills are also still highly in demand. “Having an eye for the business, and being able to articulate it in a meaningful and concise way as an accountant or financial analyst, is really going to set you apart,” said McDonald. “The best technology skills are necessary and, then to put the capstone on it, having these soft skills really raise you up in the eyes of future employers or your current employers.”

Compliance officers are in high demand, as are accountants, auditors, financial managers and financial analysts. “The demand for specialized skills in accounting and finance remains very high,” said McDonald.

But it’s also important to stay current. “If you don’t have strong technology skills, find a way to get it, either with your current employer or through online or classroom CPE,” said McDonald. “If your employer doesn’t pay for it, we really do encourage people to invest in themselves. We’re seeing the return on that investment. On the soft skill side, for public speaking, it’s highly recommended to invest in Toastmasters. Make the time to put yourself in an environment where you’re going to have to make presentations. If you’re gainfully employed right now, volunteer for projects that are going to require you to make presentations. Trade groups like the Institute of Internal Auditors or the AICPA offer great courses both in person and online. I highly encourage you to take advantage of those.”

The current trend in “MOOCs,” short for “massive open online courses,” could also be helpful for further education.

“They do have a lot to offer and it’s a great way to be efficient with your time,” said McDonald. “You may be gainfully employed, working 10 to 12 hours a day, but if your employer will allow you to take some online courses, maybe you can squeeze that in with your busy schedule, so I think that’s really serving the need of many individuals.”

Salaries, as always, vary by region and tend to be higher in parts of the country where the cost of living is higher, such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Recently I was dealing with a financial services firm in the middle part of the country, and it was looking for someone that has really strong compliance skills as it relates to Dodd-Frank and Basel III, but there’s no one in that part of the country,” said McDonald. “So in order to import somebody, they’re going to have to entice somebody with more money and benefits and other perks in order to bring them in. Looking for that same person in New York, there’s a lot of demand, but there’s also more supply there. You’re still going to have high salaries and high perks, and they’re all fighting over the same person, for that financial services expertise. I’d say that you’re in a pretty good spot if you’re in financial services compliance right now.”

The Affordable Care Act and other federal health care laws are also creating strong demand. “Health care compliance, anything to do with the Affordable Care Act and HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], compliance around the switch from ICD [International Classification of Diseases] 9 to ICD-10, is creating a lot of demand, and just the general influx of business into the health care community is creating demand for finance and accounting individuals,” said McDonald.

Robert Half is also seeing demand for tax practitioners, particularly inside businesses.

“In the corporate tax world, we’ve always seen high demand because great tax people can really help an organization, both in terms of minimizing expense and creating bottom-line impact,” said McDonald. “Good tax people have always been in high demand. As businesses improve—it could be financial services, manufacturing, oil and gas, as well as health care—tax people are in high demand in those industries for sure.”

The ability to analyze large amounts of data is also important, particularly for financial analysts. “Big data is a big driver right now,” said McDonald. “How does big data get used by organizations? Everybody’s got the data, but now it’s time for the analyst to really look at the key metrics. What is the data telling us? How can we use that to drive our business and be nimble on an ongoing basis? That’s a huge factor right now, and as people look down the road on how to use that data, it’s driving more demand in finance and accounting than I think we even know right now.”

Robert Half is also seeing compliance departments growing, sparking demand for other types of accounting and auditing staff. “Controllers are in demand,” said McDonald. “Internal auditors and cost accountants are definitely in demand.”

For a copy of the Robert Half 2014 Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance, click here.

[IMGCAP(1)]