Tech fluency leads profession's needs

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It’s recruiting season, so top of mind for senior accounting students is the excitement and anxiety that comes with waiting for an offer letter from their preferred accounting firms before they graduate. As they experience this exciting time, it’s important to keep perspective and revisit the question: What are accounting firms looking for in the next generation of new talent?

The American Institute of CPAs and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy are working together to explore the role of the CPA today and how it will further transform in the future. While different ideas come in and out of play, accounting technology and how it will continue to evolve and impact the overall profession continue to be a strong focus. This includes new considerations about the skill-sets needed from new hires by accounting firms in response to evolving client needs and demands.

Changes in accounting technology are forcing us to adapt to a new frontier, forcing accounting firms to quickly align with those changes. Technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, continuous auditing, remote auditing, cybersecurity and blockchain are not only making companies and organizations more efficient, but also changing business practices and models.

What does this mean for firms considering new talent? Times are changing, and now more than ever recruiters are looking for candidates with additional skills to accommodate these emerging technological trends.

Top skills needed for emerging accounting technological trends

Although it’s not a new skill, the need for critical thinkers continues to dominate the landscape. Conversations with the AICPA, firms, and accounting professors validate the need for new hires to have a deep understanding of financial statements, business processes and internal controls. Because these subjects can sometimes be quite complex, it’s important that firm staff are able to communicate them to clients thoroughly and coherently, both in writing and conversation. Therefore, while professional skepticism and judgment both remain a high priority skill, critical thinking and communication skills are top of mind for firms when hiring as they contribute to the much-needed human element of the accounting profession.

Another more obvious skill is, of course, technological fluency. However, this doesn’t mean just having the capacity to understand and navigate new accounting software; it also means having an expertise in analyzing the data and interpreting the information the software provides. This ties in to the big data boom associated with such tech advancements. Analyzing data can help firms make better decisions and strategic business moves based on emerging trends and patterns related to human behavior. After all, what good is more streamlined, efficient data processing if there is no one to interpret what it all means?

Lastly, a major new skill-set that is becoming more and more imperative is executive presence. This is more than just looking for the candidate who takes initiative and is a go-getter. Having executive presence means being able to see the bigger picture — not just how to improve a business as it currently is, but to see where it can really go in the future. Therefore, having executive presence means having intellectual curiosity, creative problem-solving skills, the ability to take calculated risks, and a broad mindset. This not only means having a strong understanding of the accounting industry and profession, but also being able to see how it will evolve down the line to readily help firms thrive today and tomorrow.

How to set new hires up for success

So how can accounting students, including new hires, gain these sought-after skills? Setting new hires up for success begins at the university level and continues throughout an accountant’s career.

This past August at its national meeting, the American Accounting Association hosted a panel titled “Accounting for Change: Incorporating Emerging Technologies into the Accounting Profession,” moderated by Shaun Budnik, national audit innovation leader at Big Four firm KPMG. The panel discussed ideas in front of the professors and university leaders on how university accounting departments can incorporate these new skill-sets when educating their students. Suggestions included the need for students to have technological proficiency while being adept at making connections where connections aren’t always obvious. This ensures that graduates possess what’s needed to meet today’s market demands.

In addition, the profession needs to continue championing the need to support future CPAs in obtaining licensure and maintaining their role in protecting the evolving public interest. New hires need to be in an environment that fosters constant, lifelong learning and the desire to always be at the forefront of financial integrity. Firms can nurture these skill-sets by providing things such as training, workshops, and easy accessibility to continued education.

While such new skill-sets have emerged alongside accounting technology trends, it’s important to remember that they should be considered in addition to the basic skills needed of any firm new hire.

Richard Gallagher, a CPA and senior director of examination content at the AICPA, probably summarized the basic skills required of today’s CPAs best: accounting, independence, objectivity, skepticism, evidence, judgment and process systems orientation. This reinforces the idea that the foundation of the CPA profession lies in protecting the public interest. While new skill-set requirements are emerging, the profession must also not lose sight of this.

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