Next-gen accountants: Will they have the right mix of skills?


As automation, machine learning and predictive analytics increasingly become part of our working lives, pressure is building on finance and accountancy professionals to stay ahead of the knowledge curve.

At a glance

  • Skills requirements within the accounting and finance profession have evolved and broadened considerably over the past decade.
  • Waves of automation have brought with them the need for a greater familiarity with and understanding of software tools, in order to add value to a business.
  • The response by higher education has been the addition of new components to accountancy degrees; however, this has caused tension in terms of the limited time available to complete courses.

The skills required from today’s entrants to the accountancy profession would be unrecognisable to anyone who has worked as an accountant for a decade or more, says Simon Eassom.

The executive general manager education at CPA Australia, Eassom believes that what we are witnessing across all professions is “a broadening and shallowing of expertise”.

“For accountants, that means a range of skills outside of technical accounting skills – for example, a greater familiarity with technology – required as standard,” says Eassom.

This does not mean accountants and finance professionals have to become data science experts, but it does mean they need a level of technical competence and understanding of software tools to enable them to add value to a business.

While machines have now replaced people when it comes to many of the routine, repetitive accounting tasks, on the plus side, automation has liberated early career accountants to take on higher-level skills from the get-go.

Value through technology

A recent CPA Australia report, The Impact of Technology on the Desired Skills of Early Career Accountants, acknowledges the increased value placed on specialist knowledge and business advisory services.

The report has found that “the accountant now acts like a ‘virtual CFO’, using benchmarking data and business planning tools to oversee the organisation’s competitive position”.

Professor Denise Jackson, Edith Cowan University.It is easy to see how this role fits into the new world of work. A decline in traditional finance services has long been foreshadowed, replaced by cross-functional teams that utilise artificial intelligence.

A recent report by Accenture forecasts that, in the very near future, statisticians, data scientists, behavioural scientists and economists would be as common within large organisations as accountants.

Yet, there is some concern that accountancy graduates may not have the right mix of skills to thrive in this new world of work, and that the education system is not adapting fast enough to evolving real-world requirements.

Professor Denise Jackson is the director of work-integrated learning in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University in Perth and co-author of the CPA report.

She says the intention is not to skip teaching the “nuts and bolts” of accountancy, but to also teach the ability to interpret data, to offer clients deeper insights and a more customised service.

“You still need to do that lower level stuff to get a good understanding of the business – whether through simulated learning at university or workplace learning – but a critical requirement now is that students have exposure to technology and gain an understanding of how it works in the context of accountancy before they enter the profession.”

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Competing priorities

Higher education has been responding to emerging industry needs by adding new components to accountancy degrees. However, in an already crowded curriculum, there are tensions in academia about how to accommodate these new courses in the limited time available.

“There is a sense that there is a long ‘wish list’, which seems to be growing. It has initiated discussion on the role of industry in helping to develop graduate talent and has led to a big focus on higher education collaborating with industry, such as through internships and project-based learning,” Jackson says.

This cooperative education model – back and forth between university study and periods of industry placement – is already quite common in the US and the UK.

“We want to embed experiential learning in the curriculum for all students – not just the high flyers – because some students aren’t in a position to take on voluntary internships.” Professor Denise Jackson, Edith Cowan University

“We don’t have the same industry-university collaboration in Australia, but we know students here are crying out for that exposure. We want to embed experiential learning in the curriculum for all students – not just the high-flyers – because some students aren’t in a position to take on voluntary internships,” says Jackson.

Although enthusiasm for collaboration clearly exists in industry, it comes down to allocation of resources to develop future graduates becoming part of standard business practice.

The Canadian government, for example, has invested heavily in work-integrated learning and part of universities’ funding is dependent on industry engagement.

Partners in time

In Australia, university-industry collaboration has been slowly gathering pace. Take the University of Adelaide’s Business School and Dr Phil Saj CPA.

Saj has forged strong links with PwC to engage the firm in teaching and curriculum development. Adelaide MBA students benefit from being mentored by senior staff at the firm, and the university’s undergraduates attend onsite lectures at PwC’s offices.

“The students are also exposed to cutting-edge audit processes and software used by PwC to navigate the changing world in which businesses apply technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced data analytics and robotic process automation,” says Saj.

Problem solving and case study analysis form 90 per cent of the final exam grade.

“My aim was to expose my course to the scrutiny of the profession and, having brought the profession inside, I feel the curriculum we offer has been significantly influenced to give students the cutting- edge knowledge they need,” says Saj.

Feedback from student surveys has been positive, and Saj says the quality of their work and the tone of enquiry shows him their level of engagement is high.

“I strongly believe that it is up to the university to decide on the curriculum. We are not outsourcing this by any means, but accounting is an applied discipline – there is no other purpose except to get a job.”

CPA Australia resource:
Report on technology and the skills of early career accountants

Singapore’s X-factor

Students at Singapore Management University (SMU) are not waiting until they graduate to get stuck into real-world projects. A student consultancy project is part of SMU-X, a university-wide experiential learning framework.

Over an intense 13 weeks, students taking the Accounting Analytics Capstone (AAC) course translate what they have learned at university into practical solutions for clients ranging from corporate, not-for-profit and government organisations, with guidance from faculty and project sponsor mentors.

Crucially, AAC focuses on data-driven analytics and insights to examine accounting and finance processes and come up with ways to improve a business. It also tests students’ behavioural skills essential to good project management, such as client engagement and communication, managing expectations and collaborative teamwork.

“The AAC course has grown a lot. In 2015, there were 30 students. Now we have three classes with close to 100 undergraduates,” says Dr Gary Pan FCPA, professor of accounting and academic director of SMU-X. Collaboration has…

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