Was there ever really a time when bright school leavers were ushered by their careers advisers towards a comfortable life in accountancy?
If so, it seems to be long gone.
Research confirms what most accountants will tell you for free: the profession is facing a skills shortage.
It may be that the industry has an image problem – and is seen as dull in an age when it can seem everyone wants to be a social media influencer.
Technology has a part to play in shedding that image and convincing new generations and existing talent alike that the work can be interesting and challenging.
How bad is the skills shortage in accountancy?
Recruiter Robert Half found earlier in 2023 that 89% of CFOs were concerned about their company’s ability to attract skilled talent in the following 12 months.
Another recruiter, Hays, found 62% of accountancy and finance employers were planning to recruit this year, but 90% of them had faced skills shortages in 2022.
The reason for the shortage seems to be twofold. Demand for staff is growing as practices get busier. At the same time, fewer people with the right skills seem to be in the market.
In the face of this problem, it may be time for accountancy to consider whether it is still being held back by a “pinstriped suit” image.
“The profession needs to enlighten the next generation that the work won’t all be about processing, invoicing and stocktakes,” says Matt Lewns, former Financial Outsourcing Manager at Mazars, who is now Partner Manager at iplicit.
It’s not just Generation Z
There has been a lot of discussion about how to attract Generation Z into the accountancy industry.
Generation Z – born in the late 1990s or early 21st century – grew up with fast internet access and many cannot remember a time before smartphones.
As a panel discussion at Accountex in 2023 suggested, ‘Gen Z’ entrants into the profession will expect the right technology to be in place to do their work as efficiently as possible. Firms relying on paper-based systems are unlikely to be attractive to them, even if the money is good.
But Matt Lewns argues that the challenge for the profession is wider than the need to appeal to Gen Z. Firms must demonstrate to school leavers, graduates and qualified accountants alike that their work goes beyond the old-fashioned view of the job.
Software can now do in moments the kind of data entry that bookkeepers or accountants used to spend hours on. That frees up staff to devote time to higher-value – and more interesting – activity.
Matt says firms which embrace the potential of technology are more likely to have a progressive approach to the whole profession.
“You don’t become an early adopter by accident,” he says.
“These firms are early adopters by nature and it’s reflected in everything they do – technology, staff and culture. They have that forward-thinking approach that’s reflected throughout the organisation.”
Making accountancy more exciting
With software taking on more of the work that accountants did in years gone by, the practice of the future can focus on activity that’s more rewarding for the individual as well as being of higher value for the business.
- A practice’s advisory offering will be increasingly important, providing a rewarding new avenue of work for accountants who undergo further training.
- Software will be a specialism in itself. An accountant can become a digital adviser, suggesting solutions to clients who need to modernise their finance function. That adviser can recommend systems for accounting, customer relations management, payroll and more.
- The increasing availability of data will lead to more work for specialists in interpreting it. A practice’s data analysts can pull the information together, helping the client by comparing the figures to industry benchmarks, examining trends and flagging up which parts of a business are underperforming or overperforming.
All this could represent a big cultural change in an industry that, in the past, made most of its money from junior staff whose processing work racked up the most chargeable hours.
Paradoxically, more sophisticated tech is likely to make interpersonal skills more important. That’s because when digital capability is taken for granted, practices will be distinguished by the quality of their human relationships.
“In the 1980s and 90s, accountancy was all about relationships – back in the era when accountants didn’t advertise so building those relationships was vital,” says Matt.
“Then in the 1990s and 2000s it became all about compliance and in the 2000s and 2010s it was digital transformation.
“Now we’re back to relationships as the driver, because you won’t be able to distinguish yourself any more just by being digital.”
Why tech will only get more important
As we’ve seen, the role of technology in attracting and retaining talent is not only about what the tech does. It’s also about the signal it sends about the company culture.
Even people who don’t know what accountancy software can do are well aware of what technology can do generally. If they join a firm and are faced with tech that looks and feels archaic, they’re going to cotton on quickly that there must be a better way of doing things.
And in a market where people change jobs, or even change careers, much more frequently than they used to, practices will have to stay ahead to remain competitive.
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