Hiring Trends and Skills Needed for the Modern CPA
A decade ago, non-technical skills were not often sought by those hiring accounting professionals, but they have become a mainstay of CPAs looking to not only be trusted advisors to their clients but true strategists for their businesses.
If one were to come up with a recipe for a modern CPA, it might consist of a cup of technical knowledge, a quarter of a cup of data and analytical expertise, an eighth of a cup of soft skills, an eighth of a cup of client retention abilities and a healthy measure of leadership and eagerness to adapt to change thrown in.
Narrowing the Skills Gap
To be hired as that “go-to” person for their clients and organization, CPAs have had to add new skills, adapt old ones and revamp their impression of what good client relations is all about. Is the skills gap narrowing between what accounting advisories want in new candidates and what young professionals are bringing to their newly landed jobs? What about partners? What do they look for in other partners? There’s no one-size-fits-all accounting firm or finance department, so there’s no precise description for what’s needed in hiring. But there is a growing necessity for those skills that take an accounting professional further away from the daily grind.
As Aditi Shah, CPA, senior tax accountant at Cullari Carrico LLC, explains, young professionals are big contributors to the changing role of the new CPA. “The skills gap is narrowing as young professionals make an impact on the firms and companies they work for, which allows new candidates an easier path to success,” she says.
New graduates are reaping the benefits of organizations looking for more modern CPAs and those even outside the traditional CPA model. Nicole DeRosa, CPA, MAcc, tax manager at Withum, recognizes this change when she notes the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) says CPA firms are turning to nonaccounting graduates as there is an increased demand for technology skills (i.e., data science, analytics, artificial intelligence) in the accounting profession. “Now more than ever, to stay competitive, firms must leverage technology to the best of their abilities as utilization of advanced solutions for accounting processes becomes more and more prevalent in the constantly evolving industry,” she says.
Young professionals bring a host of new skills to the table, namely technological and social media capabilities. These they honed in various college environments, social engagements and as new social media apps have rolled out. CPAs today are graduating with technology-heavy concentrations and partaking in IT- and data analytics-oriented masters programs.
For the younger generations, Robert Traphagen, CPA, CGMA, managing partner at Traphagen & Traphagen CPAs LLC, explains, “data analytics is everywhere.” While reviewing college curriculums with his son and seeing an abundance of data mining and machine learning classes, he shares that there are many opportunities for data learning today, which will only enhance the CPA of tomorrow. “CPAs who have the key analytical skills of critical thinking, data analysis and interpersonal communication skills will be well positioned for growth in the future,” he says. The role of the CPA is changing with the advancement and innovation of new technologies, he adds.
Schools are also jumping on the tech bandwagon. “Part of that adaptation will include updating the curricula to integrate technology skills that are becoming essential in the profession,” according to the January 2020 Journal of Accountancy article, “2020s vision: Tech transformation on tap.” It further notes, “The evolution of accounting course work will occur as educators in all fields will be challenged to adapt to new technology-enabled delivery methods, as online degrees and classes seem destined to grow in popularity.”
Technology, indeed, has altered the role of the modern CPA, particularly as the industry embraces a cloud-based working environment. “Over the decades, the accounting profession has been influenced by evolving technology. Both software and hardware have changed drastically, enabling professional service providers to access the essential data that helps clients adapt to industry trends,” says Molly Lockwood, director of human resources at SobelCo.
And technology will only keep on moving the needle forward. As the JoA article notes, “The ability of 5G to transmit data at much faster speeds and in much greater amounts will open the floodgates to a torrent of information from what will be billions of devices connected to the internet. That data, in turn, will fuel the growth of AI, especially in the area of machine learning.”
Other skills, however, like good communication and client retention, are also in high demand. Though seasoned CPAs are often more equipped to excel in those areas, young professionals are aware they need to learn them. “Relationship building is more a function of learning than being taught. Like any other skillset, this requires work, but can be learned by a motivated individual with a successful mentor,” admits Shah. “Young professionals are accustomed to communicating thoughts limited to 280 characters. This has its advantages in that thoughts are direct and concise,” she adds, warning that seasoned professionals may not view this communication as a dialogue.
Young professionals are beginning to understand that soft skills will enhance their learning experience — and ultimately their careers. “Those who are entering the accounting profession are finding that soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, effective communication and leadership skills are highly regarded,” explains Lockwood. “If the classroom curriculum offers an education focused only on technical skills, students will miss the opportunity to grow personally as well as professionally.”
Lockwood adds, “Owners of small to midsize businesses, like their C-suite colleagues, have become much more sophisticated, knowledgeable and connected, as well as more demanding. While the financial reports will always be the foundation of the business’ analysis, business leaders are looking for, and expecting, a level of assistance that goes beyond the numbers.”
Communication skills, adds DeRosa, could not be more important both inside and outside the workplace. “I’d go as far as saying that developing long-lasting, meaningful relationships is just as important as possessing strong, technical accounting skills. The development of communication skills begins early on in life and is constantly shaped by experiences and interactions over time. Building strong professional relationships at the onset of one’s career can be a bit intimidating, however it is important that we are providing the proper tools to enable the next generation to thrive.” She adds, “Young professionals need to be receptive to the various communication styles and ready to embrace change.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hastened some shifts in CPAs’ job functions. According to Traphagen, “CPAs were designated essential for a reason, not only to manage, but to lead our clients in a virtual environment by providing essential services in interpreting complex legislation within a crisis-driven timeline.” He adds, “We assisted our clients with cashflow models, financing options, renegotiation of leases and stimulus relief programs. And we assisted the mainstream economy by interpreting a myriad of rapid legislative changes within days of enactment. There is a new paradigm; a shift from compliance to advisory services.”
The pandemic proved that flexibility in job functions worked, and those organizations that keep some of that flexibility should look attractive to new hires going forward. As Traphagen explains, “Firms are now focusing on new hires who are tech savvy and can analyze real-time information, all while connecting and communicating effectively with clients via virtual collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. New hires are now seeking to work for firms that have a culture of work-life balance and, more importantly, firms that can adapt to changing times.”
A CPA’s role as a trusted business advisor, and as an essential service, is now more important than ever, adds Philip Sookram, CPA, MAcc, assistant professor in the Department of Accountancy & Business Law at Saint Peter’s University. “As of May 2020, LinkedIn named CPAs as the sixth most in-demand job moving forward. The CPA is traditionally a role that guarantees long-term job security,” he says.
And having skills, such as bringing in business to an accounting advisory, will prove extremely useful to being hired, explains Benjamin Aspir, CPA, MST, senior manager at EisnerAmper. “The earlier a CPA can dedicate him/herself to learning this important skill, the less difficult it will be down the road. ‘You reap what you sow;’ it takes years of practice and perseverance to develop this skill.” He adds, “Our relationships with clients are built on trust, and this does not happen overnight,” noting that volunteering with a local organization, joining a networking group, writing articles and giving presentations can help acquire clients.
Shah agrees. “It is extremely important to have the ability to bring new business to the firm. However, it is equally important to be able to retain clients, which should be easier. A client deserves service, and meeting that basic need by answering calls and listening to what they want can often result in new business.”
David Cristello, founder and CEO of Jetpack Workflow, says, “Don’t forget that your client base is likely waiting for you to offer them more services. In fact, upselling clients is typically five times more profitable than finding new clients.” He adds that it’s important to discuss additional areas of opportunity where the firm can help.
“To be successful, you don’t need to have an abundance of contacts,” explains Jessica L. Levin, MBA, CMP, CAE, DES, president and chief connector of Seven Degrees, LLC. But, she says, they need to be strong ones. “Developing a quality network that trusts you because you bring value can support your business development efforts for your entire career,” she says. “The most effortless connections are where you have common interests and that you like as people. Thinking about business relationships as friendships is less daunting than feeling like you have to sell to everyone you meet.”
Molly Conley Lockwood
Molly Lockwood is the director of Human Resources at SobelCo LLC.
This article appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.