The Bar Has Been Raised For New Hires and There’s One Skill In Particular Firms Are Looking For

Although the old guard (read: Boomer partners who refuse to retire) might tell you that kids these days have it too easy, the reality is that today’s accountants are expected to possess a far more varied Swiss Army Knife of knowledge compared to the whittlin’ stick of yore. What’s our evidence for this claim? The CPA Evolution project — which aims to launch a fundamentally transformed CPA exam come 2024 — recognized that current accounting programs and the real-world skills needed by entry-level accountants were increasingly failing to line up and that the “audit or tax” track changed along the way to include various other offshoots like business valuation and financial transaction services.

Where you go after graduation is no longer as clear as it was for the class of 1990; today’s grads are expected to enter the profession with a greater understanding of the work versus those who came before that mostly learned on the job. The CPA Evolution Model Curriculum aims to solve this problem, and in the meantime, recent and soon-to-be accounting graduates should be aware of the single, highly-desired skill that will set them apart in the marketplace: critical thinking.

There was an interesting article in the AICPA’s Extra Credit newsletter the other week that may have flown under your radar if you aren’t an accounting educator since that’s who this was written for. So let’s read it together and see what we can learn.

Today’s accounting graduates will enter a very different profession than those who began their careers 20 or even 10 years ago. In many cases, employers will demand more from them. They’ll be tasked with learning new technologies at a more rapid pace, dealing with larger datasets, and solving more complex problems earlier on in their careers than their predecessors did.

See? Further evidence the profession is changing. Just the fact that this is being discussed and that an entire task force exists to address it should be proof enough, as we know the profession to be traditionally reactive rather than proactive. The profession’s eagerness to head this issue off at the pass rather than wait and see how it turns out signals an uncharacteristic willingness to adapt that is no doubt driven by the urgency of said issue.

New accounting hires today “start at a higher level” than those of a decade ago, said Mark Rocca, CPA, an audit partner at EY’s Boston office, speaking at the 2021 AAA Annual Meeting. “Audits of the past were more procedural and task-focused,” he observed. “Today, using data, analytical tools, and technology, in many cases we can look at all transactions from a company. We are asking our people to do more thoughtful and insightful analysis than I had to do when I started 18 years ago.”

That, he acknowledged, places “more pressure” on new graduates. “They’re a much more important part of the thought leadership of their teams than when I started out,” he said. “We throw all this data at them. It can be overwhelming.”

Shout-out to Mark for co-signing the claim I made three paragraphs ago. You’re appreciated, Mark.

So first, a little good news for you rabble-rousers out there. In today’s workplace, unquestioning allegiance to authority may actually be a detriment in the evolving firm environment.

The same mindset that can earn a diligent student high grades — obediently following directions, pleasing authorities, and not asking too many questions — can cause a graduate to struggle in a workplace where critical thinking is valued. To succeed in the accounting profession today, practitioners said in several panel sessions at the Annual Meeting, new hires need to acquire a different set of skills.

What skills, you asked? Here’s the shortlist:

Curiosity and a willingness to ask questionsThe ability to know when they need more information to solve a problemThe ability to acquire the information they needComfort with ambiguityDigital flexibility

On the surface, most of these boil down to “know how to Google” but it’s obviously more complicated than that. And it’s difficult to teach these skills, especially in an industry that attracts people who thrive in an environment jam-packed with rules and guidance and more rules. We might wonder if firms’ burning desire for this particular skill set might be behind the trend of non-accounting graduates making up 31% of new hires (up from 20% two years prior). Accounting graduates who can bring this kind of out-of-the-box thinking to their early years at the firm will surely have a leg up on their classmates who shine in rigid, rule-based environments but fall short in the abstract.

Critical thinkers, now is your moment. Stop wasting those skills on picking apart strawman arguments in Reddit threads and go make a difference in the world. Or something.

The abilities employers seek from accounting graduates [AICPA]

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

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