Young accountants and the future of our profession

Young accountants and the future of our profession

Paul Hilton

Are we equipping the next generation of accountants to thrive over the next 20 to 30 years? I fear not.

The future of our profession depends on the young people coming into accounting and developing their skills and capabilities both to be able to operate in our current work environment and to be able to adapt to rapid change.

Some of the young people starting work in your firm over the next 12 months will be taking your place around the boardroom table in 10 or 15 years. What are you doing to equip them for that leadership responsibility?

Our universities have developed courses to train young people as accountants, yet are they simply turning out number crunchers because that is what gets a person employed in an accounting firm?

Do universities teach leadership skills in their accounting courses? Of course not. But that is not their fault. They are training young people for what they understand the profession requires.

Our profession continues a discussion about the environment in which we work. Understanding and being able to interpret the ever-changing tax laws is a key part of an accountant's capability. Yet I do not believe it is anywhere near enough. We no longer simply provide our clients with advice about how best to manage their tax obligations. We are more involved in their business and financial decisions. And those conversations require a new set of skills.

A recent report by Deloitte Access Economics entitled "Soft skills for business success" forecast that soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000. The good news for those of us who want our profession to grow is that accounting falls into that category. The number of jobs in soft-skill intensive occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times faster than jobs in other occupations.

So what are soft skills? Simply, they are vital intangibles. To quote the Deloitte Access Economics report: "Soft skills are also referred to as employability skills, enterprise skills and they are transferable between industries and occupations. They include things like communication, teamwork, and problem solving, as well as emotional judgement, professional ethics and global citizenship."

Accounting is a rapidly increasingly "soft skill" profession. And that is not tax law.

So how much responsibility are firms taking in recruiting and training young people for our fast-changing profession? How much are we communicating with the universities about change? Not enough, from my observation.

But we cannot rely on universities alone. As accountants and leaders in our profession, we must take responsibility for the next generations.

But do we understand the skills that will be necessary for this new generation to be successful?

We will always need formal qualifications and technical skills. But they are only part of the skill mix needed for the future. Soft skills and personal attributes are just as important.

The World Economic Forum has identified 10 of the 16 "crucial proficiencies in the 21st century" as non-technical.

According to a report by the Commonwealth Department of Employment in 2016, a quarter of employers report having difficulty filling entry-level vacancies because applicants lack "employability" skills.

The Deloitte Access Economics report found that the difference between demand and supply is as large as 45 percentage points for communication skills alone" and, "despite the value that businesses place on soft skills, data from LinkedIn profiles reveals that less than one per cent of Australians report having any soft skills on their profiles".

The report suggests that, far from not having these skills, people under-report soft skills perhaps because we are uncomfortable with claiming skills without formal credentials or because we underestimate the relative importance of soft skills.

Young accountants need to embrace their profession, to learn and become the leaders of the future.

But simply throwing dollars at the issue won't create great leaders in the profession. That will come from the way that we as current owners and leaders interact with team members and clients so that younger members can see us leading by example.

It is the responsibility of the current leadership in the accounting profession to prepare the next generation and also to educate our clients about our changing role and capabilities.

Young accountants and the future of our profession
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