The employability of accounting graduates has been a major focus for tertiary educators and employers, with constant changes in the profession begetting a need for university curriculums to adapt and prioritise different skills that will be essential to a graduate’s career.
University of South Australia (UniSA) School of Commerce professor Christine Helliar said staff and researchers constantly discuss the latest trends, the future of the profession and what the students need to know to be employable in the future.
“We all have a real concern about the employability of our students, so we’re always looking at what our students need, what are employers telling us that they need, what skills and technical knowledge do they need,” Professor Helliar said.
“Over the last decade, we have focused a lot more on the skills side rather than the technical accounting side. Most students do a lot of teamwork, groupwork and presentations and report writing et cetera.
“Technical accounting has become a lot more complex, too — such as financial instruments and derivatives — so now finance courses might teach some aspects of things that overlap with accounting.”
Universities have also needed to keep abreast of how digitalisation is changing accounting services, but Professor Helliar noted that, while technology is a key area, it would still be a few years before it was vital to accounting degrees as a lot of firms are still trying to adapt.
“I think a lot of people, even in the profession, are still behind the curve. So, if you go to the big four, they have their specialist teams who are working in this area advising clients globally who are adopting and looking at the latest developments,” Professor Helliar said.
“But then you go to much smaller practitioners and, although they’re all moving to cloud-based systems, they’re not really so familiar with [the technology].
“In the next five years, I think the demand for many employers will not be to have these [technological] skills, but I think from five years on it will be necessary that most graduates understand all of this stuff because it’s going to be a fundamental part of business.
“It’s something that’s on all of our radars and we just have to keep updating the curriculum all the time [because] a static curriculum is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age.”
What employers look for
Updating university curriculums will not change the fact that no amount of academic learning will simulate professional working life, according to Prime Partners accounting director George Morice.
Mr Morice said that accounting graduates often lack attention to detail and accountability when they first start working, and graduates who have spent time interning at a firm are more employable.
“In all honesty, I think [universities] are doing a good job getting accountants ready for the working force, but nothing will ever simulate being in a workplace,” Mr Morice said.
“We’ve had graduates and undergraduates come through, and an undergraduate who has spent just some time in an accounting firm is so much more valuable than one that has only been at university.”
Like Professor Helliar, Mr Morice agrees that technological skills will be more relevant in the future, but interpersonal skills and personality are the current focus for many employers.
Mr Morice previously told Accountants Daily about the importance of soft skills in the profession, which he feels is just as relevant as technological changes to businesses.
“Technology is exponentially improving and it is going to have an impact on the industry as a whole, but the industry is also moving away from traditional tax and advice; the interpersonal thing will be just as relevant as technology,” Mr Morice said.
“I think accounting firms nowadays are spending more time developing [graduates] to inter-relate with people rather than just crunch out work.”