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2022 AccountingWEB Live Expo panel on the future of accounting tech
AwebLiveExpo22_AccountingWEB

Accountancy training isn’t keeping up with tech

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The accounting skills shortage wasn’t just a hot topic at the recent AccountingWEB Live Expo in Coventry, it’s one of the most pressing long-term concerns for the sector’s technology suppliers.

13th Dec 2022
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“The thing that every accountant and bookkeeper I talk to mentions is skills and staff shortages,” said Xero UK and Ireland managing director Alex von Schirmeister at the Expo panel session discussing what accountancy would look like in 10 years’ time.

Sage VP and head of product marketing for small business and accounting Andreas Georgiou had the same experience. In his view, accountancy is a service-based industry where customer expectations are being driven by the technologies disrupting their consumer lives. 

“The questions that come up every time at conferences like this are, ‘What does that mean for accountants and bookkeepers? Does that mean they’ll be automated away?’ I think exactly the opposite – it will elevate them and allow them to go way beyond and go much deeper into the businesses,” he said.

Yet just as technology and the growth of advisory services creates a need for new and different skills, universities and professional bodies are failing to put the proper foundations in place. Instead, they are putting young people off accounting, von Schirmeister argued. “Part of the problem is the way that accounting is taught at university. If you want to turn someone off the industry, on day one make sure to give them [a corporate] annual report and ask them to explain the cashflow statements.”

Bookkeepers to the rescue

As might be expected, the software executives all subscribed to the thesis that technology would increase capacity by automating routine processes. But they also highlighted the human side of the skills gap and pointed to the growing role bookkeepers are playing. “In America, bookkeepers are getting much more into advisory than CPAs,” commented panel moderator Nick Levine.

In contrast to the academic, statutory reporting fixation of accountancy training, von Schirmeister painted a picture of life on the advisory front lines. “If you speak to a small business owner and you have a conversation around the moment where they have tears in their eyes because they thought their business was about to go under and they talked to a bookkeeper who actually ran the numbers and explained where they were at, you realise that bookkeepers play a life-coach role that goes way above and beyond just doing the books. And that is never going to go away,” he said. 

“Automation will be essential to growing their business. They can use the additional capacity to move up the value chain. Ten years from now, bookkeepers will play a massively important human role in helping small businesses.” 

Sage’s Georgiou described how one accountant told him they were hiring bookkeepers and skilling them up in-house to do the advisory work: “Bookkeepers are so much more used to being in the day-to-day of businesses. They’ve got closer relationships and aren’t so constrained by the period-end perspective.”

Old ways have to change

IRIS Group UK managing director for accountancy Jim Scott shared his peers’ views on how consumer tech and automation will shape accountancy in the next decade, but emphasised culture and people issues that will be just as important to making the necessary changes.

“Retaining existing staff is more important than ever, because of the difficulties and costs of replacing them,” he said. In addition to training shortcomings, “The old school way of working people to within an inch of their life is putting people off.”

More supportive and flexible approaches to recruitment and development weren’t just about being a nice place to work, he added, they were an essential part of shifting from treating accountancy as a practice to a business. 

Nicola Hageman, the accountant founder of payroll software developer FreshPay, offered some practical pointers in a separate roundtable discussion. Cloud-based software brings a new level of flexibility, she said. “You don’t have to recruit locally, you can look anywhere. Cloud-based means more than one person can be involved and you can get a mix of all levels of people involved in processing.”

Shared access makes it possible to bring in school-age apprentices and get them learning from more experienced colleagues from a young age. “Learning on the job seems interesting to Generation Z,” she said. “By 21 they can have three years’ experience and the soft skills that go with that and you can retain their interest by moving them around the practice.”

Paul Barnes from MAP made a very similar point in the No Accounting For Taste podcast at the event. While forward-looking accountants are experimenting with different ways to change perceptions and grow their available talent and capacity, Hageman was yet another software executive who asked whether professional bodies were doing enough to get this messaging out.

 

Replies (6)

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paddle steamer
By DJKL
13th Dec 2022 16:05

"Shared access makes it possible to bring in school-age apprentices and get them learning from more experienced colleagues from a young age. “Learning on the job seems interesting to Generation Z,” she said. “By 21 they can have three years’ experience and the soft skills that go with that and you can retain their interest by moving them around the practice.”"

The above is fine as far as it goes, academic learning needs practical application to make an accountant (IMHO), but it is to some degree learning to do as the current rules say one must rather than really thinking about why accounts get presented as they currently are, why the standards are framed as they are, arguments re latent inherent conflicts between the primacy of say the I & E or the BS (because often valuation metrics re disclosures favour one over the other)

I have never been that keen on mere teaching to produce x, do y, I would prefer teaching to also embrace thinking about why things are as they are.

Maybe this is not important to some, but accountancy will possibly seriously change over the next 100 years, what we measure (profit) could become subservient to other measures (lets face it our tax system based on taxing profits is already creaking and has issues both re measurement and jurisdiction), so having training that encompasses both the nuts and bolts, learning on the job and the more esoteric flights of accounting fancy and idea, should not, imho, be readily discarded.

If we do so discard we possibly in future become mere technicians rather than professionals.

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By johnjenkins
13th Dec 2022 17:52

John, couldn't the title just as well be "Tech is pushing too far ahead of Accountancy training"?
Someone at sometime in the near future will realise that technology in the day to day world (I'm not talking about health, exploration etc.) is running away with itself. That is great if you are "in the frame" but not if you are an ordinary person with an ordinary job. Why is there a shortage of labour when we have the lowest unemployment levels? It's not covid or brexit, it's simply most people cannot keep up with the way technology is going, nor do they want to, nor should they have to.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By User deleted
13th Dec 2022 22:13

Exactly. I was a child in the 1970s and loved the IT revolution, but now a lot of instances are just using tech for the sake of it and not just when it's an advantage. It's gone way too far.

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By Open all hours
14th Dec 2022 14:00

The tech companies have the same tone deafness as HMRC. No wonder they get along so well. No wonder that between themselves they’re making such a mess. No wonder we are losing faith in them.

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By Brend201
15th Dec 2022 22:01

I'd say that in ten years' time, the Expo panel won't be five men and one woman.

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Replying to Brend201:
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By Hugo Fair
15th Dec 2022 22:20

... based on Paul Aplin's visionary forecasts in another article here today, the panel will probably be 3 chatbots plus a couple of irrelevant humans (whose gender will have ceased to matter).

Not sure that I see that as progress - even though I know what you really meant.

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