Recruitment and skills are perennial issues, and there are few firms who can boast to easily finding the right people - and enough of them.
The recent Accountant of Tomorrow report brought this into sharp relief claiming that “A change in the services and how they are delivered will create a need for staff with different skill sets, such as tech advisory, data analysis, and the ability to present effectively to clients”.
During subsequent Thomson Reuters’ roadshows, panellists including Soaring Falcon Accountants’ Alex Falcon Huerta, Stephen Pell from Pell Artists and Cooper Faure’s Freddie Faure strongly reinforced this as not just an issue for the future, but for now.
Summing up the recruitment task at hand, Falcon Huerta said: “The challenge is finding people who know accounting, can work with the technology, and be very client facing. It’s almost impossible to find all three.”
Pell agreed: “There are two strands – one is finding staff who match our values. And two, are confident in the use of the technology, terminology, and accountancy principles. That’s a lot of boxes to tick, it’s been tricky, and I’ve had to wait 6-9 months to bring someone on.”
And Faure added: “Historically, people were brought in to do a very specific job. Client expectations are so much greater now, and digital is driving this. The demands on us are higher and so our demands on our staff are also high, and they have to have ability to work at that level.”
These factors usually underline the case for bringing in qualified staff, but there seems to be problems in this approach.
Recruiting qualified or experienced accountants
Peter Jarman, the director at Intuit’s 2018 UK Firm of the Future PJCO, underlined the difficulty in recruiting from the existing talent pool but also sounded a new warning: “The ability to move a qualified from one firm to another is very hard, but some post-qualifieds are not getting enough responsibility to warrant their cost. You’re paying for qualification passes, not for the quality and ability to handle responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Faure is seeing an overreliance on tech seeping in. “Freshly qualified accountants are being told that digital will do it for you, and they are not using their knowledge. Staff are not equipped enough to fall back on their skills.”
Which raises the question around whether or not the professional qualifications available have got the balance right yet.
Jarman very much values the professional qualification, but recognises gaps opening up. “The curriculum is still probably behind the times, particularly in terms of the cloud side.”
Pell agrees and sees that even with the fundamentals; the mix between core accounting skills and available technology is not being accommodated.
“Formal qualifications need to change – it’s been disappointing,” he said. “AAT is focused on Sage desktop and a bigger chunk of time needs to be set aside to understanding what’s in the marketplace. For example, Receipt Bank now does the job of the bookkeeper, so students need to know this and understand their role is to be even more analytical.”
So, should the focus be back on finding the ‘other’ qualities and supporting qualification?
Bringing on and training your own
For Jarman, moulding his own staff is vital. “Personally I think it’s easier to work with fresh new grads who have no preconceptions or peculiarities picked up from working with others.”
But it does take considerable commitment and trust. “If I can offer the right environment, I tend to be able to get the right grads in who might well have been able to go to the Big Four. But a big part of this is being able to offer a comparable training package, and the promise responsibility from day one. We expect all of our graduates to have a portfolio within three years and probably two,” continued Jarman.
Broadening criteria means Pell is looking for skills in new places. “I’ve just brought on someone with a computer science qualifications and they’re a real gamer. It’s their ability to deconstruct how we do things, and how clients can be served that I need – a way of thinking.”
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. “We tried bringing in staff at grad-level, but it hasn’t worked out so far,” said Faure. “It’s been hard as they aren’t motivated by money, and millennials definitely don’t want to be seen as bums-on-seats. So finding roles they want, with the skills they have, to the demands we have to make of them, is really tricky.”
How do we get the skills needed without going too far and over accommodating?
Is specialising the key?
Another way of considering this is: will it be possible to be a generalist? Or will the evolution of the profession and client demands, mean that further specialisation is needed?
Jarman has already considered this and now operates independent career streams based on different roles, requiring different profiles as well as skills. “One stream is around cloud services and their ACCA contract is centred on management accounts, business apps and cloud accounting, including researching apps, identifying and implementing successfully. They are expected to be more like management accountants and have the transactional tax expertise.
“The second route is down the traditional accounting and tax route, concentrating on year-end and tax. Both have the solid grounding in tax and accounts, it’s just that they specialise in one team or another and develop in different ways.”
Impacting the future
Jarman said the idea of specialisation brings distinct commercial advantages. “I can already see the scope for providing business improvement services for clients. There’s a clear opportunity to develop cloud services departments – with cloud FDs accessing lots of data and information and another department being more aligned to customer services, support and implementation.”
Jarman also predicts that those who choose to specialise will have a competitive advantage. “If I was graduate today, I would choose the cloud service route as there really aren’t that many experienced app skilled integrators and experts out there.”
Pell believes being able to adapt is a key criteria for the future. “I’m trying to recruit people who can change, to shape shift, and don’t want to sit there for 30 years. We are increasingly focused on the customer’s experience, and the tech is constantly evolving to help us do things that make our lives easier and drive better results for our clients. Staying on top of that means no one can sit still.”
So is there a role for the all-round accountant? Faure thinks things will have to look different: “In 2028, the skill challenge will depend on what accountants will be doing, and I think this will be based on what will clients need. Will they be so digitally advanced, that they will be doing much of the work we do now?
"There will be areas where humans will be needed, and these may need to be specialists. Being a true generalist might just be too much to ask.”
About Richard Sergeant
Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.