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Bridging the Finance Talent Gap with AI Technology | AccountingWEB | SAP Concur | Picture of two professionals at a screens
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Bridging the finance talent gap with AI technology

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What can be done to make the finance profession more attractive to the next generation of students? AccountingWEB’s Jake Smith speaks to Cassie Petrie, MD for SMB in EMEA at SAP Concur about tackling the talent shortage and the role technology can play.

10th Jul 2024
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Finance teams at businesses of all sizes, as well as accountants and bookkeepers, have been facing a capacity crunch for many years. There are many reasons for this, but an important one is that as more finance professionals are reaching retirement or leaving the profession, there are fewer newly qualified people or apprentices joining. The latest figures from the FRC showed an overall 3.5% decrease in the number of students across seven of the main accountancy bodies from 2021 to 2022.

The good news was that we are making progress towards gender balance in the profession, with 50% of the students female - this number has steadily increased since 2018 when 38% of students were female, although this gender balance is not yet reflected in the membership of accountancy bodies - just 38% are female. 

As well as finding ways to encourage experienced team members to stay in their posts, by improving their job satisfaction, finance leaders need to find innovative ways of attracting new talent.

Cassie Petrie - SAP ConcurSpeaking to AccountingWEB, Cassie Petrie from SAP Concur discussed ways that our profession could tackle this including the ways that technology and new innovations including AI should help play a key role in improving the attractiveness of the profession. 

Petrie identified three important challenges which need to be overcome to change perceptions, as well as attract and retain more staff.

Challenge one: An ageing profession that’s hard to get into

A career in finance used to be seen as an attractive, secure and potentially lucrative option. But as the skills crunch continues to bite, the average age of people in the finance profession has been increasing for some time.

ONS figures showed that in 2018, a total of 63% of finance professionals were aged over 40 (up from 60% in 2015). Although there are a relatively large number of students studying for accountancy and finance qualifications, more needs to be done to ensure that these students actually enter the profession when they qualify.

One of the issues she highlighted is that roles in finance can often seem out of reach to students.

“There's a definite perception that you need to be the best in class to go into a finance job. And it's absolutely not true, because when you get a job you learn; you get brought on board as a new hire and you get taught how to do it and there is training available.”

Inspire the next generation as early as possible

Whilst numerical skills are important in finance, the excellent training you receive at colleges and universities or through work-based apprenticeships and ongoing qualifications from the relevant professional bodies help students develop the skills that are needed. It’s not only the best student in the maths class who could work in finance.

Petrie talked about how she’s been volunteering regularly with younger students in schools and colleges to inspire them to enter careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 

Petrie noted that SAP is hosting STEM classes in the school holidays for children aged 8-12 to inspire them from a young age to start thinking about STEM. For older students, they offer an apprentice scheme 3-year degree-equivalent opportunity, as well as an intern programme for students at university who get to have hands-on experience in a wide variety of roles across the business.
 

Challenge two: Finance is not seen as exciting

These days it seems that the younger generation want to see themselves as creating something new and exciting, such as a tech startup, and finance is potentially facing a decline in popularity as a career compared to technology and engineering roles that can be seen as more exciting.  

Finance often gets bad press, with the focus often on negative news - whether that’s global stories like the financial crisis or high-profile corporate failures where the blame is laid at the door of bankers and auditors - which, in turn, can lead to people being put off entering the profession they may consider tainted.

Petrie said: “We need to work harder to show the positive roles that finance leaders and teams play in businesses and how they help transform the world we live in.”

“For every visionary founder and leader such as Elon Musk, Susan Wojcicki, Steve Jobs or Anne Boden at Tesla,  Google, Apple or Starling respectively, there is a team of people behind them ensuring that their ideas and passion are turned into a viable and profitable business.”

Shout about the role finance teams plays in business success

Finance professionals are often the unsung heroes behind the scenes and business leaders, including finance leaders, can play a bigger role in evangelising the impact they have on the business and demonstrating that Finance can be an exciting career.

“The media can portray finance teams as simply number crunchers, and not necessarily exciting, fun or something to be proud of,” continued Petrie. “But when I speak to a CFO I have a huge amount of respect for those incredibly smart, hard-working finance leaders that are helping create and change the world with the products and services their businesses are delivering.

“The finance role is vital for any business and those organisations simply will not thrive without that person. Finance roles have evolved over the years and finance leaders are relationship builders, storytellers for the business, innovators driving the direction of the business, and technology leaders. It is a varied, challenging and exciting role with great growth opportunities and the fast-paced changes in technology and innovations can be found and are permeating finance teams.”

Challenge three: Highlighting innovations in tech and AI to improve the appeal of a career in Finance

The third challenge is around the perception of the type of work that people do in finance.

Petrie said: “Many students I speak to think that a lot of finance work is just bookkeeping and it is still paper-based and involves lots of dull manual processing. The finance role is perhaps seen as it's the same job year in year out with a perception that the job has a lack of innovation.

“We speak every day to businesses who aren’t yet customers of ours about the need to let go of the old processes and to actually change the strategy and approach, and let tech take away the drudgery.

“We have already seen a huge amount of people coming to us to talk about digital transformation, with individuals being hired to help digitise processes leading to huge improvements in efficiency. As the latest technology and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence continue to bring new developments, we’re seeing a real reduction in the time spent on manual or repetitive tasks.”

“When they start to see how they could improve their organisations by using technology, whether it's an SAP ERP, Concur Expense or Concur Invoice, we are hearing all the time that it helps give them the ability to attract talented individuals.

“People don't particularly want to spend years training only then to be employed to retype data and deal with manual processes. So if you're saying to them you're going to be able to use the latest technology that embeds artificial intelligence in their product that can make for an exciting role.

“The impact of the latest technology we’re delivering is that their teams will be able to spend their time helping the business with real, positive impacts on forecasting, growth opportunities and effective application of resources and capital. This will help improve job satisfaction for their existing teams as well as attract the next generation into finance.”

Benefits for your people and your business

Petrie highlighted ways in which businesses can take advantage of the automation and AI inbuilt to the SAP Concur products, such as the ability to streamline expense and invoice data capture and reclaim VAT.

For businesses that have expense claims, without the right tools, the finance team needs to go through every line individually to check if there’s a receipt and what VAT rules apply to that claim.

With SAP Concur, the employee simply takes a photo of the receipt and the tech can use AI to check against the latest VAT rules and ensure you’re claiming for everything properly.

Petrie said: “This allows the finance team to spend time investigating anomalies or highlighting areas for savings. One client we worked with realised they had missed out on £13,000 VAT reclaim simply as their employees hadn’t been attaching the receipts that were needed.

“Our technology made it easy for them to spot and rectify this problem quickly once installed and change policies to avoid the problem in the future.”

How AI will transform the future of finance

Looking ahead to how technology will transform finance teams, Petrie discussed upcoming developments such as GenAI powered chat bots that can let employees ask if planned spend is in policy or what their T&E allowance is for a dinner – any question at all and the AI will be able to answer based on the businesses employee and expenses manual, removing repetitive, time-consuming enquiries that would otherwise need to be dealt with by the finance team.

If you’d like to see how you can transform your business, retain and motivate existing employees and attract the next generation download the CFO insights whitepaper from SAP Concur or visit the SAP Concur website to find out more.

 

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