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The accounting skills most in demand

There are ample opportunities for candidates who are well qualified in understanding data and understanding how it works for a business partner.

Employment and salary prospects for accountants are healthy across the board, but professionals with up-to-date expertise in data collection and analysis are most in-demand, say, recruitment specialists.

“We are in a situation now,” says David Cawley, Sydney-based regional director of recruitment specialist Hays, “where the reporting and regulatory side is more and more automated. There are big opportunities for candidates who are well qualified in understanding data and understanding how it works for a business partner.”

Accountancy increasingly follows the mantra that it acts as a business partner and adviser, as data-driven commercial decisions infiltrate every aspect of business enterprise.

“The skills we see as cutting edge now – blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning – are going to be taken for granted in five years,” says Cawley.

“Things are changing that quickly. About 5 per cent of the jobs will go, and about 60 per cent of jobs will lose about 30 per cent of their work [to automation] – so it’s all about finding out which productive activities can fill that space.”

Strong demand for accountants in public practice

Benjamin Jotkowitz, director of accounting recruitment specialist Benneaux, sees healthy demand for accountants in professional services and public practice.

“Usually, candidates need about three to five years in business services. Less than that, they don’t have enough experience and any more, and they’ve got too much experience,” he says.

Staff for external audits are in demand, “though it’s seasonal”, along with people with tax and self-managed super fund experience.

Cawley agrees that candidates should look to professional services and public practice.

“Nowhere is a business partnership more relevant and vital than public practice, particularly in rural and suburban areas, where smaller communities require greater levels of trust.

“This is the area where practices set up MYOB and other processing that allows clients to self-manage. So it comes down to working with businesses to help generate better revenues,” he says.

Accountants: what are you worth?

Hays’ 2018/19 Salary Guide outlines increased demand for skilled accountants. Those most highly sought after including business analysts and management accountants who are highly skilled in project work, prominent data finance specialists, and those who can support the transition of accountancy to a more digitised and automated future.

The guide, which surveyed 3000 organisations and 2.3 million employees in Australia and New Zealand, found 65 per cent of employers will give accountancy staff a pay rise of less than 3 per cent in their following review.

Cawley is, however, seeing increases above 6 per cent for people with proven skills who are prepared to move into the small-to-medium enterprise sector and smaller start-ups based on disruptive technology.

Anyone with a strong accounting background who is prepared to map out directions in a team will succeed in one of these businesses, he says.

Other areas of robust demand include financial controllers and credit control securing a business’s cash flow.

Payroll is experiencing huge demand.

“It’s often an area people don’t see as a strong career option, and, generally speaking, it’s older people holding positions, but we see massive skill shortages in payroll,” says Cawley.

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Flexible work in accounting

Employers are also taking a good look at flexible work practices during considerable change as an incentive to retain people, says Cawley.

He describes flex work as “massive” but stresses that it is “a balancing act for many leaders who require face time to be effective”.

Moskowitz sees candidates coming from the Big Four firms where they were recruited as graduates.

“After about four years, they’re looking for a better work-life balance and are happy to be placed in a mid-tier firm,” he says.

Better-rounded candidates are more valuable in the current climate, and “employers are looking for candidates with Australian experience and understand the context they are working in. International candidates don’t do so well, we find.”

Moskowitz also points out that while data is an essential driver of commercial operations, he is confident about its ultimate reality.

“You can’t automate a CFO,” he says.

Five hiring trends in the accounting and finance profession

Three recruitment experts pinpoint the top accountancy and finance skillsets employers need most in 2018 – and they say that professionals who are strong in IT are in hot demand.

2018 is an excellent time to be looking for work in accounting and finance. A strong economy is fuelling an appetite for hiring across the country, says Andrew Brushfield, Victoria and Western Australia director at recruitment agency Robert Half.

“Accounting is a great industry to get into. It doesn’t matter if companies report numbers that are red or black or big or small; they still have to report numbers. The good news is a lot of companies are seeing growth.”

INTHEBLACK spoke to three recruitment experts who highlighted the trends they see for 2018.

Finance skills in demand

“There’s always a shortage of good accountants, both within the profession and in industry,” says Benjamin Jotkowitz, director at recruitment firm Benelux.

So, what roles are in demand?

“Candidates with three to five years’ business services experience are hard to find,” he says. “In the audit space, it’s hard to find senior auditors and audit managers.”

“We’re seeing far greater demand for analytical and commercial accountants than ever before,” says Brushfield.

“Companies are looking to get more from their finance and accounting support. Typically, that ‘more’ is more commercial insight … bringing the back office and the front office together, being across pricing as well as commercial and operational trends.”

Many employers are offering these roles on a contract basis. “We’ve doubled the temp book in the last 12 months,” says John Meehan, associate director of financial services at ‎Robert Walters. Temporary roles give smaller companies flexibility to manage their workforce and allow large companies to recruit without encountering headcount issues.

“It’s easier to get sign-off for a contractor – it doesn’t affect the annual budget.” 

The evolving CFO role

In 2018, CFOs were expected to do more than just finance.

“Clients are looking for all-rounders with the breadth of experience – someone who can do a lot more,” says Moskowitz.

A CFO’s territory now covers HR, IT and strategy.

“Organisations are looking for candidates to be more hands-on as well.”

CFOs need strong stakeholder skills encompassing leadership, communication and business partnering, says Meehan.

“When they’re hiring a CFO or head of financial, companies want someone who can drive revenue. They want someone who can help the company make more money, which wasn’t the case previously.”

Employers seeking IT skills

INTHEBLACK’s three experts all emphasised the importance of IT skills for accountants and finance professionals in 2018.

“Technical accounting skills are a given,” says Moskowitz. Today, employers are increasingly looking for specific IT systems experience as organisations shift to cloud-based technology.

Employers want candidates with strong skills in data and modelling and Excel, says Meehan, who explains they want “someone who can look at big sets of data, pull reports that add value and present them to the business”.

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“The line between accounting and technology is becoming more blurred,” says Brushfield. Candidates need strong IT skills to get the most out of CRM [customer relationship management] tools used by accounting functions and “provide the commercial insight that sales functions within organisations expect”.

Work-life balance for finance professionals

In 2018, work-life balance was a deal-breaker. Candidates prioritise employers who offer perks such as health and wellness programs or the flexibility to start and leave early and work from home.

“Companies are providing personal trainers every week or an extra level of health checks and information sessions on diet and exercise,” says Brushfield.

“There is recognition from most employers that they stand a better chance to retain their best staff if they’re offering work-life balance.”

Not all employers deliver on what they promise, however. “Many say they’re going to do a lot of things: offer work-life balance, or a job share, or a start early or a pick up the kids early,” says Moskowitz. “But unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn into reality.”

Attracting millennial employees

The push for work-life balance comes mainly from younger members of the workforce.

“Millennials are very much swayed by the softer stuff that companies offer: the work from home, the benefits, the book club or the sports club,” says Meehan. “The older generation doesn’t care about that.”

This shift has meant recruiters have had to change the way they talk to candidates. “Now they want to know ‘what does the company offer, what are the benefits?’. It’s not even about money,” says Meehan, who doesn’t find millennials money-driven.

“It’s more the extra benefits the companies offer that they’re chasing.”

Moskowitz says a typical millennial refrain is often “what’s in it for me?”

“They go shopping around for different jobs; sometimes there’s not a lot of loyalty. Those candidates tend to move every two to three years – you don’t see them hang around for five years plus,” he says.

“It’s not as if these candidates are unhappy in the job; it’s just that ‘I’ve done my two years, it’s time to move on.”

This restlessness may be due in part to the younger generation’s motivating desire to do more exciting work.

“They want to meet the CEO or face off to the senior business team or deal with the sales teams,” says Meehan. “They want exposure to the business, rather than sitting in a corner producing reports.”

The top 8 issues facing accounting practices today

Practitioners need to stay on top of any tax changes to advise their clients correctly.

Constant changes to the tax system, hiring and retaining staff, and understanding the impact of technology on your practice – are all challenges for the modern accounting firm. Here are eight of the top issues for public practitioners.

1. Staying on top of tax changes

Constant changes to the tax regime mean the need for public practice accountants to stay up to date is greater than ever.

Whether those changes are intended to stimulate parts of the economy, benefit certain taxpayers, close loopholes or directly raise more significant revenue, they can affect many taxpayers when only targeting the behaviour of a few, says Robyn Jacobson, a senior tax trainer from TaxBanter Pty Ltd.

At the CPA Australia Public Practice Conferences in May and June 2018, Jacobson outlined the most significant changes of the previous 12 months.

“Most of the tax policy I see at the moment is in response to groups of taxpayers who are not complying,” Jacobson says.

“Sometimes there are only small groups of people in certain industries who are not complying, but the government will turn its attention to that entire industry. It’s like the old expression, ‘using a sledgehammer to crack open a walnut’.” 

“In some cases, there are just a few people doing the wrong thing, but the government introduces integrity measures which affect everybody.”

Jacobson says some of the measures are “incredibly complex” and can increase taxpayers and advisers’ likelihood of making inadvertent errors. 

“Practitioners need to be across all of these changes to advise their clients correctly,” she says.

business-accountant

2. Being alert to work-related expenses crackdowns

The Australian Taxation Office is also focusing on work-related expense (WRE) claims. Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan repeatedly says that the WRE gap (the difference between what you can claim and what is being claimed) is estimated to be greater than the corporate tax gap of A$2.5 billion. 

Overclaiming is worse when an agent prepares the return, says Jacobson. 

“It is so important to remember that you must have incurred the expense to claim it; there is no standard deduction.” 

“The message is that it never stands still – tax changes are a constant,” Jacobson says.

“I go out to clients once a month and speak with them about the changes, and a month later, there is always so much more to talk about.”

3. Delivering to the deadline without killing yourself

Public practice accounting businesses are all about client service delivery. A practice without a client service focus is not going to be in business for long. There used to be downtime between client deadlines, time to regroup and plan for the next project; today’s practitioners leap from one extreme deadline to the next.

“People with fantastic technical skills are being smashed by deadlines and burning out,” says Alena Bennett, leadership expert from alenabennett.com.au

“It’s not because they’re no longer good at what they do. Rather, it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to experience how leadership skills can support their superb technical skills.”

Why is there no longer any downtime?

“There is an increasing number of changes in the market, and that means the volume of work is also growing,” says Bennett, a qualified accountant.

Of course, there are also changes in staff attitudes to work and work-life balance. Once everybody stayed until the work was complete, a departure at 5.15 pm is now not uncommon.

“That leaves the partners to get the remaining work done themselves,” Bennett says.

4. Getting clients on board with new technology

Bennett says, “There are constant regulatory changes that public practitioners need to stay on top of and guide their clients through.

“Technology continues to evolve, and that can create great opportunities for practices, but it also throws up the challenges of making the right investment, successfully deploying the new technology solutions and getting their clients on board.”

5. Growing or sustaining your accounting practice

What’s the solution? How does a business existing under constant pressure remain not only sustainable but achieve growth? How does an approach lurching from one project to the next to find time to innovate or surprise clients with improved delivery and tailored communication?

Bennett shares four practical tips:

  1. Get clear on your critical path. The landscape has changed, so must your practice. Delegate or drop non-critical activity.
  2. Understand how changes resulting from #1 might impact the nature and frequency of interactions with your client and how you spend the rest of your time. Optimise your workflow.
  3. Be transparent with your clients and staff about how the changes in your practice will impact them. Have effective conversations (see below).
  4. Remember that any actions from #1–3 need to be congruent with your practice philosophy. If you don’t have a practice philosophy, or you haven’t revisited it in a while, now’s a great time!

6. Thinking of small changes you can make

Bennett says, “My challenge to those that attend my presentations is to go back to work the next day and do one thing differently.

“It can be as simple as communicating to your clients or staff differently or simply considering the impact of your conduct and behaviour. How can you do things differently based on that awareness?”

Small changes that inspire the people around you lead to greater clarity and thus a better ability to make decisions, which comes back to improving the business, Bennett says. It’s about turning a painful cycle into a positive one, and that’s good for everybody.

7.  Working on your communication skills

When she first went into business 21 years ago, Ondina (who these days go without a surname), director and personal presence expert from Ondina Studio, had what she describes as “dreadful workplace conversation habits”.

It wasn’t until six or seven years later that she realised something had to change. Her business was growing, and she had less and less time to manage her people.

“People go into business because they have excellent skills around their chosen field,” 

Ondina says.

“When they do that, they don’t necessarily have other skills that are vital for running a business and particularly for managing staff.”

Conversations define relationships in the office, she says, and those conversations’ quality affects the business’s quality.

“We all expect our team to come in and just do the job,” she says. 

“Very little time is spent on having a conversation because everybody is so busy. Many of the managers I’ve come across are very concerned about pleasing the shareholders and increasing profit. 

“Along the way, proper conversations with staff, which make these things happen, get pushed to the back.”

Ondina breaks it down into easily digestible pieces that go back together to build effective change in the workplace, from active listening to self-awareness and knowing how one’s mood will affect the conversation to the tone of voice and conscious intention.

The most important fact, she says, is that good conversation is more than words.

“I help people to understand and be aware of how they come across, how they forge relationships, what their body language means and what stories they tell other people,” she says.

“In your thoughts, you create a feeling, and that feeling creates behaviour. The better your thoughts, the better the behaviour. What are your behaviours like? What are you known for? What do people say about you? Develop a good understanding of these things, and your influence will increase dramatically.”

8. Keeping an eye on the future

Accounting firms have to be proactive if they are to attract top talent. The sector faces an ongoing skills shortage, so small- to medium-sized practices need to shift gears to ensure they attract and retain the next generation of practitioners.

This can be challenging for smaller firms competing against larger organisations with more resources. Still, there are some key tactics that smaller firms can use to attract top talent, including highlighting the benefits of working for a small or medium practice and developing prominent brand awareness, so the company is known as an attractive place to work.

And then there’s succession planning. 

If anyone can successfully manage the sale of public accounting practice as part of a retirement transition plan, it should be an accountant. Excellent financial and business knowledge. Invaluable negotiating experience. Strong people skills.

However, while accountants are typically very good at advising their clients, research from Bentley’s The Voice of Australian Business Survey suggests accounting firms are among 43 per cent of small businesses that currently lack an adequate succession plan. 

Selling a public practice has become more complex in the past decade, and good planning and ensuring you consider all options will have a significant impact on the eventual outcome.

CPA Australia stresses the importance of presenting a firm as an attractive investment opportunity and outlining its practice profile in its succession planning toolkit to help accountants prepare for a possible sale. 

This should include its history, team structure, vision and competitive advantages; details of all services and products being provided to clients and if there are referral sources to the firm; an analysis of the firm’s client base; a rundown on its marketing plans; and an overview of its human resources and technology strengths.

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