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Today’s accounting graduates will enter a very different profession than those who started their careers 20 or even 10 years ago. In many cases, employers will demand more of them. They will be tasked with learning new technologies at a faster rate, processing larger data sets and solving more complex problems earlier in their careers than their predecessors.

New accounting hires today are “starting at a higher level” than those of a decade ago, said Mark Rocca, CPA, audit partner in EY’s Boston office, at the 2021 annual meeting. of the AAA. “Audits of the past were more procedural and task-oriented,” he observed. “Today, with data, analytics tools and technology, we can in many cases look at all of a company’s transactions. We ask our employees to do more thoughtful and insightful analysis than what I had to do when I started 18 years ago. »

This, he acknowledged, puts “more pressure” on new graduates. “They’re a much bigger part of the thought leadership of their teams than when I started,” he said. “We throw all that data at them. It can be overwhelming.”

Still, he said, “new recruits are making the most of this opportunity and seizing it,” and many are excited about machine learning and other technologies. “It’s a good reflection of what they learn in school,” he said.

“A lot of innovation comes from our new hires,” said Lisa Hackard, CPA, audit partner at Denver-based KPMG.

The same mindset that can keep a diligent student earning high marks—obediently following instructions, pleasing authorities, and not asking too many questions—can cause a graduate to struggle in a workplace where critical thinking is valued. To be successful in the accounting profession today, practitioners said in several roundtables at the annual meeting, new hires need to learn a different set of skills:

Curiosity and willingness to ask questions. New recruits sometimes take the information presented to them at face value and fail to dig deeper to understand where they came from or how they connect to the larger context, panelists said.

New hires can “execute if told what to do,” said Judi Gonsalves, CPA, executive vice president and chief internal auditor at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston, but there are times when they will have to ask questions that can take them beyond what they have been asked to do. For example, if they see an outlier in their data, they should consider “whether it’s a one-time issue or indicative of a bigger problem,” she said.

Curiosity can also help new recruits move past procedure and understand the purpose of what they’re doing, Rocca said. “We don’t expect them to have all the answers, but to be able to ask questions that can lead them to the right questions,” he said.

The ability to know when they need more information to solve a problem. Graduates should be able to assess a problem and determine if they need missing information to solve it, panelists said. A big part of data analysis in particular, said Jackson Wojciechowski, CPA, senior accountant at aerospace company Maxar Technologies in Denver, who previously worked at KPMG, is deciding if a problem exists and if it is something. which can be solved. In other words, they must be able to “pull critical information out of a situation” and “translate it into something they can execute,” said Joshua Marine, vice president of data analytics. and information at Fidelity Investments in Boston.

The ability to acquire the information they need. New recruits must also be prepared to research the information they lack on their own, the panelists said. That may mean reading an issue outside of their scheduled job duties, Gonsalves said. Or it may mean knowing who in their organization might have the answer, Marine said.

Panelists acknowledged that it can be difficult for accountants to find the time to learn. “It’s a demanding job,” Rocca said. “Time management and prioritization are important,” he said, and new hires with these skills “will have a head start.”

Comfort with ambiguity. Many students graduate thinking they always have to get the answers right, panelists said. But in accounting, they will encounter situations where the course of action is unclear and they may be asked to recommend the best of several possible solutions.

New recruits tend to jump to conclusions too quickly, panelists said. As Gonsalves said, when they reach a stumbling block, they need to be able to “push the pivot button, not the panic button.”

Digital flexibility. Mastering a certain type of software is a unique skill when you’re an early adopter, but can quickly become an expected basic skill, panelists said. Hackard gave an example in her workplace, where everyone sought advice from early adopters of a particular type of software, she said, but as more people acquired skills, “some of the early adopters had moved on to the next new cutting-edge tool.” Also, as Rocca pointed out, companies can use their own proprietary systems that aren’t taught in schools.

It is therefore more important for students to learn the underlying principles of data analysis than any type of software, the panelists said. Graduates should also have knowledge of the tools available and how the profession is digitizing,” Gonsalves said. “They don’t have to be an expert in everything, but they have to know what’s possible.

Professors can cultivate these skills in several ways, panelists said. Here are some of their suggestions:

Challenge students to think harder and more metacritically. “Challenge students to think about the decisions they make and the process they use,” said Bette Kozlowski, CPA (inactive), director – talent acquisition, faculty and university relations, at KPMG , based in Philadelphia. They “have to step back and say, ‘What is the question I should be asking? ‘” she said.

Ask students to think about their audience. Give students assignments that require them to speak to a certain audience, like a CEO, partner, or customer, Marine suggested. This will encourage them to think about their word choices and what information to include, omit or further explain. Ask them to think about “questions their presentation might generate,” he said, noting that new hires sometimes struggle to answer questions they didn’t anticipate.

Make students comfortable with ambiguity. Give students experience of situations where there are no clear solutions. Many panelists advocated assigning case studies and other activities where the answers are not concrete.

Give assignments that ask students to define the problem themselves. Open-ended assignments can be extremely valuable, Wojciechowski said. In his master’s classes, he said, a faculty member would direct the class to a website where they could get raw data and ask them to make a business case of it. “There were no right or wrong answers; it all depended on your case,” he said. “It is so important to be entrusted with these types of projects. During your career, you will be confronted with large amounts of data and will have to find an accounting solution that makes sense.”

Let students know what to expect in the workplace. Educators shouldn’t contribute to the mentality that new grads “will graduate and learn once they’re in a company,” Hackard said. Instead, students should expect to “bring their critical thinking and data analysis skills to the workplace” where all of their team members will improve together, she said.

Editor’s note: Bette Kozlowski was part of a panel moderated by Ann Dzuranin, CPA, Ph.D., KPMG professor of accounting at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb. Lisa Hackard and Jackson Wojciechowski, both former students of Margarita Lenk, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, were on a panel she moderated. Judi Gonsalves, Joshua Marine and Mark Rocca were part of a panel convened by Karen Osterheld, senior director of the AAA’s Center for Advancing Accounting Education in Sarasota, Florida. Osterheld held focus groups with several practitioners to learn what they expected from new hires, and plans to publish a white paper on its findings.

Courtney Vienna ([email protected]) is an editor of JofA.