To meet the rapidly changing demands of the accounting profession, the next generation of CPAs must have a digitally focused skill set and a strong portfolio of soft skills in communication, critical thinking, and collaboration, among others. It is
critical for organizations of all sizes to engage in upskilling initiatives to ensure CPAs continue to thrive in the future. Accounting programs at colleges and universities can also play an important role by integrating essential digital competencies
and soft skills into the curriculum.
Some of the notable technological advancements changing the business landscape include cloud computing, 5G, data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA), blockchain, augmented reality, and virtual reality. The disruption caused by these digital innovations is often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution,1 a term coined by Klaus Scwhab, executive chair of the World Economic Forum. The need to shift to remote work arrangements as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the adoption of technology. These disruptive forces will likely contribute to a growing skills gap and eliminate certain tasks traditionally performed by accountants in the years ahead.
According to The Future of Jobs Report 2020 prepared by the World Economic Forum,2 43% of businesses surveyed expect to reduce their workforce due to technology integration by 2025, while 34% plan to expand their workforce. More
jobs will be eliminated as a result of technological advancements in the next five years than the number of jobs that will be created. In addition, by 2025 the amount of time spent on tasks at work by humans and machines will be equivalent. CPAs
who possess the right set of digital skills will not only reduce the possibility of being replaced by technology, but they will also be positioned to participate in the sector of the economy where workforce expansion will occur due to increased
Client Expectations of Technology Proficiency
Increasingly, clients expect their accountants to combine traditional service offerings with strategic advising or consultancy services, including technology-related matters. A survey conducted by Sage Group found that 82% of clients expect accountants
to advise on finance and accounting technologies.3 As the report notes, “An accountant that can advise on technology and digital transformation, growth, and compliance, is a much more valuable proposition to the client base.”
It also found that 83% of accountants believe that new technologies and a culture of digitization will require them to make substantial investments to keep pace with the market. Yet, the workforce of many organizations may not possess the requisite
skills necessary to excel in this digital era.
Firms must be prepared to bridge the digital skills gap through upskilling efforts. PwC defines upskilling as “the expansion of people’s capabilities and employability to fulfill the talent needs of a rapidly changing economy.”4 In other words, upskilling is educating and training your employees with new knowledge and skills to perform their jobs better.
Several high-profile organizations are leading the way in upskilling. For example, Amazon will invest $700 million to provide 100,000 employees with upskilling programs in high-demand areas, such as cloud computing and machine learning.5 Similarly,
Accenture announced a plan to spend $1 billion annually to train almost every worker at risk of losing a job to automation.6
Global public accounting firms are also engaged in upskilling efforts. EY recently invested $530 million in upskilling initiatives. PwC will be investing $3 billion into job training for all of its 275,000 employees over the next three to four years.
Deloitte will spend $2 billion to upskill 4,000 workers on technology jobs. All of these organizations recognize that upskilling is the key to developing a resilient workforce.7
The next generation of CPAs can help future-proof their careers by developing various levels of proficiency with emerging technologies. The EY Foundation’s competency framework is useful for understanding the range of competencies that CPAs
should develop around emerging technologies. EY’s three competency levels consist of Awareness, Working Knowledge, and Master.
At a minimum, CPAs should be at the Awareness level (the ability to understand the subject matter at a basic level, but with a limited ability to apply this understanding) of the technologies and applications listed below.
CPA Must-Know Technologies
- Artificial Intelligence – A broad term in which machines or software programs simulate human behavior. AI includes the subfields of machine learning (algorithms that enable machines to learn and improve without explicit programming) and
deep learning (algorithmic models that rely on artificial neural networks).
- Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality – Digital technologies that enrich human experiences and senses, such as lenses and filters on social media apps to a complete virtual world.
- Blockchain – Distributed ledger systems whose transactions are highly secure through cryptography and viewable by any authorized user on a network.
- Data Analytics – Refers to the process of organizing information, developing hypotheses, and creating models that allow users to gain insights, answer business questions, and assist with decision-making. Visualizations are often an essential
component in communicating the findings.
- Data Mining – The process of finding patterns and relationships by analyzing large volumes of data. Also known as Knowledge Discovery in Databases. Data mining is one of the steps of data analytics.
- Programming Languages – Instructions or code that allow humans to communicate with computers.
- Robotic Process Automation – Software applications that automate business processes across platforms.
Depending on client demands and organizational priorities, employees will need to develop a working knowledge or expertise in certain technologies to capture new business value. Data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and RPA will
likely have the most significant impact on the accounting profession in the years to come. In fact, in a Journal of Accountancy article by Ken Tysiac and Jeff Drew, the authors state, “Forward-looking firm leaders are examining
the effects that advances in data analytics, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technology may have on the way they do business.”8 A recent Accounting Today article by Venkat Sharma noted the significance of RPA for
the accounting profession, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharma states, “The pandemic is a call to action for accounting firms to seriously consider RPA to increase efficiencies and upgrade client services.”9
Data analytics – Firms continue to create value for businesses by using data analytics to enhance decision-making. Through the analysis of commonly named big data, CPAs develop models that help answer business questions and provide important insights. The accounting profession recognizes the importance of data analytics, as it has been added to the CPA Exam. Continued upskilling with data analytics will pay dividends.
AI – AI further enhances the capabilities of data analytics by using algorithms to predict expected behavior and by providing deeper microtargeted insights beyond what a human analyst could do. Whereas a human data analyst might
spend 80% of his or her time clearing and transforming data for analysis, AI-enabled machines could accelerate this process. According to Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm, artificial intelligence (and its enabling technologies, including
machine learning and neural networks) is expected to have the biggest impact on various business applications. In fact, AI was ranked the top emerging technology across their research for customer experience projects in the next few years.10 Gartner
provides a couple of strategic planning recommendations as it relates to AI:
• By 2025, 50% of data scientists’ activities will be automated by AI, helping to mitigate the human talent shortage.
• Through 2023, computational resources used by AI will increase five times that of 2018, making AI the top emerging technology driving infrastructure decisions.11
Blockchain – Although there are limited examples of accounting firms using blockchain for internal use-cases today, organizations are increasingly using digital assets and currencies such as bitcoin as their treasury instead of dollars. As more organizations engage in transactions using digital currency, CPAs will need to become more familiar with blockchain technology.
RPA – RPA helps accountants automate time-consuming manual processes, increasing productivity and reducing errors. PwC used UiPath, a leading RPA software provider, to identify several highly repetitive, manual, and rules-based
tasks to automate via RPA. According to Kevin Kroen, intelligent automation and digital upskilling leader at PwC, the firm “automated about 5 million hours of non-value-added work.”12
Bolstering Soft Skills
Despite all of the recent advances in technology, today’s software programs cannot build relationships, lead teams, or exhibit empathy and self-awareness. In addition to accounting knowledge and technology proficiency, CPAs need a strong portfolio
of soft skills, especially in communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and leadership.
The AICPA and Institute of Management Accountants Inc. have developed core competency frameworks that heavily emphasize nontechnical skills as competencies needed in the accounting profession. Leaders in industry, public accounting, and academia all have a role to play to ensure current and future CPAs develop these skills.
Communication – In most accounting roles, individuals are expected to present complex information to clients or team members who do not have an accounting background. Those who do not possess adequate communication skills can
negatively impact client satisfaction, internal working relationships, and their own employability. According to Jane Snipes, a managing partner at Northstar Recruiting, “The most important soft skill is communication. It’s the foundation
of every other soft skill.”13 Since younger generations tend to communicate more via text or social media than in-person, they may be at greater risk for not developing sufficient communication capabilities.
Critical thinking – According to Bloom’s taxonomy, higher-order thinking skills are characterized by the ability to analyze situations, draw connections among ideas, evaluate, and ultimately recommend a course of action. Employees with strong critical-thinking skills will be better able to solve complex problems and make effective decisions. The AICPA considers critical-thinking skills to be one of the core competencies for CPAs. Consequently, the CPA Exam has evolved to increase the assessment of these skills through task-based simulations.
Collaboration – Cross-functional teams have become the norm, and the ability of employees to collaborate is essential for organizational success. Thanks to cloud computing and applications such as Microsoft Teams, successful
team collaboration is taking place, even as many of us work from home due to the pandemic. Emphasis on collaboration is not only important in the workplace, but also for students in accounting programs. Employers and professional accounting bodies
express concern that teamwork among recent graduates is lacking. Clearly communicating the importance of collaboration as it relates to the modern profession is paramount to helping future employees embrace the importance of teamwork.
Leadership – Motivating and coaching a team to work toward achieving a common goal is an essential soft skill as the success of any organization depends on effective leadership. As Ross Chapman wrote for AccountancyAge, leadership “involves taking ownership, coaching talent, and making difficult decisions when required.”14 These skills should be deliberately cultivated in the workplace and in academic settings.
Growth mindset – Employees who believe that their talents can be developed to become more productive and solve problems have a growth mindset. These are the types of employees who will be motivated to engage in upskilling efforts
and who will likely be more adaptable to an ever-changing, multicultural business environment. Kate Barton, global vice chair of tax at EY, provides the following advice for accountants just starting their careers: “The one way you can guarantee
that you continue to be stimulated by your job is to keep learning, keep pushing yourself to take on new challenges, and to keep asking questions.”15
Upskilling for soft skills traditionally took place in-person at the workplace. The pandemic has created challenges. One solution is virtual reality. PwC designed a study to examine the effectiveness of virtual reality training designed for soft skills. Managers from 12 U.S. locations took training in inclusive leadership in three modes: classroom, e-learning, and virtual reality (VR). The survey found that “VR can help business leaders upskill their employees faster, even at a time when training budgets may be shrinking and in-person training may be off the table, as people continue to observe social distancing.”16 The same study found that VR learners were four times faster to train in the classroom, 275% more confident to apply skills learned after training, 3.75 times more emotionally connected to content than classroom learners, and four times more focused than their e-learning peers.
Strategies for Upskilling
PwC has a comprehensive six-step strategy for upskilling employees to meet the digital skills gap.
• Analyze the situation and define the initiative
• Design a skills plan
• Assess and advise individual employees
• Match jobs and engage workers
• Select training and providers
• Administer the project and monitor the results
Detailed information about each step is available in the PwC strategy+business publication.17 Although this framework was designed to address the digital skills gap, the strategies outlined are broad enough to also address upskilling for soft skills.
Jeramy Kaiman, a regional head of professional recruitment at the Adecco Group, recommends that organizations work with their human resources departments to offer mentoring programs, tuition reimbursement, and credential programs to address identified
skills needing upgrades.
Mentoring programs are simple to implement and relatively low-cost as they involve matching employees wishing to learn a certain application with an employee who already has the skill. Tuition reimbursement programs can incentivize employees to take specific training or coursework that is better taught by outside providers.
Credential programs are numerous and are offered by a wide variety of organizations and modalities. For example, the PICPA offers CPE seminars, webinars, and conferences on these topics. Local colleges and universities also offer for-credit and noncredit
courses. There are also online learning platforms such as Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, or Udemy. Leading software providers such as Alteryx, Tableau, and UiPath also offer certificate programs. Finally, many colleges and universities offer advanced
degrees in data analytics, AI, and blockchain.
There are important challenges to consider when undertaking an upskilling initiative. The financial investment required to upskill employees is more than the direct training costs; it also entails short-term losses in productivity. Employees will have to spend valuable time in classes instead of on client services or company work. Thus, it is important to keep a long-term perspective on the return on investment. In the long run, successful upskilling efforts should result in increased productivity and outweigh any short-term losses due to the time and resources spent on training.
The talent gap created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the additional challenges stemming from the pandemic highlight the importance of continued training and development as a way to build talent, fill jobs, and increase performance. Upskilling for technology and soft skills is essential for the next generation of CPAs and will help ensure the talent pipeline remains strong. Business leaders need to determine the best ways their organizations can benefit from upskilling their workforce, devise a training plan, and execute. Academic accounting programs also need to prepare students for these changes. Now is the time to upskill for the disruption that is already taking place. By doing so, we can all make sure that the accounting profession continues to thrive in the future.
1 Klaus Scwhab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2017).
2 The Future of Jobs Report 2020. www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020
3 Sage Group, The Practice of Now 2020. www.sage.com/en-us/blog/practice-of-now
6 Lauren Weber, “Accenture Retrains Its Workers as Technology Upends Their Jobs,” The
Wall Street Journal (June 23, 2019). www.wsj.com/articles/accenture-retrains-its-workers-as-technology-upends-their-jobs-11561318022
7 www.ey.com/en_us/tech-mba/how-can-what-you-learn-transform-who-you-become; www.businessinsider.com/pwc-announces-3-billion-job-retraining-investment-as-competitive-edge-2019-9; www.insider.com/the-upskilling-challenge-how-firms-are-bypassing-the-talent-shortage
8 Ken Tysiac and Jeff Drew, “Accounting Firms: The Next Generation,” Journal
of Accountancy (June 1, 2018). www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2018/jun/next-generation-accounting-firms.html
11 Svetlana Sicular, Bern Elliot, Whit Andrews, Pieter den Hamer, “Artificial Intelligence Maturity Model,” Gartner Research (March 18, 2020).
Brian Trout, CPA, DBA, CMA, is an assistant professor of accounting and finance at Millersville University in Millersville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.