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Preparing tomorrow's workforce: as companies struggle to develop adequate levels of accounting, finance and audit professionals from a shrinking talent pool, ensuring those in the pipeline are well-equipped to meet the challenges is a primary concern. A diversified group met to address these issues and offer solutions.

From increased globalization to growth in offshoring, new business trends have raised the bar for the repertoire of skills expected of both today's and tomorrow's accounting, finance and audit professionals. According to the Robert Half International Financial Leadership Council, which met in early 2007, the worlds of business and academia must forge effective partnerships to help new practitioners prepare for the future.

The council, comprised of 23 members (including 5 FEI members--see box on next page), represents a well-respected and diverse panel of industry influencers from the U.S. and Canada, and includes experts from private industry, public accounting, legislative bodies and academia. These individuals participated in the two-day summit with the objective of identifying key issues impacting the accounting, finance and audit professions, as well as potential solutions.

The group focused on four overall issues: the state of the accounting, finance and audit professions; recruitment and retention in the post-reform era; preparing tomorrow's workforce and adapting to today's global business environment. Notable was a call for rethinking traditional recruitment and retention strategies and improving collaboration between business and academia.

Following is a summary of some of the council's chief findings and recommendations for preparing tomorrow's workforce.

Closing Knowledge Gaps

To succeed in tomorrow's accounting, finance and audit environments, council members said practitioners need a wider range of skills than at any time in recent memory. Well-developed financial and technology abilities remain essential, but strong interpersonal and analytical skills are increasingly crucial for success. The emphasis on interpersonal, or "soft," skills has grown as the work of accounting, finance and audit professionals has become both more complex and more integral to business success.

Council members were united in their belief that universities cannot adequately prepare students on their own. Colleges can lay the groundwork for success by helping students build an array of technical and soft skills and, even more importantly, by nurturing in them the ability to learn how to learn. In addition, employers must continue to play a key role by providing additional training and mentoring opportunities to accelerate professional learning and growth. And, industry associations can help practitioners at all levels close knowledge gaps.


CHIEF FINDING: Enhancing Communication Skills

Strong communication skills were singled out as among the most essential interpersonal attributes for new entrants to accounting, finance and audit. Innovative universities have already begun addressing this need by adding a communications component to their curricula and grading students on their oral and written communication skills, in addition to their mastery of technical concepts.

New entrants to the workforce benefit by having experienced staff members work with them to improve their oral and written communications. Among suggestions for enhancing skills in this area:

* Encourage preplanning before writing. Before staff members send an important email or write up their findings on an issue, managers should ask staff members to consider what they are trying to accomplish or influence with their communication.

* Help young professionals match the medium to the message. Although many individuals favor electronic over phone or face-to-face communication, managers sometimes have to remind staff members that instant messaging (IM) or email are not always the best means for their message, especially if they need to convey sensitive information, such as informing their boss that an important initiative has hit a major roadblock.

* Review and coach staff on communication. Students and young professionals benefit greatly from review and revision of their communications, an idea that seems almost antiquated given today's lightning-fast business environment. However, shortcomings in communication abilities are not limited to younger people. Constant feedback about what's good communication--and what's bad--is extremely important, regardless of the generation.

* Provide forums for practicing skills. Young professionals benefit immensely when given opportunities for exposure that allow them to apply and sharpen their communication skills. But managers also need to be there to provide staff members with support--and a safety net, if needed.

CHIEF FINDING: Nurturing Critical Thinking

As financial professionals assume more strategic roles, they will need to become more analytical. They must be able to not only produce financial reports and perform complex calculations, but also identify and explain what is meaningful in their data or findings. Stated simply: they need to be able to answer the "why" behind the numbers.

Both business and academia have a role in helping tomorrow's accounting, finance and audit professionals develop the analytical skills and professional judgment necessary to apply next-generation practices such as principles-based accounting standards, fair-value measurements, enhanced business reporting and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).

At the university level, some educators are employing approaches that often include structured exercises through which students are guided to understand concepts and arrive at conclusions on their own, as opposed to instructor-centered teaching. To nurture critical thinking in the workplace, managers can apply what is referred to as "building blocks of critical thinking." These elements include:

* Encourage preemptive self-criticism of judgments and decisions. Teach young professionals to critically evaluate what they may have done wrong before giving their judgment or recommendation on an issue.

* Focus on development of both left- and right-brain skills. Tomorrow's workers need to be strong in both right- and left-brain modes of thinking so as to continually find ways to innovate and add value to professional skills and activities.

* Populate one's hypothesis fully. Instead of stopping at one or two theories about a situation and then trying to prove one of them to be true, a more analytical approach would be to consider multiple reasonable hypotheses and consider why each theory might be wrong.

* Ask for multiple solutions. Another way to reinforce critical thinking in the workplace is to ask staff members to offer more than one solution for a problem.

Experiences such as internal rotations that promote cross-training, as well as opportunities to work on cross-functional teams, can also be instrumental in expanding young professionals' perspectives and building their critical thinking abilities.

CHIEF FINDING: Value of Business-Academia Partnership

With public universities facing the intersecting challenges of decreased funding, full accounting enrollments and intensifying shortages of professors, panelists outlined the following ways in which business and academia could better collaborate to advance accounting education:

* Elicit more meaningful involvement from corporate leaders on university advisory committees. Financial executives should advocate for accountancy education funding and curriculum improvements.

* Advocate for needed competencies. Financial executives also should advocate for the competencies needed in the corporate world and press university leaders about how well curricula are meeting those needs.

* Increase cooperative opportunities for experiential learning. Professors said their programs would benefit from greater access to real-world projects and case studies that could help students apply the principles they're learning.

* Expand internship programs. The value of internships can be maximized by offering opportunities for longer-term internships or a series of rotational experiences that would provide exposure to multiple functional areas and accounting environments, helping students identify career goals at an earlier stage.

* Improve access to data for academic research. Professors said it used to be relatively easy to access data from the largest accounting firms, but liability and confidentially concerns have led to restrictions on data being obtained for academic study. Without access, however, academics cannot conduct leading-edge research.

* Increase funding for professorships, and to expand and innovate curricula. An increase in corporate funding for Ph.D. programs, particularly in accounting, would enable universities to fund more Ph.D. slots, improve curricula and meet course demand. Businesses also can help by advocating at the state level for more funding for higher education.

* Encourage qualified professionals to teach at the university level. To address the Ph.D. shortage in accounting, at least one Big Four firm is starting a program to encourage experienced employees to work as professionally qualified faculty while they continue their accounting careers. Business leaders can further aid accounting and finance programs by mentoring students, serving as faculty advisers for certain classes and assisting students in career development.

* Send appropriate representatives for campus recruiting and liaison activities. Professors need to engage in constructive dialogue with representatives from the corporate world about mutual needs, and this is most likely to occur when the campus representative has a first-hand understanding of his or her employer's accounting and finance resource requirements.

A Critical Collaboration

As companies struggle to develop adequate levels of accounting, finance and audit professionals from a shrinking talent pool, ensuring that new practitioners in the pipeline are well-equipped to meet today's business challenges is a primary concern.

A conclusion of the council is that the corporate and academic worlds must recognize what the stakes are and answer the call together. Working hand-in-hand, they can do much to improve accounting education and better prepare tomorrow's workforce.

PAUL MCDONALD is Executive Director of Robert Half Management Resources (, a division of Robert Half International, specializing in the placement of senior-level accounting and finance professionals on a project and interim basis. McDonald participated in the Financial Leadership Council Summit in early 2007. For more information, visit

RELATED ARTICLE: Communication: Are Standards Needed?

As communication methods and preferences evolve, panelists on the Robert Half International Financial Leadership Council questioned whether businesses might need to be more proactive in setting standards for various business communications and even for professionals at different career levels. Such a framework also could be useful to universities in developing communication programs.

Organizations need to think about what constitutes effective communication and what the expectations are for development of that competency throughout one's career. What do you expect from an entry-level person, a supervisor and so on? This will need refreshing, since it will change over time.

As technology continues to accelerate communication and, in many cases, make the transference of information more impersonal, panelists also discussed whether companies might need to focus more on reintroducing a human element into the communications process to help audiences connect with the messages they receive. There's no way to really get trust in organizations if you don't have personal contact. The more you do things through email, the harder it's going to be to have relationships.

Innovative firms are giving additional consideration to finding the best context for disseminating information internally. For example, although email might be used to distribute important information--such as a memo on strategic direction--a "communication cascade" might also be incorporated. This involves a senior-level leader calling a staff meeting to review a communication with employees, clarify points and answer questions--essentially, a means of interjecting a personal touch into electronic communications and ensuring that messages connect with recipients.

FEI Members on RHI Council

Merrill Ayers


Genesis Employee Benefits Inc.

Alister Cowan

EVP, Finance and CFO

BC Hydro

Colleen Cunningham

Regional Managing Director

Resources Global Professionals

Taylor Hawes

Controller/Finance Operations

Microsoft Corp.

David S. Johnson


Carter & Burgess Inc.


** The bar has been raised for skills for tomorrow's accounting, finance and audit professionals, as identified by a group of leaders from the U.S. and Canada.

** Universities cannot adequately prepare students on their own. They can lay the groundwork by helping students build an array of technical and soft skills and, more importantly, by nurturing in students the ability to learn how to learn.

** Strong communication skills were singled out as among the most essential interpersonal attributes for new entrants.

** Business and academia could better collaborate to advance accounting education by expanding internship programs, improving access to data for academic research and encouraging qualified professionals to teach at the university level.
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Author:McDonald, Paul
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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