What Do Employers Really Want?
Master these three skill sets to position yourself for greatness.
It’s not always easy to decipher the vague job descriptions that employers post, especially in a rapidly evolving profession and job market. So we talked to recruiters and academicians in the accounting field to learn what it is that employers are truly searching for among their newly minted accounting and finance pros. The overwhelming consensus is that grads need to hone three key areas as complements to their technical dexterity: Data literacy, critical thinking and communication.
Academia is taking note, with institutions such as Northern Illinois University (NIU) integrating data analysis, the ability to think on one’s feet, and verbal and written acumen into its curriculum.
Here’s a closer look.
Companies are collecting huge amounts of data, and one of their biggest needs is to hire people who understand how to use that data to the organization’s advantage.
“We’re hearing from employers that they want new graduates to be more data literate,” explains Dr. Ann Dzuranin, associate professor of accountancy at NIU. “That means new hires need to be able to understand the types of data out there and how they can access it, sort it and use it to identify and solve problems.”
NIU requires seniors in their accounting program to take Dzuranin’s data analytics class, in which they gain experience in and exposure to transactional data related to accounting tasks as well as Big Data. They also learn how to apply data analysis to financial, managerial, internal and external audit and tax tasks.
“Data analysis is becoming really significant in the workplace,” says Dr. Rebecca Shortridge, chair of NIU’s Department of Accountancy. “The amount of data that needs to be analyzed can be overwhelming to many organizations, so they need people who can take large amounts of data, figure out what question they need to answer, and then use the data to answer it.”
To practice that skill, NIU students capture publicly available municipal data and analyze trends in payroll and contracts, income inequality, traffic tickets, vendor transactions, and more. They also complete exercises designed to show how Big Data can be used to enhance decision-making, including using social media data to predict changes in sales.
In the field, those data literacy skills can be invaluable. “Auditors today need to know how to manipulate electronic data, how to put it into a usable format, and how to test it and draw conclusions,” says Sheri Taylor, audit director at Mueller & Co., LLP, an Elgin, Ill.-based CPA firm. “For those of us who have been in the field for many years, that expertise isn’t our forte, so having new grads who are skilled in that area is huge.”
Data analysis skills can provide value on several sides of a CPA firm business, says Mark Thomson, managing director at Ostrow Reisin Berk & Abrams, Ltd. (ORBA), a Chicago-based accounting, tax and financial services consulting firm. “As technology is advancing, our clients’ capabilities to gather data and provide it to us are becoming more sophisticated,” he explains. “On the audit side, we really value people who have an understanding of how to maneuver and manipulate data to find where problems or potential problems exist.”
And as CPA firms seek to advance themselves data analytics can be a value-added service in terms of helping clients set up, manage and better utilize their data, according to Thomson.
Visualization is key to data analysis, which is why experience in using data visualization software is so important. NIU students, for example, are trained in Tableau and other data-visualization platforms, which Dzuranin says are helpful for connecting data sources, finding trends and anomalies, and communicating findings.
The ability to bridge the gap between technical and business functions is another valuable skill. Understanding what data is available and being able to talk to a data programmer or quantitative person to explain what the company needs to find is crucial. And accountants are a natural fit for that role, says Dzuranin. “Data is an asset, and accountants oversee the assets, so they’re in a really good place to extract value from data.”
“New grads should be able to take the lessons they learned in school and apply them to the real world. We want them to be able to take information given to them by the client, interpret it and ask appropriate follow-up questions. Critical thinking is so important when you’re taking mass volumes of data and asking what it means,” says Thomson. “We want to see our people take initiative to attack the information and find meaning in it.”
Critical thinking is crucial in more traditional accounting and auditing functions as well. “So much of our audit work is based on testing information and identifying what’s real and what’s not,” Thomson explains. “You need to have a healthy sense of skepticism
when doing audits. You need to hear what the client says, but also ask whether what they’re saying makes sense and judge whether you need to dig further.”
“Critical thinking is such a major skill, and the first thing students often need to work on is slowing down and taking the time to really comprehend a problem or situation,” explains NIU’s Dr. Ellen Stuart. “We work through how to get the whole story, digest it and decide on a course of action,” she says.
The importance of critical thinking will continue to grow as the profession evolves into a business advisory role, Thomson adds. “We want to develop our younger professionals into business advisors and consultants much more quickly. There’s more of a need today to accelerate them into those roles rather than wait until they have 15 years of experience. We want people who can think critically about the work they’re doing and apply what they know and what they’ve learned to aid the business overall. That’s what helps us compete.”
Soft skills are what round out a truly qualified professional. “You can have a great analysis of data, but if you can’t communicate it to the boss or client then your efforts will be in vain,” says Dzuranin.
Thomson agrees. “You can be a great manipulator of data, but you have to be able to communicate your results to the client in a way that makes sense to each individual client,” he explains, noting that Millennials sometimes struggle with longer-form and faceto- face communications. These are skills that have suffered in the age of social media and digital technology, says Shortridge.
“Everything we hear is that technical skills are not enough,” she says. “You need to be able to talk to clients and managers. Some kids already have a strong base there, but a lot of kids coming out of high school simply don’t have those skills. They don’t know how to talk to each other outside of texting and tweeting.”
Undergrad accounting students at NIU take a stand-alone writing class that focuses on drafting emails, reports and memos. In addition to grammar exercises, students are given hypothetical scenarios in which they learn how to explain and respond to topics in the context of various audiences, explains Dr. Stuart, who teaches the writing class.
“The idea is to provide a sense of awareness of audience and tone, as well as appropriate business etiquette,” she says. “A lot of students don’t fully understand how much writing they’ll be doing in the workplace or the level of formality that will be expected in their communications.”
She also emphasizes the importance of outlining, which can help students better evaluate a topic, look for research to substantiate their thoughts, and create and organize logical arguments before they begin to write. The focus on communicating continues into the NIU graduate programs as students participate in workshops about both written and verbal communications.
Face-to-face communication skills are particularly important to today’s employers, even though the concept may seem archaic to younger generations entering the workforce. At ORBA, Thomson says the firm works to develop presentation skills in their newer hires by bringing them to client meetings whenever possible. Often, they’re given a narrow topic to present and are invited to stay for the whole meeting, which gives them an opportunity to participate in a successful presentation and ask questions afterwards about why information was presented in a certain way.
For Taylor, strong communication skills are critical to developing the professional demeanor that her firm wants to see in anyone it hires. “Understanding business and professional etiquette and knowing how to present yourself are things that are still needed and still very much in demand,” she explains.
Coupled with data analysis and critical thinking, strong communications give grads the triple punch they need to beat out the competition and rise to the top.