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The importance of filling the skills gap in the accountancy sector

November 28, 2022

The skills gap between staff and partners has widened in recent years because of many factors, creating a significant challenge for firms.

According to data from Broadbean Technology, application numbers in the accountancy sector have reached concerningly low levels, showing a 33% decline in candidates between May 2022 and June 2022.

The skills gap has been an ongoing challenge for employers, with analysis from Hays Accounting and Finance showing an alarming 73% saying they have experienced some form of it in the past year, causing nearly a fifth (19%) to admit that their organisation does not have the talent needed to achieve the current business objectives.

With factors such as the ongoing repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, people changing careers and experienced professionals opting for early retirement, accountancy firms have a new priority, attracting and retaining talent amid a nationwide competition for skilled labour. “There is a huge skills gap in terms of experienced people in their mid-30s-40s with 15-20 years of experience,” says Gus Williams, CEO of Bevan Buckland.

Within smaller practices the skills gap is more apparent, and firms must face the threat of viability to their business. Charles Bradbrook, Partner at SRLV said that the partner and staff skills gap varies across the industry depending on how inclusive a practice is in terms of its culture and approach to client work. “The problem in our profession is that staff can get tagged too early in their careers,” he comments.

Digital transformation
Traditionally, the accounting industry has focused on technical skills such as financial recording, reporting, calculation, tax and auditing, but changing trends in the use of technology have become a force to be reckoned with. According to the recent PwC Workforce for the Future report, 59% of employees believe they are not being provided with the skills and training they need to be successful in their careers.

Although technical skills are still necessary, firms need to supplement this with data and digital learning, as the Mind the Skills Gap survey by CIMA demonstrates that 42% of employers still report deficits in digital skills such as e-commerce, coding, data analytics, cybersecurity, and cloud computing.

The pandemic also highlighted the need for digital literacy, as many companies did not have the capabilities to move into remote working. This also impacted new hires as traditional on-the-job training could not be undertaken, negatively impacting firms’ productivity.

However, since the pandemic, two thirds (67%) of SME decision makers say that they have accelerated the digital transformation of their business, and now nearly eight out of 10 (78%) believe that their current workforce has the right skills to support their organisation’s digital transformation journey and future growth. Encouragingly among those who do not think their workforce has the right skills, 44% are setting up skills development programmes for current employees, 43% are hiring new employees with the right skills and 33% will be using external providers to deliver new services, according to the report.

Bradbrook echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of ‘people power’ during subsequent lockdowns. “It was a challenging situation for all our teams during the Covid-19 pandemic, having to work remotely, but the firm has always had a nurturing, ‘family’ atmosphere, which really helped”, he says.

“I think it’s important that partners within our industry invest in their staff. Here, your training is not just some responsibility that certain people have – we all share responsibility for it – and this feeds through into our client work. At larger firms, you would know your team but not a lot of people beyond that,” he adds.

Managing the disconnect
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Jobs Report 2020 explored how automation, in tandem with the Covid-19 aftermath, was creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario with accounting and auditing being in the top four impacted areas.

As automation is now taking away much of the data entry and analysis that accountants have spent years perfecting, becoming more proficient at reporting on key findings, offering advice and guidance to clientele and interpreting financial information has never been more valuable.

The new cohort entering the profession are already adept with technology, and for firms to stay competitive and appealing in a crowded labour market, companies need to have streamlined processes and software in place to attract potential candidates. Being able to pair senior accountants with new junior members, and vice versa will also allow for an exchange of skills.

Positively, seven out of 10 (69%) SME employers say that Covid-19 has influenced their investment decisions around employee training and upskilling in the last six months. Using tools such as online resources and video content is one such way to rectify the digital skills gap. YouTube is the second-largest search engine after Google, and the channel ‘Accounting Stuff’ – aimed at small business owners, bookkeepers, and students – has amassed nearly half a million subscribers, demonstrating the popularity of the platform.

Ultimately, allowing staff to progress across the board will drive success, with Bradbrook saying that when staff are put into a specialism, they stagnate, as they are not able to expand their skillset.

“This is something we are still working towards in terms of our staff development”, he comments. “We’ve realised that it’s important for staff to do a variety of work so they can become more all-rounders.”

[Accountancy Age]

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