Industry spotlight on accounting
Automation has had a significant impact on the finance industry and is transforming the role of the modern accountant.

As technology such as cloud accounting platforms and artificial intelligence are automating many transactional functions, employers are now seeking candidates with the commercial acumen and analytical skills to drive greater business results.

Analysis from Accenture predicts that robotics will automate or eliminate up to 40% of transactional accounting work by 2020. However, experts say this is creating new opportunities for companies to invest in deeper strategic partnerships with their clients and accountants will play a key role.

The evolution of the accountant

Sonia Breeze, Head of People and Performance at Deloitte New Zealand says increased automation is allowing accountants to gain more skills. “People have an opportunity to grow into other or emerging areas where there is greater demand and value-add, such as data analytics, insights and advisory type work,” she says. “This tends to be very rewarding work that people enjoy and have a lot of scope for development in.”

As one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms, Deloitte in New Zealand employs around 1200 specialists across a wide range professional services, such as audit, tax, corporate finance, business recovery, forensics and accounting services. Breeze says as the industry has evolved, employers such as Deloitte now require a broader set of skills from their employees. Far from being a ‘bean counter’, Breeze says accountants are now expected to be strategic and analytical thinkers.

“We definitely look for advisory capability,” she explains. “People who are technically sound but are also good at relating to people, who are curious to further understand their client’s businesses and have the business acumen that enables them to provide insights and share trends between various sectors or industries. There is also an expectation of having greater technological capability, whether you are preparing accounts, undertaking an audit, investigating fraud, doing taxes etc. Technological capability includes things like better utilising systems and processes, mining data to look for anomalies, putting security/controls in place and writing macros to automate reporting.”

Megan Alexander, Managing Director of Robert Half New Zealand says accountants are also expected to have strong communications skills. “Soft skills are now paramount,” she explains. “You can’t just robotically process numbers anymore, you need to be able to analyse issues and that requires talking to people and educating them.”

Demand across the industry

The latest data from SEEK shows that job ads were up year-on-year across a number of roles within accounting in New Zealand. Forensic accounting roles rose by 100%, however this may have been coming off a low base. Alexander, says the analytical skills required for such roles are now highly prized among employers. “The days of data entry are long gone,” she says. “We’re seeing a strong demand for analytics work.”

Management roles were up by 19% year-on-year, financial accounting and reporting grew by 2% and payroll was up by 21%. David Lacire, Senior Manager – Finance Contract at Robert Walters in New Zealand, says demand for payroll talent is on the rise. “It is a hard role to recruit and there is a shortage of payroll candidates,” he says. “Clients are being very specific when it comes to recruiting payroll candidates because of systems experience and the kind of payroll knowledge they have, such as weekly, fortnightly, monthly payroll.”

Accounts payable roles slipped by 1% year-on-year and accounts receivable/credit control was down by 25%. Meanwhile, external audit roles were down by 32% year-on-year, however Lacire says there is still a solid requirement for these roles. “We are seeing a healthy demand for external audit roles as it is still the preferred route to becoming a Chartered Accountant and we are seeing more and more candidates deciding to become qualified through this industry route.”

Attracting the best talent

Breeze explains that workplace culture is critical to attracting top performers in the industry. “Most of our people say that our culture is one of the key reasons they work here,” she says. “We are known for having a high-performing culture that provides amazing development and exposure to really accessible leaders. At the same time, we have a collaborative environment where people are really proud of what we can do for clients. Our leaders have great vision for the firm, which they actively drive and their passion and innovation are infectious.”

Lacire says employers should promote a clear career path if they want to attract the best talent in accounting. “A good culture and flexibility around working hours is also important,” he says.

Salary is also a crucial factor in attracting the best accounting talent. “We are seeing more and more counter offers and candidates having multiple offers, which also means our clients need to have a quick and effective recruitment process to impress candidates,” adds Lacire.

As the accounting industry continues to evolve, companies will place a premium on candidates with strong analytical skills. The competition for talent may become even stronger, so now could be the time to polish up your recruitment strategy.