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Young CPAs share the benefits of soft skills and knowledge of data analytics

It’s important to develop key skills that can distinguish you from your colleagues as you start your career.

For many CPAs, their passion for the accounting profession began at an early age. Whether that interest was sparked by an engaging teacher or a successful family member, or simply by recognizing that they had a penchant for data analysis and problem-solving, they discovered that the profession can provide ample career opportunities that can be tailored to their skills and interests.

However, passion can only carry new accountants so far. As they complete the 30 additional credit hours to meet the 150-credit hour requirement for CPA licensure, it’s important to develop key competencies and skills that can distinguish them from their colleagues as they start their career. Two of the most important are soft skills and knowledge of data analytics, which was reflected in a recent AICPA pollin which 99% of accounting firms cited these skills as a valuable skill/competency for new hires.

According to Kendra LaFleur, CPA, partner, Carr, Riggs & Ingram, new accountants need to know how to communicate clearly, effectively, and efficiently. “It’s a skill that’s taught, but it’s also something that you develop with experience,” she said.

As she worked toward her 150-credit hour requirement, LaFleur augmented her accounting degree with coursework in managerial science, which included a human resource management component. For LaFleur, it was an excellent learning opportunity on why soft skills are important.

“With human resource management, it allowed me to understand people,” she said. “Accounting is a service industry, so it helped me understand how people think, how they operate, what their motives are.”

Lauren King, an accounting student at Virginia Commonwealth University, echoed LaFleur, adding that “Accounting is a people job … You have to talk to people and work with a team.” To help improve her soft skills, she supplemented her accounting and math courses with courses in psychology.

Additionally, Liz Burkhalter, CPA, senior manager, Diversity and Inclusion, Young Member Initiatives, AICPA, contended that soft skills are vital in everyday communication with staff, upper management, and clients.

“The easier it is for you to communicate in a succinct manner, the better off you’re going to be,” she said, adding that new accountants with this skill will be more respected by their firm and colleagues.

For Aaron Clayton, CPA, CHFP, CGMA, partner/telecommunications & electric industry leader, Eide Bailly, there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with client interaction. He conveyed that accounting professionals must be prepared to deliver good and bad news and have the ability to communicate those messages empathetically.

“You want to maintain the best relationship with your clients, and to do that it requires you to interact with them in a way that they feel is best for them,” Clayton said.

Data analytics is another important skill firms look for in new accountants. Burkhalter noted that it’s a key technical skill accountants use on the job, whether resolving complicated tax issues, problem-solving during an audit, or when working with general ledger accounts.

“You’re going to need to hone your data analytics skills to be able to solve problems on your own so that you can show that you are bringing value to the team,” she added.

LaFleur expressed that data analytics is extremely valuable for public accountants when they review financial statements, while Clayton maintained it’s vital for auditors.

“We take a lot of financial data information from clients and analyze it,” he said. “We take that data, make assessments, set expectations, and make conclusions about the accuracy of that information.”

To that end, Matthew Kidd, CPA, partner, Blunden & Kidd Accounting & Consulting, P.C., noted that he sees the value in data analytics every day on the job. “I really wish I dove into data analytics and technology” while in college, he said.

Many colleges and universities now offer degrees in data science/analytics, so it can be advantageous for accounting students to take data analytics courses while working toward their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

To help make himself more appealing to firms, Noah Davis, CPA, tax manager, Rea, Shaw, Giffin & Stuart, LLP, decided to integrate data analytics classes into his coursework as he pursued his master’s in accountancy.

“We used some of the bigger tools that a lot of companies are using—Tableau, Alteryx—and I found when I first started my career it was very beneficial having some basic level of knowledge on the software,” he said. “Firms were teaching me complicated concepts, so it saved some time in that regard; it saved firms some money to not have to train as much.”

Skills firms viewed as valuable for new graduate hires, per the recent AICPA poll:

  • Soft skills (99%)
  • Data analysis, tools & techniques (99%)
  • Advance analytics (87%)
  • Advanced taxation (83%)
  • Technical research (83%)
  • Information security, confidentiality, and privacy (78%)
  • Information systems and data management (77%)
  • Advanced accounting (72%)
  • System and Organization Controls (SOC) engagements (55%)
  • Governmental accounting and auditing (52%)
  • Personal financial planning (48%)

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