The key skills employers must cultivate to be fit for the future

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How to evolve the skills and knowledge your business needs to be successful, according to the market.

AAT’s employer team works with employers across regions, industries and practices in the UK. They consult with hundreds of employers every year and continuously collect insight on market trends to help employers make informed and evidence-based decisions. Here we dive into what they’re hearing from the market.

Four headline themes

These are the key themes impacting accountancy and finance as a whole, which are affecting the skillset that finance professionals must have:

  • technology
  • communication
  • ethics
  • sustainability.

Technology

At the moment, you can’t get away from AI and automation in everyday life, from self-checkout scanners at supermarkets to chatbots on websites. Businesses are looking to harness technology and embrace new working methods to become more efficient, better serve their customers, and get an edge over their competition.

This is creating a need for accounting and finance professionals to adapt and embrace new technologies and ways of working – but that can only happen if they understand the technology.

Businesses appreciate that AI and Automation are evolving their skills needs, as it’s important for accounting and finance professions to be able to mix old with new. For example, proficiency in tools like Microsoft Excel is needed, as they closely align with data analytics and understanding data visualisation through tools such as Power BI.

And whilst AI is enabling businesses to collect more data than ever before, people are still required to scrutinise and verify it, which make having a questioning mindset and professional scepticism important.

There are lots of buzzwords floating around, but there’s not yet consensus on how to use technology or a clearly defined skills gap which can then be bridged.

But there are some key skills which we keep hearing about:

  • determination, drive and passion – in other words, behaviours
  • communication, critical thinking and adaptability – which AAT refers to as power skills
  • technology, AI and digital literacy – or technical skills.

Businesses need to be aware it’s not just the technical skills that are changing for accounting and finance professionals; it’s everything.

Communication

Another message being heard loud and clear is the importance of communication. It’s not just about being technically gifted and capable of crunching the numbers anymore.

Businesses, clients and stakeholders are looking for guidance. They are leaning on their accounting and finance professionals to provide sound advice and insight based on the data available to them. As a result, accountants are stepping up and influencing the decision-making process for businesses.

Professionals need to develop adaptive communication to have better and clearer conversations with non-financial colleagues and stakeholders. To do so, they should avoid business jargon.

Financial comprehension

At the same time, there’s the need for non-financial staff to gain a better understanding of basic finance terminology. According to AAT’s research, nearly half (45%) of finance workers have witnessed “serious errors” in their workplace due to misunderstandings around basic financial terminology.

Lack of confidence and understanding among non-finance employees really emphasises the importance of accounting professionals being able to support others. It also shows the value of continuing professional development. Indeed, there’s high demand for top-ups and short courses to help employees and businesses stay up-to-date and adapt to the changing landscape.

When it comes to those specifically in early-career roles, the market is telling us that individuals are less able to identify their own skills gaps. And when employees are aware of them, they are often too reserved to ask for support. We’ve seen a number of employers addressing this early on by investing in courses on professionalism, dealing with difficult conversations and preparing for the workplace, as well as adding more resources for pastoral care to help people speak up.

Ethics

As more companies are using AI and automation processes to improve efficiency, business needs to understand how to use the technology ethically, how to uphold high professional standards and what the impact is if businesses neglect to do so.

Early adopter organisations are feeding back that they’ve needed to set clear, defined boundaries and guidance to ensure technology is used with integrity. The common message seems to be that the physical workplace is a core environment for staff to learn by osmosis and develop high ethical standards. Flexible working has limited opportunities to learn from others, especially those in early career positions, as there are fewer people in the office to learn from.

Sustainability

Carbon footprints and sustainable practices are coming under heavy scrutiny, with legislation encouraging ESG (environmental social and governance) activities coming into force. The general expectation is that this responsibility lies with finance and accounting professionals.

That means accountants are taking on a huge role. Their activities range from evaluating the environmental impact of integrating new technology into a business, to analysing the carbon footprint of organisations in their supply chain, and carrying out ESG reporting. Professionals therefore need to understand the environmental impacts of various practices to support building responsible business.

Finance professionals also need to be able to communicate these risks, threats and opportunities to relevant stakeholders.

And when it comes to the societal side, we’re seeing more focus on employers investing in social mobility, equal and fair pay and sustainable initiatives, both to meet ESG goals and to attract the right talent to their organisation.

How are employers reacting to these changes?

We see further investment from employers in continuous learning for finance and accounting professionals, at all levels in their careers. The main driver behind this is changes in technology. While organisations are still using high-quality qualifications to deliver technical knowledge, they are also looking to keep their teams equipped to tackle real-world problems by filling skills gaps with bitesize learning.

Employers are also being more agile in their response to problems. Gen Z are typically viewed as digital natives, with a better ability to adapt to technological changes, allowing them to learn about these on the job. Employers are therefore prioritising support and bite-sized learning about technology amongst older generations.

They’re also investing in apprenticeships. That’s because apprenticeships provide more opportunity for employers to shape a well-rounded professional with technical knowledge, as well as competency and power skills.

Apprenticeships are helping employers broaden their pool of future talent, too. We’ve seen an increased focus in recent years on recruiting from different backgrounds to increase diversity of thought and experience.

Employers aren’t only looking to bring new talent into the business, though. They’re also increasingly looking for opportunities to upskill current staff members through professional qualifications and apprenticeships in order to raise their organisations’ competency benchmarks.

How apprenticeships are helping

Apprentices work and learn at the same time, developing their technical knowledge alongside their power skills to demonstrate their competence. Apprenticeships are designed in consultation with employers of all sizes and sectors across the profession to ensure the standards developed mirror the skills needed by employers. They are intended to fulfil the business needs of the future.

Apprenticeships address skills gaps, develop employer-benchmarked competence, support DEI goals and aid succession planning and retention.

Accounting apprenticeships cover broad areas:

  • knowledge – essentially the professional qualification (for example AAT)
  • skills – fundamental to business, such as communication, leadership, teamwork and collaboration
  • behaviours – ethics and integrity, professional judgement and scepticism, proactivity and embracing change.

Competency framework

As the role of accountants changes, focus on skills and competency is growing. Finance professionals are adapting to becoming digitally led, providing insight on data and understanding sustainable growth and ethics.

As such, AAT is putting together a competency framework, to define the required competencies and indicate training needs in the profession. We’re also championing the skills, knowledge and behaviours accountants show.

Our competency framework will provide a holistic approach to professionalism, capturing the essential knowledge, skills and behaviours professionals already have, and will need in future. It will enable accountants to self-assess their skills to plan their career, and support continuous learning in the key areas identified above. Finally, it will help employers understand the need for adaptable communication from finance professionals, and training for non-finance professionals.

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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