Change, disruption and uncertainty will remain buzzwords swirling through all walks of life in 2019. Yet for the accountancy and finance profession, these don’t have to be dark clouds.
While it’s easy to feel nervous of headlines suggesting armies or robots and algorithms are coming to steal our jobs and make us all useless, or that Brexit is going to bring the country to its knees, it’s worth taking an alternative view, that advancements in technology and sociopolitical disruption can in fact be catalysts for professional opportunity, for new, maybe even better ways of working – you just need to be prepared.
The fourth industrial revolution is upon us
According to recruitment agent Robert Half’s 2019 UK salary guide, 53% of CEOs are worried about the distinct lack of digital skills in the workforce that businesses require to adapt to the rapidly approaching fourth industrial revolution, characterised by digitisation, AI (artificial intelligence) and automation.
Finance departments and accounting professionals are being increasingly called upon to support business transformation, which can include implementing new company-wide software and systems, setting up, supporting and working alongside outsourced functions, and analysing and interpreting huge amounts of data to support business growth and strategy.
“From a business perspective, technology and a need for data continue to be driving factors behind growth, knowledge and a sense of certainty in a politically uncertain world,” says Paul Jarrett, MD at recruitment consultant Renaix. “Businesses are increasingly turning to finance to make sense of where they are and to provide assurance over the route the business is plotting.
“Scarcity of capital and a general shift towards risk aversion mean that accounting and finance professionals are being increasingly relied upon. The key shift in the industry in 2019 is likely to follow on from 2018 where skills transferable to other business areas or a general ability to bridge the gap between finance and operations are well thought of, and the demand for data analysis from those skilled at interrogating data and providing insight will continue to grow.”
Such a combination of skills and qualities is what is presently giving many CFOs and hiring managers headaches – professionals in this image are hard to come by, fuelling the long running war for talent in finance.
“Accounting and finance is becoming all-encompassing,” says Jarrett. “The trend to business partnering over recent years isn’t going to go away in 2019, and partnering between finance and operations is going to continue to increase. The times of finance being a standalone department are long gone, and while there will always be a requirement for people to fulfil specific roles with limited reach, these are the types of roles that are being automated or expanded.
“An increase in recruitment for multi-skilled business partners is likely, and in this instance the ability to convey technical messages effectively between departments and to build cross departmental relationships is going to be close to mandatory. In similarly high demand will be the ability to tell stories from numbers and to take a range of situations and interpret the end outcomes, all of which will be required with the current uncertainty swirling around.”
So if you can position yourself with such skills and qualities, ready for the fourth industrial revolution, you’ll not only help fills gaps in the workforce now, but you’ll be future proofing your career and working at the cutting edge of the profession.
Brexit: will it won’t it?
Whether you like it or not, Brexit is going to be a key factor in recruitment in 2019 – but as a finance professional, there’s no need to panic, says Jarrett. “Brexit will continue to dominate trends, particularly in relation to public sector hiring and sectors serving the public sector, but also private sector organisations by extension through the existence of uncertainty.
“While accounting and finance is not immune, and there will be plenty of examples of companies slowing down in terms of hiring while uncertainty exists, this should be no worse than it has been over the last couple of years where the market hasn’t ground to a halt. There will always be a need for finance people to guide businesses through the inevitably tumultuous times that will follow any decision on Brexit, regardless of which way this eventually ends.”
We want school leavers!
A trend that has the possibility to run in 2019 will be the demand for school leavers, once again linked to the general mood of uncertainty.
In an opinion piece for Onrec, Nick Kirk, the MD of Michael Page UK, said that this uncertainty is not only causing people to stay in their jobs, but it’s also putting some people off further education, particularly owing to the associated costs/debts.
“As such, we can expect companies to increase the space for school leavers in 2019. This should involve an acceleration of the efforts to recruit them, and providing the sure-fire promotional paths previously reserved for graduates. Historically, we have seen entry level programmes targeted solely at graduates, but as the next generation of workers emerges, we can expect to see initiatives targeted explicitly at school leavers who are keen to get on to the career ladder.”
Temporary, not risky
While not quite part of the gig economy, the trend for mixing temporary finance staff into long-term staffing strategies is only being fuelled by the need to plug skills gaps amid transformation and uncertainty, with Brexit doing nothing to slow the trend. According to Robert Half, 38% of CFOs expect to hire temporary or interim staff in2019, believing a mix of permanent and temporary staff is vital for finance department success. So if you believe you’d be comfortable working in a contract or interim capacity, or even prefer it to permanent positions, this avenue is open for exploration and is becoming far less risky than it once was in terms of career security.
Just be aware you’ll be your own boss, sales person, marketer and operations, and you’ll need to be very pro-active in making sure you’re abreast of essential trends and knowledge in your area of expertise.
2019’s in-demand skills laid bare
“The need for a qualification isn’t going to diminish,’ says Jarrett, “in fact for most people looking for a long term career in finance and accounting, this is becoming something of a pre-requisite. Employers look to it as a rite of passage, a sign that an individual not only has the basic abilities and understanding of the underlying accounting theory, but also that they have the commitment and drive to see the qualification through to its conclusion. The attainment of a qualification shouldn’t be a barrier to entry in the world of finance and accounting, but a commitment to reaching the standards required by the various awarding bodies will almost certainly be required.”
Beyond the technical, the softer transferrable skills are coming top of the list for CFOs, even usurping technical abilities as the deciding factor between candidates in 2019, believes Jarrett. “Candidates are going to be increasingly assessed on situational awareness, emotional intelligence and their ability to compare, contrast and evaluate situations, as well as their technical skills. These softer skills are becoming increasingly valuable and so is the art of communication.
Perfecting the art of communication
“Being able to communicate effectively with finance and non-finance teams and team members is growing in importance as finance are expected to broaden their horizons and provide insight into areas of businesses previously reserved for operations only. Operations are being increasingly challenged to understand their numbers in more detail and to understand the drivers of their numbers, and no-one is better placed than an effective finance function.”
And of course, skills related to technology and a willingness to embrace change are high on recruiters’ wish-lists. “As the advancement of off-shoring, outsourcing, automating and implanting robotics continues, the ability to retain oversight of affected processes becomes critical. Being able to assist in the implementation of all these things requires a challenging mindset, an ability to identify best practice is paramount and so is a willingness to participate in an organisation’s change agenda. It’s fair to say that change has been on the cards for many years, and those that embrace it are likely to be most useful both during and afterwards.”
Salaries and remuneration
Jarrett says that, in general, salaries are likely to grow marginally in 2019 and the general demands of a career in accounting and finance are unlikely to alter significantly, yet there may be a change in how we work.
“There is an expectation that at busy times around month and year end closes people in finance will put in the extra hours, but there’s a definite shift happening to make sure that working is more balanced outside of these busy times, following years of pushing the envelope on what finance professionals are expected to deliver year-round.
“Expect to see salary stagnation offset by an advancement in opportunities to experience more of a business, through changing roles or secondments, since these are seen to benefit both the individual and the business in equal measure, and when it comes to securing a future role, these skills and experiences will be worth more than the latest benefits fad will ever be.”
Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.