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Business of Tax: The Emergence of the High-Tech Accountant

Posted on Sep. 9, 2019

College students looking for a career in public accounting and wanting to stand out from the pack might consider taking classes on emerging technologies that could be helpful in their profession.

National accounting firms are placing an increasing premium on hiring new graduates with a strong understanding of new technology like automation or data analytics software, and in some cases even hiring non-accountants to fill those roles. That’s not necessarily the case for smaller firms.

An August American Institute of CPAs report on trends in the accounting profession found that the number of accounting program graduates hired by public accounting firms declined more than 30 percent between 2015 and 2018. Meanwhile, accounting firms are increasingly looking to hire non-accounting graduates with technology backgrounds to support the use of new tech tools, according to the report.

Several national accounting firm leaders who spoke with Tax Notes confirmed their growing interest in hiring both accounting and non-accounting graduates with technology backgrounds and highlighted the qualities they’re looking for in the next generation of accountants.

Steve Kimble, CEO of Deloitte Tax LLP, said he expects “significant technological advancement” affecting tax accounting practices over the next five years, so “there is a significant need for professionals with a hybrid of both tax accounting and STEM skills.”

“This is the future of our profession,” he added.

Kelli A. Knoble, national tax leader at Grant Thornton LLP, likewise said that the accounting profession is evolving, requiring “diversified teams.”

“What our clients are telling us they expect to see as it relates to innovative solutions and delivery, it does require us to rethink how we are hiring and building our team. So yes, we at Grant Thornton are hiring technology students,” Knoble said.

For smaller firms, however, the gold standard remains a highly competent accountant with an emphasis on strong communication skills.

“Technology background is nice, but what we really are looking for is people that have the potential to really advise clients with a personal touch for our lower-middle-market clientele,” said Glen Birnbaum of Heinold Banwart Ltd.

Donna H. Laubscher of Arizona-based accounting firm Henry+Horne said her firm is sticking with accounting program graduates for now, but that it is watching developments in the accounting profession and “trying to stay ahead of the curveballs coming our way.”

The Ideal (Big Firm) Accountant

One way for an aspiring accountant to stand out is to demonstrate their tech-savvy bona fides with their choice of coursework.

Accounting firms are always on the lookout for good candidates with an accounting degree, observed Jose C. Antunes, chief utilization officer at WithumSmith+Brown PC. “However,” he said, “when a résumé comes across my desk and they have an accounting major and technology as a minor (i.e., information technology), I am taking a serious look at it.”

More and more functions are becoming automated or are integrating artificial intelligence, so having a technology background is “much more attractive today,” Antunes said.

Knoble said that a résumé showing a background in data analytics or data visualization software would “definitely stick out” and that the combination of accounting and technology will be an in-demand skill set.

Still, the desirability of technology backgrounds doesn’t diminish the need for other skills, or interest in other types of educational backgrounds.

“I would say there are some universal skills, whether you’re an accounting student or a technology student, that will make you really successful in a public accounting, business advisory role,” Knoble said, listing curiosity, perseverance, and communication as the top three traits she looks for.

Kimble said that the way Deloitte Tax delivers its services is rapidly changing, so there’s an increasing need to merge new technology with the firm’s broader digital platform so that it can manage the growing workload and associated complexity.

In turn, Kimble said Deloitte Tax is interested in individuals who are not just technically competent in tax, but “are able to adapt and embrace new technologies and innovative methods quickly.”

Accounting graduates should have a strong grasp of emerging technologies and trends affecting the profession by the time they graduate, Kimble said. But they also must have the key interpersonal skills needed to establish strong relationships with clients so they can “guide future clients through the significantly changing environment we operate in today,” he said.

Hiring Outside the Fold

With large firms seeking to hire candidates with a diverse set of skills, the pool of potential hires is also looking increasingly diverse.

Kimble said that Deloitte Tax is still hiring roughly the same share of accounting graduates as it has in the past — about 80 to 85 percent of its hires overall — with the remainder being mostly law school graduates, economics majors, or those with a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics background. However, an increasing share of those accounting-degree new hires have double majors, minors, or significant coursework in technology areas, he said.

Knoble said that Grant Thornton tries to “keep all the possibilities open” when it comes to prospective hires’ backgrounds and that it is experimenting with different types of teams, like pairing a subject matter expert in state and local tax with a technology platform specialist in automation.

The goal is to create diversified teams that can learn from each other, Knoble said.

Knoble said that in recruiting graduates with tech backgrounds,  Grant Thornton emphasizes that technology hires won’t just be part of “backroom support functions,” but will be involved in the consulting and business advisory aspect of the firm, helping to solve real client problems.

“We find that that’s the attractive part to the technology students,” Knoble said.

The Local Firm Perspective

As national firms rush to incorporate the latest technology in their tax practices, local firms are mostly sticking to the basics.

A recent survey of 350 accounting firms with annual revenue of less than $20 million by CPA consultant Marc Rosenberg of Rosenberg Associates found that most small firms remain leery of the rush to adopt new technologies like blockchain, data analytics, or AI.

“The strong consensus of [managing partners] is that today for the next few years, the hype of the new technologies greatly exceeds the extent that typical local CPA firms have access to them,” Rosenberg wrote in a June 10 blog post.

Survey respondents were evenly split on whether the full impact of those technologies would be felt in local firms in the next two to five years versus the next five to 10 years, Rosenberg said. For now, managing partners cited a lack of sophistication among their client base that made those technologies inapplicable to them and added that they wanted to “avoid spending money ‘like drunken sailors,’” according to Rosenberg.

That doesn’t mean small firms are avoiding new technologies altogether. Birnbaum said his firm uses the data extraction software Idea by CaseWare International, although not in its tax department.

Birnbaum observed that the types of clients he works with don’t want to talk to half a dozen people on a conference call; they want a “quarterback” who can help them navigate a complicated issue and make key decisions quickly.

Birnbaum said his firm looks for people who can be valuable both to the client, particularly by offering effective tax planning advice outside the filing season, and to the firm, by being able to efficiently prepare returns during filing season.

“Both are valuable, but we really need people who can become adept at being very valuable to clients. We can’t lose sight of this larger goal in our aim to be super-efficient in tax preparation, for example,” Birnbaum said.

‘Raising the Digital IQ’

For Birnbaum, technology courses should be “part of the equation” for university accounting programs. For example, Bradley University has begun offering classes on data extraction software and is considering a data analysis concentration in its accounting program, he said.

But broadly, schools shouldn’t be expected to teach accounting students everything when it comes to technology, Birnbaum continued. “Some of the programs are very specific, and the training may not be super-useful if the programs used by the firm are different,” he said.

While accounting school programs wrestle with whether and how to adjust their curricula to incorporate more data analytics or other technology-oriented classes, some accounting firms aren’t waiting around.

“It’s a dual responsibility,” according to Kimble. He said that Deloitte Tax offers experiential learning as well as formal training focused on providing foundational knowledge of disruptive technologies and their impact on clients and the firm.

Continuous learning is a top priority, Kimble said.

Knoble said she’s seeing accounting firms in general increasingly expand their workforce training opportunities to keep pace with technology developments.

For example, Knoble said, Grant Thornton recently implemented a nine-month certified data analytics training program with the goal of “raising the digital IQ of our whole practice.” The program was voluntary, but it was “probably the most enthusiastically adopted program in our tax team,” she said.

That program was “nationally developed and locally delivered,” Knoble said, explaining that the national office issues virtual training content, and local tax teams meet to brainstorm and apply the content to their clients.

Last year Grant Thornton also trained all its tax professionals to use Microsoft’s data visualization software Power BI and required everyone to provide a client with a deliverable using that program.

That effort has drawn a positive response, according to Knoble. “Clients love it. I love it. We leverage it internally as well,” she said.

Follow Jonathan Curry (@jtcurry005) on Twitter for real-time updates.

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