It may be true, as Benjamin Franklin said, that “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
We might add the demand for accountants to that list.
Accounting is among the civilized world’s oldest skills. Some of the earliest written records we have found in the cradles of civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China are accounting forms — simple records of crops, payments, and tax levies. Double-entry bookkeeping — the foundation of modern accounting — dates back to the 1490s and the dawn of the Age of Discovery, with its ever-more-complicated array of trade networks and business arrangements.
The number of professional accountants in the U.S. rose more than 15 fold as a percentage of the total workforce in the 20th century, and the number of accountants is expected to grow 11 percent more by 2024 as the nation’s tax system and world business structures continue to grow in complexity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Training and Skills Employers Look for in an Accounting Graduate
The demand for accountants is strong, but to be successful in landing that first job, you will need to know what employers look for in a candidate for an accounting job:
- A college degree. You can enter the accounting profession with a two-year associate’s degree, a four-year bachelor’s degree, or a more advanced postgraduate degree. In fact, accountants with all three degree levels can sometimes be found working together in the same office.
- Broad coursework. Accountants need to understand much more about a business and its environment than just the books, so coursework in relevant non-accounting topics is partly what employers look for when they consider a new accounting graduate. Business management, public administration, finance, and economics are all solid areas of study that can help bolster any accountant’s career.
- Certification. Along with a basic college degree with a liberal amount of accounting coursework, many employers look for formal certifications of expertise in a particular specialty. According to the nationwide recruiting agency, Robert Half, the most sought-after certifications include the Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, the Certified Internal Auditor, the Certified Fraud Examiner, the Certified Information Systems Auditor, the Certified Management Accountant, and the Chartered Accountant designations.
Others include the Accredited Business Accountant, the Certified Valuation Analyst, and the even more specialized Certified Accounts Payable Professional. Each designation is offered by an independent association of like-minded professionals. The requirements for receiving a certification often vary by state, but none are easy to achieve. For example, obtaining a CPA certification in many states requires 150 semester hours of formal coursework, according to the American Institute of CPAs. Some certifications require you to be employed in the field, and most require you to pass lengthy exams.
- Knowledge of GAAP. Many business accounting practices involve estimation, and some procedures may result in wildly different conclusions, depending on the approach an accountant uses to produce them. To lessen uncertainty among those who need to rely on an accountant’s conclusions and to ensure accountants are adhering to high ethical standards, the industry has developed an extensive set of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — GAAP. Knowledge of those standards is high on the list of skills that employers check when they determine what to look for in an accountant.
- Training in accounting software and spreadsheets. The days of ink-stained ledgers and green eyeshades are long gone. Modern accountants must be up to speed or be able to quickly get up to speed on multiple forms of accounting software, ranging from the highly complex formats that large businesses use to the simpler forms of QuickBooks and other personal software that private clients might employ.
- Technological flexibility. Somewhat related to your adaptability to use various software systems is your ability to adapt to rapidly changing technology. An accountant who started in the business 40 years ago has progressed from paper-based systems and hand-held calculators to low-powered personal computers with giant floppy disks to lightning-fast, linked PC networks and cloud-based computing.
You don’t need to prove you have completed formal coursework in IT topics to get a job as an accountant, but you do need to demonstrate your ability to adapt to multiple networking systems and platforms. You also need to have some understanding of data security strategies and how they can be used to protect sensitive information, even in a highly linked age.
- Regulations and laws. The accounting trade is heavily regulated, so any candidate for employment must be thoroughly grounded in the laws and regulations that apply directly to accounting practices. Beyond that, accountants in particular specialties need to develop a thorough understanding of the laws that govern their clients and employers. Tax accountants, for example need to get grounded and stay grounded in the ever-changing federal, state, and local tax codes as well as in the legal decisions that shape the way the codes are interpreted.
- General business knowledge. Accounting numbers are not generated in a vacuum. Accountants must thoroughly understand the business contexts they work in, ranging from financing and how it is obtained to the need to manage cash, equipment, personnel, inventory, and other assets and expenses that can be keys to a business’s success or failure. This means understanding more than just the costs a business might face.
In the modern business world, an accountant is a key business advisor who must understand the relative value of the assets a client or employer holds and uses as well as their cost. A grounding in business management is very much among the skills employers look for when they hire a new accounting graduate.
- Specialization. Some accountants are generalists, but almost all specialize in one industry or in one aspect of the business world, so experience or concentrated coursework in a particular specialty may be at least partly what employers look for in any particular field.
For example, a large law firm that specializes in corporate law might prefer that you have a concentrated background in taxation or in forensic accounting — the art of reconstructing actual business practices that have been papered over by misleading books. Or a government agency might look for an accountant with a Certified Government Auditing Professional designation or an academic background in public finance.
- Communication skills. The information an accountant produces is of little value if no one can understand it or use it, so the ability to communicate information effectively is often what employers look for, whether they are hiring a chief financial officer or an accounts payable clerk.
If possible, it’s best to highlight any specific skills, such as the ability to break a complicated set of financial statements into a simple-to-understand PowerPoint presentation, along with any experience with positions that inherently require the ability to communicate. Examples might be holding a college political post, belonging to a speech-making club like Toastmasters, or even successfully holding a part-time sales job during your student years.
- Time management skills. All accountants are busy people, and you might be pulled in many directions at once if you are hired to fill a key role on a management team. Since an ability to manage many tasks at once is among the skills employers look for in an accounting candidate, you should highlight your abilities in that area.
For example, you may have worked a part-time job while you attended school as a full-time student. Think about how that required you to manage your time, and be ready to describe the tools you employed to do that. An ability to use spreadsheets, Gantt charts, and other task management tools is also a plus in the eyes of many employers.
Personality Traits Employers Look For
Skills and training can generally be documented, but personality also goes a long way as to whether or not an accountant is successful. That means certain less tangible personality traits are among what employers look for in accounting graduates, along with the technical training. Among them, you’ll find:
- Honesty and integrity. Accountants are key members of any team, and they are entrusted with highly sensitive information. Whether it’s the management team for a large business or a private client who seeks help with taxes or small business issues, an employer who hires an accountant must know that they are hiring a person with high moral and ethical standards who will not behave recklessly, misuse private information, or speak without thinking.
While it may be difficult for you to prove that you hold such high standards, you can certainly avoid proving that you don’t. Be particularly mindful of the content you post on social media outlets, as many employers will look there for evidence of the way you conduct yourself. Abusive posts, photos of you at wild parties, or bragging about dishonest dealings there may kill your chances at an accounting job, so be wary of what you put there and try to clean up what is there if you have gotten out of hand in the past.
- Collaboration and cooperation. We can’t repeat this too often — accountants are trusted members of any team, so you must be able to play well with others. Evidence that you have worked collaboratively on a job, a volunteer board, a project, or an athletic team are on many employers’ lists of what to look for in an accountant. If you have worked well with others in the past, you will likely do so again in your new position.
- Leadership. Accountants are frequently called upon to lead teams and to take the lead in presenting information in high-powered meetings, so you will need to show an employer that you can take charge of a room, pace a meeting, and communicate clearly. Don’t be overbearing, though — listening is as crucial to quality leadership as speaking.
- Creativity. This is not a trait that many people associate with the keepers of financial numbers and ledgers, but the ability to think outside the box, while still adhering to ethical principles, is among the key skills employers look for, particularly if they are looking for an accountant to join one of their top management teams. This does not mean you need to engage in “creative” bookkeeping, which may otherwise be known as “fraud.” It does mean you need the ability to see real-world scenarios in your financial numbers, and you must have the kind of personality that seeks to solve problems and puzzles, possibly in more than one way.
If you can produce evidence that you have exhibited those talents in a business setting, by all means, be ready to do so. If not, the ability to play a musical instrument or finding creative ways to entertain children or to settle spats among friends may all be evidence of the kind of creative mindset that is what employers look for in an accounting graduate.
- Attention to detail. Some people pay attention to details and care about accuracy — and others don’t. Accountants are paid to get the details right, so employers will want to know that you are the kind of person who cleans all of the grammatical errors and misspellings out of a cover letter and resume before you send it to a prospective employer. This is the best evidence you can provide to indicate you will pay similar attention to your prospective employer’s data. Those who pay no attention to details need not apply.
- A customer-service focus. Whether you are employed by a large organization or work directly with private clients, your focus as an accountant needs to be firmly fixed on the needs of the people who use your work, not on your own needs. While this is a trait that employers seek in many professions, from salespeople to executive board members, it is particularly important in accountants because, by definition, an accountant gathers, controls, and processes information that is crucial to other people and their ability to do their jobs effectively.
If you are the type of person who likes to hoard information or use it to control others, you can do great harm in an accounting role. Rather, an open and empathetic approach to dealing with co-workers — one in which you take an interest in how other people work and how you can help them — is very much among the traits that employers look for when they hire an accounting candidate.
A Noble Profession
As an accounting graduate, you are entering a profession that is key not just to an employer’s well-being, but ultimately to the proper functioning of modern civilization. Our ability to trade with each other, to invest wisely, to tax ourselves, and to run our governments all depend on our ability to know who has what and where it is, along with our ability to read financial information that is clear, complete and accurate.
We are all dependent on the integrity, honesty, creativity, and skill sets of the world’s accountants to ensure we can do all of that, with confidence, now and in the future. So the question of what to look for in an accountant is an important one for all of us to answer — whether we are in the profession or not.