That the accounting profession is going through a crisis of available talent is not news, but the role of accountants inside and out of organizations is something that’s changing.
Leaders such as the CFO are stepping into the spotlight more and more frequently, changing the finance department’s methods and focus — and “when you think about the classic jokes, or personas of accountants, they don't really hold true anymore,” said Ben Richmond, U.S. country manager at global small business platform Xero.
“I think now the power of a CFO or the power of internal finance roles are greater than ever,” Richmond said. “They're not just stuck in the backroom crunching data, they're way more out in front.”
For finance leaders seeking to woo new accountants, therefore, the very first thing the profession needs to do is rebrand, he said, recontextualizing the field as an engaging space that reflects this new dynamic.
Getting a technology refresh
A 10-year veteran of the New Zealand-based company, Richmond has served as Xero’s country manager in the U.S. for four years. He previously served as VP, business growth Americas for Xero, among other roles, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Richmond, who worked in public practice accounting as well as commercial accounting before joining Xero, sees the modernization of the accounting field as a crucial topic that finance teams must address.
The number of U.S. accountants has decreased by 17% over the past two years with 300,000 such employees leaving their jobs during that time, according to a December 2022 report by The Wall Street Journal. The gaps left by those departing employees cannot be filled by the current number of college graduates with appropriate degrees in the field, with 84% of CFOs in the U.S. and the United Kingdom noting they had significant talent shortages within both their finance and accounting teams, according to recent research by tax automation company Avalara.
When it comes to closing that gap, providing the fresh, innovative tools and processes that newer, tech-savvy graduates expect can aid companies looking to lure in accounting candidates from a narrow talent pool. Relying on paper-heavy, historic processes essentially restricts a company’s available talent pool to those candidates who are willing to make the journey to the physical office, Richmond said, at a time when technology means there’s “no reason why we can't have remote teams,” he said.
Adding innovative technology not only helps offer candidates more flexibility, but it also can provide an essential look at the company’s thinking style, Richmond said.
“If I see an accounting firm that has a very clean office, that looks more paperless, that has a lot more modern technology, that as a client is who I want to go with because they look more forward thinking,” he said. “Talent is going to probably be assessing you in the same way.”
Firms today are taking steps to bring newer technologies like artificial intelligence into the profession and tools like the cloud have aided the field enormously. But it’s also important for firms to be genuine with their candidates about what their day-to-day work will really look like: the reality is that a lot of the firms that are looking for talent “will put their people behind a desk, looking at a spreadsheet,” Richmond said.
Offering a work-life balance
Though technology is a critical piece of the way the accounting profession can rebrand, it’s also important for companies to look at their own internal processes and culture before tweaking their external brand perception among candidates.
Before coming out with a shiny new external brand, companies need to consider if they’re operating like a firm that would be attractive to candidates, he said.
Offering future accountants the option to work from home or benefits such as family leave, for example, can be key to nabbing candidates who are expecting that kind of flexibility and work-life balance, Richmond said.
Talking to one’s younger staff is essential to making those key shifts for businesses — this new generation of upcoming employees is “wired differently” when it comes to what they want and expect out of their workplace.
“It’s important for them [that] they understand how their work actually connects into the bigger purpose,” Richmond said of younger generations’ approach to work. “And they want to balance that with not missing time [with] family or having to sacrifice life to do that. That’s not something we should get grumpy about, that’s something we should embrace.”
Meeting this new generation of employees where they are is why smaller and mid-sized firms could have a greater opportunity than before to snap up talent; younger workers are less excited by the name on the company door than they are by the chance to do meaningful and engaging work. That makes it critical for CFOs who are seeking out accounting talent to “lead culture from the front,” Richmond said.
“If you're locked in your office, on the top floor, not accessible, then that's going to show through pretty obviously,” Richmond said.