Training and Retaining Next-Gen Finance Staff

How increasing certification and continuing education will set your finance staff apart.

By Jeff Thomson, CMA, President and CEO, IMA(Institute of Management Accountants)

The accounting profession is growing. Between 2010 and 2020, experts project 16 percent growth in employment among accountants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, a recent Manpower study found that “Accounting & Finance Staff” is one of the Top 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill—but why?

Twenty-five years ago, the American Accounting Association’s (AAA) Bedford Report identified a “skill gap” between what colleges and universities teach accounting students and the evolving skills actually needed on the job. Despite this finding, little has changed since then. Talent management in accounting is still a key challenge for CFOs and controllers all around the world.

However, human capital is an organization’s primary competitive differentiator. Businesses no longer are able to rely solely on economic momentum to drive profits and shareholder return. Instead, valuemust be created through new and innovative solutions to harness and leverage the skills of people.

So how can organizations keep demand for highly qualified financial experts and ensure they’re attracting and developing top talent?

1. Develop Soft Skills

The role of the financial professional has evolved, and accountants need to keep pace in order to perform in their increasingly strategic roles. Honing soft (or “non-technical”) skills is essential to one’s development. Perfecting these skills will help one gain experience and serve as valuable stepping stones in preparation for higher-level jobs within an organization. Specifically, companies now require their finance staff not only to bring analytical skills to the table, but also influencing, communication and time-management skills, as well. These attributes are critical building blocks to becoming an effective leader and a credible business adviser.

While soft skills are vital on the job, they are rarely taught in college finance classrooms. This places the responsibility to develop well-rounded employees in the hands of the organization.

Next step: Clearly identify the softer skills needed from your staff and work with each individual to determine strengths and weaknesses. Delegate specific monthly tasks to help them improve or hold company sessions if you begin to notice one common skill is lacking. Encourage younger staff members to participate in more face-to-face communication and involve them in available networking sessions that will, out of necessity, strengthen their conversation skills. Just as we inherently challenge our staff on a technical level to increase their development, begin managing and measuring the personal development of your employees.

2. Encourage Certification

Certification not only makes employees more marketable, but also qualifies their command of the field. The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) credential, for example, is designed specifically to measure the accounting and financial management skills that drive business performance—a key solution to the increasing skills gap. It demonstrates a mastery of financial planning, analysis, control, and decision support, as well as professional ethics—tools needed to cater to the increasingly strategic role of finance professionals.

Recognizing that the development of knowledge, skills, and information systems are the cornerstone of a successful accounting professional, IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) and publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., recently partnered to assist busy professionals as they prepare for such rigorous certification exams. Their partnership will leverage innovative and non-traditional techniques to deliver exam preparation materials to CMA candidates, helping busy professionals study and prepare for the CMA exam with on-the-go mobile materials, to improve the profession as a whole. David Pugh, vice president and publisher at Wiley, believes this partnership “helps strengthen Wiley’s core mission of providing critical information and learning tools to one of its key audience: the accountant.” Wiley produces the tools accountants need throughout their career arc—starting at the university level to certification (e.g., test prep materials for the CMA, CIA, and CPA exams)—and provides them with the tools and resources they need to succeed throughout their career by strengthening their knowledge and skill set.

Next step: When attracting top talent, consider adding relevant certification as a requirement in order to sustain and qualify employees’ skills within the profession. If uncertified, integrate an education program within your organization that supports employees’ ability to obtain certifications.

3. Demand Continued Education

Certification is a pivotal step in ensuring employees are well-qualified for the job, but it is only through continued education they can stay apprised of current industry trends and remain qualified.

For example, new changes in accounting software and standards are happening every day. Right now, the United States is awaiting a decision from the Securities Exchange Committee (SEC) on whether to switch to global accounting standards—a change that would require new reporting processes. Most countries have adopted the standards, but the U.S. still uses its own set of rules, known as generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP.

In addition, accounting software—from XBRL to PowerPivot to Microsoft’s new Excel updates —constantly evolves its efficiency for finance professionals. However, many are unaware of the potential outside of their current programs and processes. As true throughout all industries, when companies stop investing in new ideas and continued education they—and their staff—can become stagnant.
Next step: Help ensure your staff stays dedicated to continuing its education—and hold yourself to the same standard. Enforce this by requiring a certain amount of hours each year to doing so (i.e., attending events, workshops, conferences, etc.) and ensure the company supports this initiative from both monetary and professional standpoints. It will not only help your staff’s professional development, but ultimately increase overall businesses performance.

Closing the Gap

Changing accounting regulations, increasing globalization of business, and advancements in technology have all contributed to this growing skills gap. According to a study by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and Mercer, “career development is the key factorthat attracts Generation Y financeprofessionals to an employer, so careerdevelopment must be at the heart ofan organization’s attraction proposition;organizations need to showcase thecareer paths available and be clearon how they can deliver on the careerpromise.”

Professional development—through increasing strategic training, certification, and continuing education—makes organizations more attractive to potential employees. In turn, it allows current employees to grow and nurture their personal career paths, while contributing largely to the success of the organization.

Jeff Thomson, CMA, is president and CEO of IMA(Institute of Management Accountants), the association of accountants and financial professionals in business.

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