What Are the Skills Needed to Be an Accountant?

The field of accounting is full of rewarding career paths for those with the right knowledge, skills and experience. Potential employers are constantly on the lookout for talented accounting professionals who understand the intricacies of financial reporting, auditing, tax law and data analysis. However, as more organizations integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning into their accounting processes, many professionals have started questioning what skills are needed to be an accountant in today’s digital-focused landscape.

The generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are still as relevant as ever, but aspiring accountants must also have some experience with accounting software and the ability to work in close collaboration with professionals outside of the accounts department. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in accounting, it’s important to understand how the role is changing and what skills you’ll need to stand out from the competition.

Surveying modern accounting jobs

The accounting world is currently in the midst of a major transformation, spurred on by automation and new data analysis technologies. According to a 2019 study from accounting software developer Sage Group, 90% of surveyed accountants across the world believe the field of accountancy is experiencing a cultural shift toward technological innovation. To remain adaptable, accounting professionals must seek out technical competencies and soft skills that align with the needs of potential employers. Of course, having a strong foundation in the fundamentals of accounting is still an essential qualification, as accountants’ primary roles and responsibilities remain relatively unchanged. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting jobs typically involve the following work duties:

  • Maintaining detailed financial records using GAAP principles
  • Preparing and reviewing financial statements, account books and ledgers
  • Examining financial statements for accuracy and compliance
  • Calculating taxes owed and completing tax documents on behalf of individuals and corporations
  • Assessing accounting and finance operations for efficiency
  • Recommending ways to reduce overhead costs, increase revenues and improve profit margins

Keep in mind, the accounting industry is packed with diverse roles that may call for different qualifications and technical skills. For example, if you’re working in corporate accounting your job may largely involve financial statement preparation to ensure regulatory compliance. In contrast, professionals who work in public accounting jobs may be more focused on auditing financial statements and offering consulting services. Aspiring accounting professionals should think carefully about their interests and career goals before seeking out a full-time position, as this insight can help guide their employment decisions.

How to become an accountant

Since accountants work in a variety of professional settings, it can be helpful to understand what a typical accounting career path looks like and where specializations come into play. Many accountants start out by earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from an accredited university, which offers a strong foundation in accounting principles and practices, though other undergraduate degrees are also applicable.

Earning a master’s degree in accountancy can help aspiring professionals elevate their knowledge of key accounting concepts and obtain a high level of mastery in specialized areas, such as taxation, international accounting, business analysis and data transformation. For mid-career professionals, earning a master’s degree can open up opportunities to take on higher-paying jobs and administrative roles that require significant work experience and technical expertise. According to the most recent data from the BLS, accounting roles have a median salary of $71,550, with the highest 10% earning upwards of $124,450 per year.

Another important stop on the accounting career path involves obtaining a certified public accountant (CPA) license, one of the most respected qualifications for professional accountants. Becoming a CPA opens the door to a wide range of employment opportunities, both in and outside the field of accounting, and allows individuals to start their own public accounting firms. CPAs work as accountants, auditors, financial advisors and tax consultants on behalf of individuals and large companies – this flexibility allows them to focus on tasks that align with their strengths and personal interests. Although it often takes years to build the qualifications needed to become a licensed accountant, dedicated professionals can earn their licenses quicker by studying for the CPA exam while working full time or start sitting for parts or all of the exam when finishing their degree.

Key skills for modern accountants

To remain relevant in the accounting world, aspiring students and established professionals must constantly hone their skills and expand their core competencies. This is particularly important in today’s digital-centric accounts departments, where using accounting software has become the norm rather than the exception. Alongside these technical qualifications, accountants must also possess the right soft skills to build productive relationships with peers and clients. According to the American Institute of CPAs, successful accountants have some combination of the following skills and competencies:

Ethical conduct

Accountants are bound by a strict code of conduct that emphasizes honesty and integrity. While there are several different ethical standards in the accounting world, potential employers may prioritize a certain set of best practices, such as the AICPA’s Code of Professional Conduct or the International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. Accountants at every level are expected to uphold high standards of objectivity, due diligence and confidentiality to protect their employers and clients. Gaining a familiarity with these ethical standards helps job seekers stand out during the interview process and demonstrate their commitment to accepted accounting principles and methodologies.

Communication skills

Professional accountants collaborate with a variety of experts from different backgrounds, including business leaders, marketing specialists, IT administrators and HR representatives. The ability to tailor financial reporting and accounting concepts to different audiences is crucial, as each department has its own priorities. Alongside possessing strong speaking and writing skills, accountants must also be able to actively listen to other professionals. This level of collaboration ensures key stakeholders are kept apprised of regulatory issues and financial considerations that may impact their decision-making.

Interpersonal competencies

As noted by Tom Hood, executive director and CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, the rapid adoption of accounting software and artificial intelligence has had a meaningful impact on the skill sets of accounting professionals. In today’s tech-driven business environment, empathy and relationship building have become essential to accounting jobs. Through open collaboration and trust-building, accountants and CPAs can form stronger relationships with clients and business leaders, leading to better financial outcomes in the long term. This skill is especially important for CPAs who own and operate their own accounting firms, as clients expect a certain level of engagement and customer service.

Problem solving

Above all else, accountants are financial problem solvers who are responsible for warding off regulatory and compliance issues, anticipating market trends and planning for future success. In the modern accounting world, this means leveraging data analytics and financial reporting tools to create accurate and easy-to-understand reports for different stakeholders. Creativity and strategic thinking play a leading role here, as automation “has a tendency to over-standardize matters,” according to Robert Half. Instead of relying on automation, professional accountants must use the tools at their disposal to formulate evidence-based decisions and financial strategies that align with their employers’ core business goals.

How an online MAcc can help launch your accounting career

Whether you’re an aspiring undergraduate student or a mid-career accounting professional, the online Master of Accountancy program at the University of Nevada, Reno can help you obtain the knowledge, skills and experience you need to expand your employment opportunities. This MAcc degree is designed to reinforce your understanding of the GAAP, taxation, auditing and business analysis to prepare you for a successful accounting career in a variety of settings. Students are also provided with hands-on instruction that touches on data transformation and SQL, ensuring they have some experience with accounting software and data analysis practices.

To learn more, explore the MAcc degree page or contact an enrollment advisor today.


Recommended Readings:

What Is Managerial Accounting?

Types of Accounting Jobs

Masters in Accounting Salary and Career Outlook



Sage Group, The Practice of Now 2019: An essential report for accountants

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors

The American Institute of CPAs, Professional Competencies

The International Federation of Accountants, The International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants

The International Federation of Accountants, What Top Skills Do Professional Accountants Need for the Future?

Robert Half, What You Need to Know About Accounting Automation