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 professionals must also have strong accountant-specific skills, including experience with accounting software and the ability to work in close collaboration with professionals outside of the accounts department. The right degree program introduces students to these technical and communication skills. 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.
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 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:
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 familiarity with these ethical standards helps job seekers stand out during the interview process and demonstrate their commitment to accepted accounting principles and methodologies.
An essential skill for an accountant is mastery of communication. Professional accountants collaborate with a variety of experts from different backgrounds, including business leaders, marketing specialists, information technology administrators and human resources 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.
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 including certified public accountants (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.
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 the staffing firm 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.
Regardless of the firm or clientele, every sector of every industry needs a skilled accountant. That accountant needs to be aware of the commercial trends and developments within their respective industry, which is why accountants often specialize. If an accountant proves they have expertise in the residential housing market, for example, their reputation can lead to increasing demand for their services, giving them the power to choose clients and price themselves accordingly.
Accountants must adhere to strict deadlines for reporting, filing and auditing financial reports. A key skill for accountants is the ability to schedule and manage several different projects at once. When an accountant has multiple clients, they need to stay on top of the workflow pipeline and be sure that nothing falls behind.
Excel and Other Programs
Firms all have their own preferred software systems and procedures, many of which are taught on the job. However, Microsoft Excel continues to be a universal tool that accountants should master. With a nearly endless array of formulas and options for organization, an Excel spreadsheet’s versatility makes it the staple software for optimal accounting performance.
Accounting Job Outlook
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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which projects 4% growth for the accountancy profession between 2019 and 2029, accounting jobs typically involve the following 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 accountant 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 as they relate to the outlook for accounting jobs before seeking 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 midcareer 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 BLS, accountants had a median salary of $73,560 in 2020, with the highest 10% earning upwards of $128,680 per year.
Another important stop on the accounting career path involves obtaining a certified public accountant 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 advisers 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 while finishing their degree.
Launch Your Accounting Career
Whether you’re an aspiring undergraduate student or a midcareer accounting professional, the online Master of Accountancy (MAcc) 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.