Understanding a new breed of accountants
Everything you once knew about graduates has changed – the skills they bring, the way they want to work and how best to retain them.
The accounting graduates of 2017 are not like they used to be. They know nothing other than a world of technology, and the way they work and live is defined by a completely different infrastructure than the generation before.
Navigating the world of graduate recruitment can be daunting for an accounting firm that is used to hiring a newbie with a solid academic record who is keen to work their way up the ladder.
In 2017, finding a graduate who has the right balance of technical, technological and soft skills, and providing them with a work environment that will make them want to stay requires a different approach.
A different beast
It’s no secret that technology has become a part of everyday life for the majority of Australians, and while Baby Boomers had to learn the ropes as adults, Millennials were born into this tech-saturated world.
“The biggest characteristic trait Millennials have is their skills within the technology space, which are far more advanced than what our graduates had, say, 10 years ago. Outside of sleeping, they are involved with technology practically 24/7,” says Nicole Gorton, director of recruitment firm Robert Half.
“Because they’re so practiced and they’re so interested and passionate, it has become a way of life, if you like, therefore that whole blended work/personal life is a characteristic trait of a Millennial who is graduating now,” Ms Gorton says.
She says Millennials possess high-level tech skills that they can bring to a firm in a number of ways.
“One of them would be that they’re very quick to learn the systems, so don’t underestimate their ability there, don’t underestimate how they can add value within that and improve that technology space.
“Once they’ve learnt the system, somebody who has been practiced and is used to technology can just think differently and they can think about how they can add efficiencies and how they can improve systems and procedures.”
Hays accountancy and finance senior regional director Susan Drew also weighed in, referring to Millennials as “digital natives” whose knowledge firms should be tapping into.
“As digital natives, they can bring strong digital and technology skills,” Ms Drew says.
“Firms can utilise this through a two-way mentorship where an experienced worker is paired with a younger, more technology proficient Millennial. This allows the latter to benefit from the wisdom of experience, while the former gains additional technology skills.”
Skills shake up
In recent years, universities across Australia have been modifying their accounting courses, adding subjects in soft skills and technology. Students today are graduating with a slightly different skill set than they used to, according to Luckmika Perera, director of teaching in the department of accounting at Deakin University.
“I think five or 10 years ago, the focus was more on having the technical skills and going out into the industry and being able to start off just being practical and technical,” Mr Perera says.
“Things have slightly changed and now graduates will come out needing to balance a little bit between more technical and non-technical skills or what we call soft skills, which are ever increasing.”
The increasing importance of soft skills comes as outsourcing and automation take over some of the compliance work accountants used to do, pushing them into more client-facing advisory work, Mr Perera says.
“Most of the back-end stuff, the technical stuff, while the graduates need to have that knowledge, most of these things are becoming automated or being shifted to offshore locations, particularly in the Australian context,” Mr Perera says.
“What we need to look at is not just the technical skills alone, but also to add that layer of soft skills, interpersonal skills, the emotional intelligence component.”
Pitcher Partners Sydney managing partner Rob Southwell has noticed a shift in the general knowledge of new graduates, many of whom are not afraid to speak their mind.
“They carry a little bit more world knowledge than a graduate of 15 years ago. They’re actually bringing new ideas to the table around the way that we work and things that we could be doing to help them as well,” Mr Southwell says.
“They’re definitely quite hungry for that learning and exposure. They’re looking for fulfilling experiences and they want it pretty quickly so they bring a high level of eagerness.”
Ms Drew agrees, saying that Millennials are not afraid of asking questions and voicing their opinions.
“Millennials question why things are done the way they are, particularly if there’s a better way to do them,” she says.
“If there’s a quicker, more efficient way of performing a certain task, Millennials are usually the ones coming up with the solution or at least posing questions that motivate us to improve the way it’s done.”
Ms Drew says Millennials are great team players and collaborators, which complements the way the accounting industry is moving.
“They also bring the skills of collaboration with this. They’re natural collaborators who join online learning groups and share content,” she says.
“Virtual as well as physical tools now allow workplaces to become more collaborative and create working cultures where expressing and sharing ideas are inherent to the way we work. In our rapidly changing world of work, this ability to collaborate to adapt is a huge advantage and one we should all embrace.”
What do Millennials want?
With a new set of skills and a new way of seeing the world, it can only be expected that the things Millennials want from their employer are also not what they used to be.
“Flexibility in the workplace is very important because life has changed. The nine-to-five concept is no longer there. In most cases, people tend to work at different time slots and not everybody fits to that nine-to-five routine,” Mr Perera says.
“If the company recognises that the optimal way of the graduate or the Millennial is to operate when they are most productive, that should be encouraged.”
Macquarie University associate professor Rahat Munir says flexible arrangements are an expectation now and no longer seen as a perk.
“The graduates now expect a work environment that’s more technologically driven and more flexible where they can work from anywhere. That’s what the expectation is now, but 10 years ago, or maybe earlier than that, that was not the expectation,” Mr Munir says.
He adds that recognition is more important to Millennial accountants than salaries.
“The current generation, I would say, expect that they are valued and recognised for their hard work and skills. Financials or money perhaps is not important here, but it is more of the skills they use and being recognised by the top management.”
Ms Drew seconds that opinion, saying communication about career advancement opportunities and timing are key to keeping both parties happy.
“Millennials want to ensure their current role will help them achieve their next step up. While some employers see this as self-centred, I view it as a sign of their motivation and a challenge to employers to ensure they promote clear and transparent career paths. So long as Millennials know what skills and results they need in order to earn their next promotion, their career ambitions will motivate high performance,” she says.
“Employers may feel there is a sense of urgency from Millennials about when these promotions will occur, but by offering clear and transparent career paths, staff will know that promotion is based on merit rather than a certain amount of time in a role.”
What does all this mean for an accounting practice wanting to hire a graduate accountant? It means a thorough recruitment process that goes beyond just looking at the applicants’ university qualifications is required.
“From a firm’s perspective, they need to obviously look at the technical skills, which is important. Without having the technical skills, you cannot go out there and present yourself and be confident in what you do. But in saying that, you have to look at the balance side of things,” Mr Perera says.
Some things worth looking at are extracurricular activities, involvement in societies, voluntary services or international experience.
“I’d look for a balanced CV, it’s not just the high achievers. I would actually be worried if the student had all high distinctions and no social activities or social life. That’s a red flag for me,” Mr Perera says.
“Obviously, when you’re picking somebody, it has to be a balanced person who’s able to manage the academics with the non-academic soft skill components.”
Meanwhile, Mr Munir believes the actual recruitment process also needs to be overhauled.
“The recruitment process should not be designed in a way like in the past where we used to have a test and then an interview and so on,” he says.
“Companies are moving away from these things to more psychometrics and more presentation-style group work which is then assessed.”
Retaining your talent
The recruitment process is only the first step. Accounting practices must ensure they have good retention strategies in place or risk losing their talented graduates to a competitor.
Mr Southwell suggests offering Millennials the opportunity to work with various teams within the firm, as well as secondments or stints overseas.
“Short-term secondments to in-industry or to working with clients for a period of time gives them some exposure outside of working in a chartered practice for their whole lives,” he says.
“Also, giving them the opportunity to go and work abroad and experience different cities, different cultures, different clients, different firms, it gives them a really good sense of where they fit in the world and how working with the firm compares.”
Ms Gorton adds that having a training program is a key part of retaining Millennial accountants.
“It can be a formal training program, it can be the opportunity for them to build relationships with a mentor, either locally on the ground or somebody in another office across the globe. The more that you can train and develop somebody, it will help retain them,” she says.
“Organisations should not underestimate training outside of the company. A lot of people are a little bit fearful of looking externally if they don’t have that training or that course or that mentor opportunity internally, but they shouldn’t be afraid of doing that because it also helps retain Millennials.”
However, Ms Gorton cautioned that retaining someone for their entire career is highly unlikely today.
“I think that job for life is not so prevalent these days, so don’t have an expectation around that,” she says.
“Have an expectation around how you can get the best out of each other in the time that your employees are there.”