October 13, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
Eastern Illinois University
Rochester Institute of Technology
Fairleigh Dickinson University
University of Kansas
Penn State Wilkes-Barre and World Campus
University of Texas at El Paso
Florida International University
Winona State University
Eastern Illinois University
EIU School of Business
Dr. Nicholas Robinson: In a general sense, the skills that are most impactful on a resume are demonstrating success when faced with a problem. This can be difficult to convey on a resume, but if you can show problems or challenges that you face, how you overcame them, and the resolution of the problem, recruiters love that more than almost anything.
Showing the ability to overcome and solve problems illustrates your skills in a practical way that will be beneficial to the company you are applying to. Every business has challenges. If you can help solve them, you are invaluable. Demonstrating a history of problem-solving will certainly make you stand out amongst the applicant pool.
Dr. Nicholas Robinson: Thinking of the less than the obvious answer would be the ability to ask questions the right way. If something is unclear or you just cannot figure it out, ask a question. The key part to this is TRYING to figure it out first and understanding when you are wasting your own time not getting anywhere. People will respect that you tried before coming to them for help. Another aspect of asking questions is listening to the answer. Make sure the answer is clear, and you know where or what you are supposed to do from there. Carry a notebook or something like that to both write down the questions you have on your project and their answers. I always find it impressive when people take notes and pay attention to the answer because it happens far too often that people ask questions but never listen to the response.
Dr. Nicholas Robinson: Excel, excel, excel. It does not matter how much you know in Excel. There is always something more to learn, improve upon, or make more efficient. If you are coming straight out of school, you may have had a lot of exposure to Excel, but if you are not using it every day in a work-like setting, you can get slow and forget how things work. Know how to look up techniques and tools. You will spend much of your working life dealing with Excel spreadsheets, so be sure you are comfortable with them.
Dr. Nicholas Robinson: Management and sales. If you can rise above your peers as a manager, you will make more. If you can drive sales, you will make more. If you enter an accounting firm and have the ability to not just do the work but can efficiently manage a team to do the work, you will be promoted to that position. Similarly, if you can attract more clients to the firm, you will become far more valuable to the firm. Your ability to create new revenue will be rewarded.
Working for a business as an internal accountant likely would not present the opportunity to drive new business. Promotion and raises will be determined by your ability to lead a team.
Qian Song Ph.D.: The pandemic has accelerated the immersion of technology in our work and life. People work remotely, study remotely, shop online from grocery to furniture, tour the museums and consult a doctor virtually. Increased closures of brick and mortar stores and online business play a role in the surge of technology stocks. Thus, the pandemic has changed the way companies use technology to conduct business. Ultimately, accounting and other professionals are expected to be proficient in the use of technology in their work. The Big Four and other public accounting firms are increasing their investments in technology such as data analytics and robotic process automation. Entry-level accounting or structured, repetitive, and rule-based tasks are increasingly being automated. Such automation in business processes also occurs in other industries. It is only a matter of time before we see robots and machines (and they do not get COVID) taking over a large number of accounting and other jobs that can be automated. Advances in data analytics will speed up this process and change the nature of the accounting function. For example, instead of a traditional audit sampling, data analytics tools can be used to examine the entire dataset. The accounting firms are expected to hire more data science professionals rather than traditional accountants.
Accounting graduates will face challenges and also opportunities in today's advanced technological environment. Other than the basic accounting knowledge, accounting students can acquire data analytics and technological skills. Although accounting jobs are predicted to increase in the future, the increase is likely to be for the newly transformed accounting jobs that utilize technology
Qian Song Ph.D.: Certifications in data analytics and other technological skills are expected to have the biggest impact on future job prospects. Universities such as MIT, Cornell, Columbia and organizations such as IBM, Dell and Microsoft are offering certifications in data analytics and other technology. An increasing number of institutions are adding business analytics degrees or data analytics and other technology courses in their curricula.
Qian Song Ph.D.: Salaries vary according to the region, employers, and positions. Salaries seem to be relatively stable with a slight increase for inflation. However, salaries are higher for graduates with data analytics certifications or advanced data analytics skills.
Zev Fried Ph.D.: The good news is that there is still a high demand, if not an even greater demand for CPA's now. Individuals and companies are dealing with unpredictable business cycles and cash flows as well as constantly changing regulations. CPAs are needed to deal with all this and more. Of course, now that remote work is considered normal, it is likely here to stay in one form or another, deepening the pool of talent that employers can potentially dip into.
Zev Fried Ph.D.: For accountants, the same skills that were always needed such as proficiency with numbers, use of different types of computer software, and problem identification and solving are still needed. Emerging from the pandemic, there are also added skills such as the ability to work remotely and collaborate and share your work that will be important to employers.
Zev Fried Ph.D.: While starting salaries have not changed by that much in the accounting field, the big disparity comes with years of experience. As accountants gain valuable experience, compensation increases significantly. The rate of these changes has accelerated substantially in recent years. So while an accounting starting out now may not be making much more that they would have been a few years ago, after a few years they will be making much more.
Alee Phillips CPA: As you might know, accounting recruiting starts so early. Many students secure their entry-level job during the spring of their Junior year. That is when they are recruited for Senior year spring or summer internships that then lead to full time offers after the end of their Master in Accounting and CPA eligibility year. As far as I know, none of those offers were pulled during the pandemic. If we do have a decrease in accounting opportunities, I think it will not be seen for another year or so as companies adjust to hiring less interns during these challenging times.
Penn State Wilkes-Barre and World Campus
Department of Business Administration and Accounting
Lori Dunn CPA: The largest trend in the job market for accounting careers is remote working. Professionals have already seen this transition even for entry level positions. Many interviews and onboarding are occurring remotely as well as most accounting tasks in a position. We may see this continue to be the trend even after the pandemic levels off. As indicated in the Robert Half Accounting and Finance Salary Guide 2021, the top skills that are going to be expected of professionals in accounting as a result of the pandemic include: technology skills in cloud based systems as well as data analytics, soft skills including working independently, exhibiting creativity, strong writing and verbal communication skills as well as the ability to be a team player virtually. Although all of these skills have been necessary, the pandemic has brought them to the forefront when hiring accounting talent.
Lori Dunn CPA: The most well-known licenses in accounting are the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the Certified Management Accountant (CMA). Both of these licenses are still the licenses to get. However there are more specific licenses that can be attained in the accounting field dependent on where the accountant may specialize. For example a Certified Fraud Examiner, may be a license that an accountant in the forensic accounting field may want to earn. Whether the CPA, CMA, CFE or other license, attaining a license in a specialized field of accounting can only help talent to attain that position they are interested in.
As for course work, assuming a student has earned a bachelor's degree in accounting, the accountant should be sure to continue coursework in technology.
An understanding and use of cloud base technologies as well as data analytics software such as Tableau or Power BI are necessary skills that attractive talent must be experienced in. Recruiters also expect accounting talent to have experience in spreadsheet and accounting software.
A specialized master's degree is another way for talent to set themselves apart. There are specialty master's degrees in Finance, Taxation, Accounting and many other areas an accountant may want to focus on. If an accountant wants to attain a position in a specialty area, this advanced degree may help set them apart from other candidates.
Lori Dunn CPA: Salaries have increased steadily over the years in the accounting profession at all levels. They tend not to stagnate and usually show an increase of at least cost of living each year. The outlook for the coming year according to Robert Half Accounting and Finance Salary Guide 2021 is that accounting position salaries will remain stable even during the pandemic. This is good news for not only new but seasoned talent as well.
Dr. Andrew Griffith: With or without the pandemic, the most dominant trend in the accounting field is the need to continually upgrade one's skills and knowledge base. For several years, accounting has found ways to incorporate technology to automate routine tasks. The pandemic has been a catalyst to accelerate this evolution. This means that those who do not stay current will find their employment opportunities diminishing as their time in the workforce progresses. Those who can develop the skills and knowledge to be and remain at the front of their field's trends will have the most employment opportunities during their time in the workforce.
As I often tell my students, the days of simply having one degree and being done for life are long gone. Assuming the trends in educational attainment across the nation continue as they have since 1991, a bachelor's degree is no longer sufficient for those in the workforce. In every field, one will need at least one master's degree to remain viable in the workforce during the next 30 or more years. In fact, I've noticed a trend in the workforce where people have multiple master's degrees and some even have multiple research and professional doctorate degrees, albeit a much smaller percentage of the workforce than those that have not gone beyond the master's degree level.
Dr. Andrew Griffith: As a student (both undergraduate and graduate), the most important experience you can have while a student is collaborating with faculty on research projects that lead to co-authorship of academic research publications in legitimate, highly visible journals. For the past several years, higher education institutions have advocated for continual learning (AKA lifetime learning). I see this become more of a requirement than an elective as the workforce evolves over the next few decades. The institutions that will be truly successful in adding long-term value to their students' futures in the workforce are the ones that embrace research in high quality journals AND include their students on their projects. The collaboration of students with faculty on academic research that addresses real life problems or pushes the field forward is critical to those students' future success because it helps them understand the value of and how to use academic research. That experience also equips these students with the skills necessary to be able to identify early where their field of expertise is going throughout their careers. The engagement of students with current research projects at the undergraduate and graduate levels of higher education is a trend that is emerging in the business disciplines and it will become more obvious as the workforce evolves. In the long run, the lack of engaging students at all levels through serious academic research will certainly contribute to hastening the demise of financially insecure higher education institutions in the U.S.
Regarding certifications and licenses in the accounting field, I cannot emphasize enough that anyone entering the accounting field must make it a priority to obtain more than just the minimum licenses and credentials required to obtain or retain an employment opportunity. Meeting just the minimum expectations of their employment market is insufficient and will limit their employment opportunities. As Charles Windeknecht of Atlas Air Worldwide once said to some of my students, "Today is the day to get ready for the opportunities of tomorrow. If you don't, the opportunities of tomorrow will pass you by." His words are very accurate. To maximize one's employment opportunities while in the workforce, each of us need to exceed the minimum qualifications and expectations of every role we hold and pursue in the workforce. With that in mind, I highly recommend and encourage those in the accounting field to obtain the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) as a minimum qualification goal because this is the #1 credential sought by employers according to Robert Half International (see https://www.roberthalf.com/blog/salaries-and-skills/finance-and-accounting-certifications-employers-want-to-see). Based on the data presented by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, I conclude that approximately half of the people working in the accounting field hold an active CPA license. This statistic alone is suffient enough to justify the CPA as everyone's first license/credential goal in the accounting field. Once that goal has been satisfied, I recommend that each person quickly shift their focus to any major licenses and certifications that are more in line with their career goals and current career opportunities. For example, if a CPA wants to work primarily in income taxation, then that person should also obtain the Enrolled Agent (EA) credential because it adds tangible value to those in the tax field. I also recommend that CPAs and EAs in the tax field consider obtaining the US Tax Court Practitioner (USTCP) credential. Another example involves CPAs who want to work in internal audit; they should obtain the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and other related credentials offered by The Institute of Internal Auditors as quickly as they can. CPAs who want to work in the fraud examination field should consider the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. CPAs who want to seek management positions should consider the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and/or the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) from the Institute of Management Accountants.
I highly recommend that "minor" credentials in every field be avoided because they do not add value to one's career. Instead, those consume valuable resources including time and money. Everyone is much better off pursuing well established and widely recognized licenses and credentials that are highly desired by employers and serve to enhance one's career opportunities. With that in mind, the list compiled by Robert Half International is a great starting place. As a selling point to get people to spend their money, most organizations that offer a professional credential in the accounting field make a claim that their credential holders make more money than those without the promoted credential. Such statements are often very misleading or not true. Unless one works for a beauracy (like the federal government), obtaining the next degree or license or certification does not normally result in a salary increase. Instead, the major accounting licenses and credentials will create more career opportunities for their holders that, depending on how one performs with the new opportunities, could lead to other better compensated opportunities. In other words, an employee's performance has a larger role in influencing compensation over time than some of these organizations are willing to acknowlege in their quest to entice people to spend their money to obtain the promoted credentials.
Dr. Andrew Griffith: Because of the CPA experience requirements by some states (California is an example), I recommend that students consider spending some time as external auditors to meet any state-mandated experience requirements in external audit. If a student's target state's CPA license qualifications does not require experience in external audit, then I highly recommend that students first spend five years as an accountant or as an internal auditor in a sizeable corporation before entering external audit. In my opinion (which is contrary to the commonly promoted career path in the accounting field), the time spent in corporate accounting or internal audit will make them more effective at external audit when they enter it, in part, because they will be less gullible and better positioned to recognize problems within the accounting systems and the organizations they audit. If a student wants to work in tax, I highly recommend that they enter public accounting first because it will certainly expose them to numerous situations and learning experiences that they cannot get anywhere else.
David Folsom Ph.D.: Although hiring for new graduates has slowed some, accounting firms are still recruiting for new positions. The students who have placed good job positions demonstrated leadership, adaptability, and a clear vision of what they can offer the firms/companies that employ them. Being able to successfully use technology and adapt to new technology is a needed skill as the workplace for accountants has largely moved to home or remote work. I believe the pandemic accelerated a commitment in the accounting profession to increased flexibility for workers and increased reliance on emerging technologies.
David Folsom Ph.D.: I believe the CPA certification is still the "gold standard" for the accounting profession. Being a licensed CPA will give new accountants the most current and future career opportunities. I recommend new graduates have a clear plan on how they will achieve this certification post-graduation. Many large accounting firms will not seriously consider candidates without a clear path to becoming a CPA. Completing at least a section of the CPA test very quickly after graduation is evidence of this commitment.
The CMA certification is also very helpful in the job market, particularly for non-public accounting job prospects. Any accounting-based certifications (e.g., internal audit, forensic accounting, etc.) will help candidates distinguish themselves from their peers. However, a CPA license will provide the most opportunities as a standalone license. Having additional certifications beyond a CPA will only enhance a candidate's job prospects.
David Folsom Ph.D.: Jobs in public accounting are excellent for new graduates. All of these firms (international, national, or local firms) generally provide assistance and incentives for new hires to become CPAs. Many positions in these firms allow new hires to see numerous different business situations that are valuable in the future. Many "industry" companies covet accountants who have public accounting experience for managerial or even executive positions. New graduates taking such positions will be exposed to a variety of business models and generally quickly create valuable contacts across many different industries.
Jose Aldrich: -Rapid increase in quality of technology based solutions allowing for robust remote working and business interaction, will support working more from home where the business can adapt and has the technology solutions to support the new working environment. This trend will impact commercial real estate, primarily office space. Some companies may seek to reduce office space.
-Budgets for business travel, large meetings and in-person business meetings may decrease and budgets for remote technology may increase. Business travel industry may need to adapt to the reduced business travel as remote technology solutions continue to evolve.
-E-commerce is on the rise and will continue to increase as consumers become more comfortable with online purchasing (groceries, clothes and household items, etc). Shift from physical stores to virtual stores for a larger percentage of sales will lower cost of entry and give rise to new businesses to support the trend.
-Social norms have adapted to the new pandemic environment and may not fully return to pre-pandemic levels. Face masks, social distancing, handshaking, etc. may become the norm for some time and taper slowly with some habits continuing.
Jose Aldrich: -Strong relationship building skills. Trusted relationships with peers, bosses and clients/customers are key.
-Analytical abilities. A lot of the work will involve interpreting data and using business analytics.
-Effective decision making. Identifying business risks and courage to take calculated risks in business.
-Ability to speak up at meetings.
Jose Aldrich: -Wake-up and turn on your computer to review the tasks waiting for them that day.
-Detailed work assigned by their immediate boss.
-Listening and learning at meetings whether in person or remote.
-Asking a lot of questions
-Developing a network of colleagues you can rely on when some help is needed.
-Contributing to the success of a project by detail work or providing ideas and input.
Winona State University
Jodi Olson: We expect our graduates to be even more resilient to change and highly technology savvy, because of the necessary adaptations and remote workflow requirements students have had to overcome in achieving academic success and internship responsibilities during the pandemic. We see this as an enhancement to the skills they will bring to their employers, which already expect incoming graduates to be on the cutting edge of technological advancements, working toward a paperless environment, and keeping up with the many recent and continuing changes for the profession.
Jodi Olson: Graduates could see a range of possibilities from working entirely remotely to fully on-site with precautions in place, based on recent graduate and internship experiences we have seen during the pandemic. Except for a very few internships cut short or cancelled immediately at the onset of the pandemic as the profession adapted to unknowns and putting safety measures in place, we have not seen a significant change in the demand for interns or graduates. Some new graduates expect their first day on the jobs to be remote and feel ready to meet that challenge being familiar with the technology required to be productive and communicate virtually. It has become an assumption that precautions are in place, regardless of the remote or in-person setting. It seems that both graduates and employers are working hard together to achieve success, both with caution and the usual high professional standards.
Jodi Olson: Accountants serve many industries and sectors, so a broad range of technical skills is required to be ready to meet the needs of employers. Graduates must be technically competent in areas such as accounting information systems, tax preparation, auditing, managerial/cost accounting, financial reporting, and financial statement analysis. Also, graduates are expected to have general business acumen in areas such as management information systems, business law, operations, strategic management, and ethics. All these skills are important for graduates, but the pandemic has made the accounting systems and management information systems skills operative in allowing graduates to deliver their other areas of technical expertise.
Curtis Nicholls Ph.D.: In my opinion, we are likely to see a major shift to flexible work arrangements that are actually flexible. In the past, many firms have advertised flexible work arrangements that were only flexible to a point, with historic rigidity lurking under the surface. I think the pandemic has provided evidence that employee arrangements can be more flexible (e.g. remote, alternative schedules, etc.) with employees able to maintain a high level of productivity.
From the employee's perspective, this is welcome news. However, the shift to remote work and other pandemic trends have made the line between work/life blurrier. I've discussed with several former students the challenge remote work has created as flexible schedules often mean late-night meetings or critical emails at odd hours. The advent of technology, beginning with email and accelerating through Blackberrys to iPhones, already blurred those lines, but remote work has provided additional accelerant.
Curtis Nicholls Ph.D.: The obvious trends are going to become more pronounced: coding and technology-related skills. I think we are going to see an elevation in the coding expectations. In the future, I expect employers to begin providing coding assessments to potential candidates. This is a common feature of engineering and finance jobs, and I think we will see it with respect to claims about coding prowess.
Data skills will also continue to become more prevalent across all business disciplines. Employers are looking for experience with large data sets, data visualization software (e.g. Tableau, PowerBI, Alteryx, etc.) and statistical analysis. Data has become a major currency, and employees' ability to utilize data for decision making will be critical to success in the employment marketplace.
Beyond the obvious, I think the pandemic has also shifted focus to skills surrounding resilience and motivation. I've heard employers during the pandemic express surprise at the disparity of responses to the pandemic: some employees made the pivot to remote work seamlessly, others required significantly more support. Skills that demonstrate resilience, such as group work, honors programs, etc. will become more important.
I would encourage job seekers to highlight skills learned during the pandemic. I would anticipate a regular interview question inquiring about how the job seeker used their extra time during the pandemic. The most common answers will likely include lots of Queen's Gambit and Tiger King, but employers will look for answers surrounding the development of new skills or acquired certifications. Imagine the employer's thoughts when you suggest that you used the extra time to pursue a lifelong dream such as learning to play the piano or guitar. If you missed the early pandemic window of opportunity, take advantage now!
This line of questions may precede a dangerous trend for employers to look for indications of mental strength. I find this possibility disheartening as we could see employers screening employees with mental health challenges at a time when the solidarity of a job could provide much needed structure.
Curtis Nicholls Ph.D.: This is a tough question to predict. The pandemic has created more flexibility than ever, and we see workers exiting high price areas such as San Francisco and New York City. However, I'm uncertain how this will shake out in the post-pandemic world. There could be a demand for a return to occasional in person meetings, so employees may need to remain within reasonable proximity. However, employees could employ shared economy models such as Airbnb to meet the demand for temporary visits to the office.