January 22, 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.
Hunter College CUNY
University of Missouri - St Louis
New Jersey City University
Tennessee State University
University of Michigan Dearborn
George Fox University
Michelle Liu Ph.D.: Yes, absolutely, especially given the uncertainty regarding the timeline of a vaccine. Our students need to be prepared to use technology, to work remotely, if possible, and to be efficient with their time.
Michelle Liu Ph.D.: You might be surprised to know that in the past few years, computer programming skills have become more and more important for accounting graduates. Students need to know Excel extremely well, and even better, it helps to know some type of computer programming language. Even though I first learned computer programming when getting my Ph.D. in accounting (from MIT), I now teach these same skills to my Hunter undergraduate students. Hunter is one of the first colleges in NYC, that I know of, to offer such a course. Yes, learning this is tough, but the students need these skills to stay competitive.
Michelle Liu Ph.D.: On a resume, technical skills, such as Excel and computer programming (with SAS, Stata, Python, etc.) are the most impressive. I've heard of cases where the interviewer asked the student on the spot to solve a problem or work with data using Excel and Stata. Smaller employers, especially, may not have the resources to train new employees to acquire these skills, so if students can learn this in school, it greatly improves their chance of landing a great job.
Department of Business Administration
Alex Yen Ph.D.: The interesting thing is that the pandemic has not had as much of an impact on the public accounting profession as you might think. Many of our 2020 accounting graduates had full-time positions lined up after doing internships in Summer 2019, and the CPA firms continued to honor those offers in 2020 despite the downturn in the economy. And recruiting for our 2021 graduates was similar to prior years, other than the interviews being conducted virtually. The CPA firms that normally recruit our graduates were back again this year, and I believe that the percentage of our soon-to-be 2021 graduates who have secured full-time employment for after graduation is similar to the percentages at this point of the school year in 2020 and 2019 (pre-pandemic). That's because overall, the work that CPA firms do hasn't been changed much by the pandemic; in Massachusetts and other states, accounting is considered an "essential" business, companies still need their financial statements audited by CPAs, companies still need help with their taxes and tax returns, and the pandemic has even created more work for CPAs, as CPAs are providing support to their clients who are applying for things like the Paycheck Protection Program.
That being said, there are some trends happening in the profession that were already going on pre-pandemic and will continue during and after the pandemic. First, due to a combination of automation and "offshoring" (where CPA firms in the US utilize their affiliates in places like India and Argentina to perform portions of audit and tax work), there is less "grunt work" to be done by entry-level employees today compared to 10 and 20 years ago. This has 2 implications: (1) there is talk of an eventual shift from a pyramid structure in CPA firms, with lots of entry-level employees (the fattest part of the pyramid), to a diamond structure, where there is less entry-level hiring, but more mid-career hiring (mid-career is the fattest part of the diamond) and (2) a greater expectation for entry-level employees to be able to do more advanced analytical tasks right away when they start their careers. Although we have heard about the diamond structure coming, we have not seen it happen yet based on our discussions with CPA firm recruiters and the fact that recruiting this year did not seem that different than prior years.
A second trend is an interest on the part of CPA firm recruiters to pursue graduates with non-accounting degrees for potential positions in public accounting firms. "Big Data" is becoming a bigger component of the audit and tax work that CPA firms do, so CPA firms are looking for students who have good quantitative, programming, and analytical skills. So they are looking at graduates who have developed these skills in other fields (finance, economics, information systems, computer science, and even chemistry), with the idea that the firms can teach the accounting side to someone who is otherwise comfortable with "big data." So even though this "trend" is about graduates in other fields, accounting graduates should realize that they are no longer competing against only other accounting students for these positions, and that they need to strengthen the big data and quantitative side of their skills portfolio.
Alex Yen Ph.D.: As mentioned above, the ability to work with "big data" is highly valued by CPA firms these days. So recruiters are looking (on resumes) for experience working with "big data" and experience with the tools to analyze data and communicate results, like Excel, Power BI, SAS, Python, and Tableau.
But public accounting is also a people business and CPA firms also value leadership, communication skills, leadership, and the ability to work in teams. Resume items like having a leadership position in a campus organization or having a customer-facing position in retail or food service will signal to recruiters that a student is developing these skills. But having the position is just the start. Once in a formal interview, recruiters will want to hear anecdotes and specifics from students about how they leveraged a leadership position into success for the organization or how students worked with others to overcome challenges in their organization or work.
Finally, and I am not sure how it can be communicated on a resume, CPA firm recruiters are looking for students who are eager to learn more and want to continue to expand their skill set. The idea that a student is fully formed and has learned everything s/he will ever need to know for their job while they were in college is a faulty assumption. Students cannot feel that now they have their degree that they can coast. The economy is constantly changing in terms of technology, new industries being created, globalization, and changing tax and regulatory laws, and accountants will need to keep up with these developments to be able to audit companies and to advise their clients. For example, in technology, the programs mentioned above that are in vogue today could be obsolete in 3 to 5 years, requiring accountants to learn new programs. The openness and ability to adapt and be a lifelong learner is critical for accountants entering the profession and recruiters are looking for graduates with that mindset.
Alex Yen Ph.D.: I don't think there is one geographic area in the United States that stands out as being above the others. But the opportunities for accountants tend to follow where the economy is doing the strongest. Where in the country are new (non-accounting) jobs being created? As companies and industries emerge and expand, there will be a need for accountants to keep track of it. For example, if you believe that the "new economy" is where new jobs will come from, then strong tech areas of the country should have relatively more opportunities. On top of that, geographic areas that have a diverse economic base (i.e., with companies involved in hi-tech, manufacturing, distribution, financial services, and health care, plus educational and governmental institutions) have an advantage, as they offer a wider range of opportunities for accountants and they are better able to withstand a downturn in a particular industry.
Stephen Moehrle Ph.D.: This will depend upon the profession. The closer a graduate's work is to technology, the better the prospects in general. Clearly, the workplace has been evolving towards technology, and this evolution was simply sped up by the pandemic. In our profession, the CPA profession, we are finding evidence that CPA firms will maintain their hiring levels. Corporations vary. In general, they are reporting intentions to reduce hiring significantly. However, as eluded to above-job prospects for graduates with data skills and/or technology skills will fare much better through the tough market currently in place.
Stephen Moehrle Ph.D.: I think the geographic hiring prospects are less important than the skills-based hiring prospects. The hiring prospects are especially strong in the growth areas (e.g., Texas) for the candidates with the data and tech-related skills.
Stephen Moehrle Ph.D.: The industrial revolution changed the nature of work in the post-Civil War era. The personal computer again spawned huge changes in the nature of the workplace. A technology revolution is now underway, and it will change the nature of work every bit as significant as certainly the personal computer did and even possibly as significantly as the industrial revolution did. Young people are so comfortable with technology. They should be implored to be proactive in honing these skills. If they combine their technology comfort with data skills, they will be especially sought after.
Ling Yang Ph.D.: Yes, we have seen the effects of the pandemic on career development and the job market for our graduates. We believe it will last for a few years, and we need to prepare our graduates for the new challenges. The graduates should work on different strategies to meet the needs of the "new normal" in the virtual environment.
Ling Yang Ph.D.: We still believe all big cities will be good places for accounting graduates. For example, New York City is still one of the best places to find an accounting job.
Ling Yang Ph.D.: With advancements in technology and ongoing changes in the accounting profession, both CPA and CMA exams have emphasized the importance of internal control, technology, and analytics. Thus, it is important for students to possess strong foundational knowledge in data analysis and compliance.
Dr. Steve Shanklin: In a word, yes. Some students will be affected positively, while others will be impacted negatively by the experience. In spring, when the pandemic was first delivering a sudden jolt to the educational delivery norms, both faculty and students were scrambling just to adjust.
By the fall semester, the better students had joined the new reality to try and complete their educational goals and get on to the professional workplace to start their careers. They had come to grips with the still unknown changes that were to come. They had regained their focus and accepted that additional hardships were to be expected and endured.
Another group entered the fall with the same victimization attitude with which they left in May. Their verbiage centers on "how unfair this all is"; "...you can't expect us to perform well under these conditions"; and "how are faculty preparing to make up for my missed internship?" Adjustment and acceptance still have not been seen as their task. The attitudes that students exhibit now will determine which way their careers will be impacted, positively, or negatively.
Potential employers are impacted in their planning as well. They are picking up very quickly on the resilience shown by many of our students and the innovative ways that those same students can bring a "battle-hardened" attitude and resolve to entry-level career opportunities.
Dr. Steve Shanklin: The pandemic has changed and is further changing the established "workplace" concept by questioning the idea of "place" in recruiting better students. The locale is becoming a smaller piece of the equation with deliverables and professional accountability emerging as the values that have moved up in expectations for new hires. While urban areas have borne the brunt of the medical impact to firms/businesses, population density, once a social lure for new grads, may now be negative toward recruiting many.
The good workplace now, beyond the virus, maybe the workspace that has evolved in a virtually planned and emerging way. The work will still be there. The future "good workplaces" will be those that enjoy high degrees of technological infrastructure, wherever it may be. The nature of the work and social interaction adaptations will be challenging but still professionally rewarding.
Dr. Steve Shanklin: The virtual workspace will be largely shaped by various layers of technology. Interaction technology will be the professional platform for performance moving forward. The technology that was so integral in undergraduate course skills, and the tools that were expected to be used in the workplace will be undergoing great pressure because they were designed on a different level that included a different expectation of collaboration.
The concept of "working in groups" will be a series of new dynamics in the virtual workspace. The technology used to collaborate effectively will be quick to evolve, and new hires will be expected to begin skill enhancement with new platforms and media at an increasing rate of proficiency.
The move of technology-based accounting will increase with more speed, and the thinning line between theory and practice, as a professional, will be one of greater expected mastery. New methodologies learned by necessity in the current environment will be the drivers of greater efficiencies in the future of the profession.
Sheri Geddes: Starting a career is like the beginning of a long journey. The journey will give you time to learn more about yourself, while making new and lasting relationships. I would encourage graduates to focus on two things. First, try to develop a heart of leadership centered on serving people. Second, always try to remain receptive to new ideas and information, by encouraging others to speak freely, by creating an environment in which all input is valued.
Sheri Geddes: Virtual interviews are nothing new. For years companies have used phone interviews to filter candidate pools. However, as hybrid or Zoom interviews become more common, candidates will need to show the same professional attributes as face-to-face interviews. These professional attributes include joining the meeting on time, dressing appropriately, actively listening, and being polite and understanding, even if there are technical issues during the interview process.
Sheri Geddes: The pandemic will force graduates to quickly fill a leadership pipeline that must be adaptable, resilient, and dedicated to lifelong learning. Lifelong learning is dependent upon several creative habits, one of which is intellectual curiosity. I believe that intellectual curiosity will be a primary driver of success for long-term professional trajectory in a post coronavirus pandemic society.
Claudia Kocher Ph.D.: Continue to hone your communication, networking, and problem-solving skills. Study how successful public firms are creating value and stay current on the news related to business and economics. Develop familiarity with certifications in your area of interest, and consider pursuing certifications that are a good fit with your career goals.
Claudia Kocher Ph.D.: Three tech areas new graduates should pay attention to are artificial intelligence, blockchain, and data analytics. Many employers offer/require ongoing training related to these and other technologies.
Claudia Kocher Ph.D.: The pandemic adds challenges to beginning a career in finance. Many finance majors and graduates will get a slower start than usual as internships are shortened or canceled, and some firms freeze hiring and lay off experienced workers. Graduates may end up taking jobs outside of their major fields to bring in regular income. However, finance is a high demand field, and the work can often be done remotely. For graduates who are flexible and persistent, I believe the long-term impact will be minimal.
Michele Flint: In general, I would suggest that graduates start anywhere they can, and proceed with an attitude of curiosity and motivation. There are so many opportunities and industries, all of which require accountants. While public accounting can provide a broad view of various sectors, any sector of interest to a graduate will need accountants. Be willing to roll up your sleeves, and be sure to respond to employer requests with "my pleasure" rather than "no problem."
Determination and problem-solving skills will help graduates succeed and provide growth opportunities. Accounting is a profession in which analytical skills and the ability to search for answers are critical. Be sure to study any company that you are considering for employment. Find out about their products, markets, work environment, and competitors. All of this information is available online.
One new thing that many students may not realize is that different industries use different accounting rules (industry GAAP), so while you would generally be taught broad-based GAAP in college, you should be aware that there are different sets of rules. If you take a position with an organization that employs industry-specific GAAP (and there are many), do some research online or connect with your research librarian to help you gather information on your particular industry. Some industry rules are considerably specific, so taking this step will help you feel more comfortable and demonstrate initiative.
Michele Flint: Because of the growth of big data, query software will be relevant to the profession. Whether a graduate is engaging in auditing or working in a corporate environment, the ability to locate and analyze data and transactions will be essential. Ability to use Excel will continue to be influential daily and current tax software for those preparing tax returns. Your ability to set parameters for transactions of interest and to be able to extract the related data will help much, regardless of the query software you use.
At the same time, technology is evolving so rapidly that what you study today, may not be as relevant tomorrow, as newer software and financial products emerge. The critical thing would be to keep reading about the most recent advancements and emerging technologies to have a conceptual understanding. Learn about industry-specific software (in a general sense), but understand that employers will expect to train you in industry-specific software.
Michele Flint: Luckily, because accounting relies heavily on standard rules and practices, students should be able to apply their knowledge in a broad range of organizations, regardless of COVID. Generally, there is a period of acclimation as new employees familiarize themselves with an organization's products, accounting processes, and reporting requirements, so that process will not likely change.
If you approach potential employers who are in specialized industries such as banking, healthcare, etc., you can take the initiative to locate and study special GAAP rules, and make a note of your preparation in your letter of introduction. This sort of action can distinguish you from others.
Those students who missed out on internship opportunities this spring or fall should be able to re-group and apply their skills without issues. Given that the COVID stay-at-home directive affected many students, there will be a wave of students without this experience, and few will have an advantage. The critical thing will be to start somewhere and commit to learning how to apply your skills to your particular company and area of responsibility. Companies may expect to provide additional, hands-on training for those who missed internships. Because companies must continue to report financial results, the demand in accounting should continue to be healthy.
George Fox University
Small Business Management
Josh Sauerwein: While public accounting is a beautiful place to start, keep your eyes open for emerging opportunities. Keep learning, especially in tech areas where accounting understanding can be of help.
Josh Sauerwein: This is a tough one as technology innovation is moving quickly, and it is highly dependent on the firm's size. Any technology that automates the functions of the audit or tax return will continue to evolve. Students would be well-served to understand the basics of coding languages, like Python, that could help their firms find efficiencies. Additionally, the continued adoption of cryptocurrencies will push public accountants to keep pace.
Josh Sauerwein: Absolutely. I think companies are learning that they can survive with fewer staff and, therefore, recent graduates will have a more difficult time finding employment. Additionally, traditional, in-person recruiting processes for public accounting (like Summer Leadership forums and Internships) have already been significantly changed, which affects students' ability to procure employment. Finally, since more and more of the work will be done remotely, graduates will need to adapt to new forms of communication, new ways of on-the-job learning, and must create workspaces that allow them to give concentrated and diligent effort.
Ryan Torkelson: They need to have a quiet confidence about them. They have earned their degree, so they are prepared for the work they have been hired to do. Most supervisors know that new employees will need guidance and support, but the best employees are the ones that grow and seek out new opportunities. The other thing I would tell new people is to be patient. Sometimes, to get help, it may take more time than they are used to. This is where time management becomes key.
Ryan Torkelson: Any data analysis software (Tableau, Power BI). I would also want students to have an idea of necessary coding (both web and software).
Ryan Torkelson: The COVID-19 pandemic will affect several things for people entering the workforce in 2020 and even in 2021. Accounting majors are critical thinkers and flexible with changing circumstances, so this will be tested immediately, once they enter the workforce. Their new employers will, most likely, have some or all of their employees/teams working remotely, limiting the spontaneous collaboration and learning growth that might take place in person. New employees will have to be ready to accept these challenges and learn to be patient. They will also have to be disciplined to get work done and hold themselves accountable, as there may not be supervisors there to monitor that real-time.
The other unknown thing is how this pandemic will affect hiring shortly. Most students have had their start dates pushed back. As organizations continue to cope with the epidemic, this may delay hiring until later. The students' earning potentials will be limited at the beginning, but when the economy is not in a recession, it will increase. This is not unlike the Great Recession in 2008.
Grace Huff: Public accounting is a great place to start your career. You will be exposed to a variety of companies, which will increase your business acumen and allow you to explore new opportunities, should you decide not to stay in public accounting.
Grace Huff: Blockchain technology is an efficient way to track transaction history. It will facilitate the audit process, allowing the auditors to focus on higher-level tasks, like planning and evaluating assets.
Grace Huff: There will be some difficulties for students while they are still in school. We are still figuring out how to provide internships for our students. Courses provide valuable on-the-job experience for accounting students. Accounting services will always be needed, and so I see no ongoing negative impact from the pandemic. Accountants have always been able to work remotely, as long as they were willing to invest in technology. It has always been essential to maintain security around client information that is transmitted electronically. If there is a negative impact, it may be to those firms that own their office buildings. They may find that they don't need as much space.
Earl Godfrey: I would give graduates the same advice that I always have: Be hungry for additional credentials. They help highlight your "distinctive competence," as Porter would say. Also, be hungry for foundational experience. Often, opportunity comes from success in positions that allow you to demonstrate that you have learned but are a quick learner. Also, never take a job if you are not well prepared to handle its responsibilities. You have to know as much about the duties of those you supervise as they do. If you are too ambitious, there is often a penalty, rather than a payday.
Earl Godfrey: Technology will bring much of the higher productivity the economy is currently seeking. Basic knowledge of coding for automation would be helpful. Many repetitious tasks will be eliminated by coding closer to the job or the need. We used to focus on progress based on large software applications. More recently, apps on devices have brought productivity gains. In the future, the ability to craft solutions in the house will become more common. That will be helped along by gains in knowledge associated with artificial intelligence, augmented reality, data mining, and in some cases, robotics. Technology will cause exponential growth in knowledge, solutions, and productivity gains.
Earl Godfrey: The coronavirus is changing our culture, our politics, our business processes, and our interpersonal relationships. Our greatest threat might be that we will end up with a society that has been penalized, educationally and socially, because of the inability to attend school at the K-12 levels, and even during early college years. Online education works very well and continues to improve even more, but it does little to teach people to get along with other people. Incidentally, people not being able to get along with other people is the biggest reason that more significant progress has not to be realized in the fight against the pandemic. People cannot seem to find a way to all follow the same advice, as they do in New Zealand, and leaders cannot seem to find a way to provide the same information. We lack a joint effort, so together, we are paying a reasonable price.