The revised CPA exam framework is based on a model that addresses the changing requirements and demands the profession faces. As shown in Exhibit 1, the Core + Discipline model reflects the fact that all CPAs must have a recognized proficiency in accounting, audit, and tax from both a topical and technology perspective. Technological capabilities will be part and parcel of all three components of the new exam. The new professional discipline is designed to address the reality that CPAs are using their skills and abilities in different areas of business. The revision of the CPA exam sections was the result of a detailed analysis performed by the AICPA and NASB that highlighted skills required of newly hired CPAs. The authors believe that these changes have set the stage for the education system to address these issues within the curriculum, so that students will be better prepared for the workplace.
The CPA exam changes are a giant step in the right direction, but the authors believe that the complexities of today’s business world requires many other issues to be addressed for students to succeed. Technology coupled with critical thinking, synthesis of data into information and communication, as well as with managerial skills, are key for students to become successful accounting professionals. The bar is fairly high for accountants becoming CPAs entering the profession: Business expect that new CPAs have greater expertise in business processes and the review and development of internal controls, in addition to being knowledgeable in matters concerning tax and accounting.
A Changing Landscape
Technological advancements over the last 20 years, coupled with the adoption of new technologies used within the accounting profession, necessitate that accounting graduates be more technologically savvy. The Fourth Industrial Revolution—characterized by the exponential increase in the amount of data—has fostered the development of several technologies that will have strategic implications for the accounting professional (Bernard Marr, “The 6 Biggest Technology Trends In Accounting and Finance,” Forbes, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/2994xhne). These technologies, for example, data analytics, robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), and block-chain, are expected to have implications for the accounting professional over the next 10 years (Jeff Drew and Ken Tysiac, “2020’s Vision: Tech Transformation on Tap,” Journal of Accountancy, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/3ae5drjh). The proliferation and availability of data have served to transform the profession from a transaction-based to an analytical-based framework.
The automation of transaction-based tasks will continue to result in a shifting of the workforce from performing traditional accounting functions, to performing analytical-based tasks. Professionals with technological skills will also be expected to have the expertise to communicate results. This evolution requires accounting graduates to acquire technological competencies and well-developed soft skills prior to entering the profession. Accounting graduates should have the ability to understand and apply new technological skills pertaining to data analytics, RPA, AI, and blockchain.
Simply said, businesses demand that college graduates be more business and technologically astute earlier in their career. Accounting graduates do not acquire these technological competencies in school, however, as the traditional accounting curriculum does not accommodate an in-depth understanding of these new technologies. Yet required competencies in these new technologies necessitate that the profession re-think the technological skill sets of new accounting hires. Consequently, educational institutions must transform the accounting curriculum to ensure they address this mandate from the profession.
Accordingly, the authors believe that, while the restructuring of the CPA exam and the proposed Model Curriculum provide opportunities to address the technological skills gap of graduates, a divide still exists between the technological requirements of the profession and the skills accounting graduates acquire academically. We suggest that educators narrow the technological skills gap by embracing an approach that embeds technology throughout the entire accounting curriculum, beginning with introductory courses.
Although it is true that technological developments have an important impact on the skills required for new accountants, the changing business landscape also demands proficiency in managerial, analytical, and critical thinking skills. Therefore, academia is tasked with the nurturing and development of these soft skills. Our research has indicated that new graduates are not as effective as they could be in the workplace. Interviewees pinpointed the need for enhanced problem-solving capabilities and improved capacity to work collaboratively with co-workers. Proficiency in written and oral communication was also highlighted, as these skills would facilitate meetings at all levels, provide a basis for more effective presentations and ultimately enhance productivity.
It should be noted that businesses want new CPAs to have superior soft skills much earlier in their career than has been historically the case. Skills that may have taken the previous generation half a career to hone are now expected to be demonstrated as they enter the workforce. Once again, the authors recommend that this increased focus on problem solving, communication, and more acute managerial skills be embedded throughout the entire curriculum, as development of these skills, and technological skills, will require repetition and gradual development.
Although the authors are encouraged by the coming changes to the CPA exam, we felt the need to conduct interviews with professionals in various industries (e.g., financial services, public accounting, advertising, consumer products, accounting services) to obtain their thoughts on the skills gaps they have experienced when hiring recent graduates. The professionals interviewed included controllers, chief financial officers, internal and external auditors, and risk managers across multiple industries within for-profit and not-for-profit entities.
To ensure that the sample included a variety of employers of accounting students, respondents were selected by background, expertise, and knowledge of accounting and business. Moreover, the selected interviewees were, by the nature of their roles, employers and recruiters of individuals that are active participants in all aspects of accounting, including auditing, financial reporting, and financial analysis, as well as developing, designing, and implementing process based internal controls.
Although the authors’ initial premise was that there were specific knowledge gaps in the technological training of college students, we took the opportunity to request greater insight into all competencies that respondents believed accounting candidates are lacking. The main premise was clearly validated, but an additional analysis also identified gaps in communication skills, critical thinking, team interaction, professional skepticism, and other necessary skills. The discussion below covers these knowledge gaps in greater detail.
Technological Skills Gaps
There appears to be an extensive divide between the technological requirements and expectations mandated by the profession and the skills graduates acquire academically. Nearly all of those interviewed acknowledged that the pace of technological change and its utilization in business and finance is increasing. This, in turn, is driving a need for a better understanding of technology across all industries and functional disciplines, especially in the accounting and auditing functions. Specifically, there is a significant and growing need in accounting and auditing practices to understand, manipulate and analyze data, interpret results, and draw conclusions. Interviewees noted that what was “nice to have” in data analytical skills only a few years ago is now required.
Although the consistent mention of data analytics and data extraction techniques was not surprising, there was also mention of graduates needing to have a stronger working knowledge of Microsoft Excel and other Microsoft Office applications. Especially noted is the need for “power users.” Several of the interviewees noted how Excel has embedded tools such as pivot tables, file data consolidation tools, and sorting techniques that are used as a matter of course during a workday.
Longer term, interviewees referenced the need for an awareness of new and emerging technologies such as AI, RPA, machine learning, and blockchain. They noted that it is critical for universities to start thinking about the implications of these new technologies, which are quickly becoming mainstream.
Communication Skills Gap
The importance of effective communication skills was unequivocable, especially as it pertains to data analysis included in written reports and articulating data updates, as well as presentations to a board or a management audience. Staff are expected to effectively describe the techniques used, explain how conclusions are reached and articulate insights into their decision-making processes. The extensive use of data visualization techniques that will allow users to synthesize and communicate their message seamlessly is expected. Although the ability to effectively communicate has been a mainstay for the profession, the use of vast amounts of critical data has created complex technological terms that must be articulated in a clear, concise, and comprehensive manner, especially when addressing audiences that are not as technologically adept.
Other Skills Gap
Many of the other necessary skills addressed by the interviewees were not directly related to Exhibit 2 technology. Interviewees did, however, note that technological advances tend to magnify the importance of skills such as analytic interpretation, critical thinking, team interaction, and professional skepticism.
Summary of Interviewees’ Responses
As decisions become more data-driven, interpretive skills become more essential. These skills, which align directly with communication skills, are necessary to make more informed judgements, arrive at conclusions, and develop persuasive recommendations based upon data.
There is an equal need for the users of data to be more probing and use their professional skepticism to challenge data and its results, which increasingly will be harder to “audit” or check for reasonableness.
Respondents noted that as data becomes more readily available, it will be essential to identify tests, extracts, and comparisons to be prepared. This data acumen will require more acute analytical and critical thinking skills and the development of controls to ensure reliability of data, as well as stricter enforcement of controls around the related data sets. Finally, there will be an even greater need for teamwork amongst accountants, auditors, and others to work with data specialists and owners.
The lack of technological proficiency and challenges in correlating disparate data points cited by interviewees highlights the importance of the consistent development of these skill sets from the very beginning of the accounting curriculum. These are skills that must be learned and honed throughout the education process. In addition, communication skills must also be nurtured, as there will be many instances wherein young professionals must address audiences that are not technologically knowledgeable. Presentations by confident, competent individuals instill a sense of reliability in the recommendations offered.
The responses of interviewees are summarized in Exhibit 2.
Although the restructuring of the CPA exam and development of a new model curriculum provide opportunities to address the technological skills gap of accounting graduates, a divide still exists between the technological competency, critical thinking, and soft skills required by the profession and the skills obtained by accounting graduates in today’s educational environment.
To narrow these gaps, educators must embrace an approach that embeds technology across the entire accounting curriculum, in addition to including more focused efforts on the development of critical thinking and communication skills. The authors believe that the accounting curriculum should include more project-based team assignments, wherein students utilize data sets that are manipulated and analyzed using software like Excel and Tableau. A graduated approach where this skill development is initiated in entry-level courses and enhanced in subsequent courses will cultivate students’ critical thinking prowess and professional skepticism skills, as well as their ability to work collaboratively. Business-based communications courses that offer students the opportunity to speak in front of their classmates while being recorded will enable students to become accustomed to public speaking. Such courses, in conjunction with presentation software like PowerPoint, will enable students to better navigate the presentation of findings and recommendations process, which will be required when they transition to the workplace. Lastly, internships are an important avenue of skills development for all accounting students.
The authors expect that our recommendations will inform educators of the necessity to accommodate technology and the soft skills identified above in the accounting curriculum. By addressing the needs identified by the interviewees, universities may be able to better prepare accounting graduates to successfully enter the profession and continue to develop the expertise demanded of today’s CPAs.