Every year, business-savvy graduates who excel at mathematics, critical thinking and analysis, join the workforce in droves. So why is our country facing a shortage of accountants?
The answer is simple: Younger workers today want an entrepreneurial career path. They want to abandon outdated technologies and fully embrace new digital tools, stretch the limits of their abilities, and collaborate freely with others who are doing the same.
Some analysts are saying it’s time to rebrand the accounting profession to make it seem more exciting, but we need to go further. We need to remake the profession altogether. Accounting firms and industry associations have access to the tools they need to join in this necessary rebuild—they just need to start using them.
The accounting profession offers young professionals the chance to gradually build equity in a large, respected organization like one of the Big Four accounting firms, eventually reaching the top of the pyramid. But unfortunately, that’s not the career path workers want today.
In today’s on-demand economy, workers want to construct their own pyramid. They want to build equity quickly, and not necessarily in an old-school, brick-and-mortar organization. Facing a corporate landscape that has been disrupted by software entrepreneurs, they want to use the latest technologies to automate repetitive tasks and focus on areas that require real expertise. They want to perform at the top of their abilities and have the flexibility to work on their own terms.
This kind of free thinking most likely would have prompted an accountant to leave the industry altogether in the past. Accounting hasn’t been the path for those who want to build their own brand, exhibit creative thinking, or seek out exciting new opportunities.
But this is changing. Many of the principles that have driven growth at the Big Four accounting firms over the last century have been kept siloed in paper-based systems, but these are now moving online, where they can be accessed by any professional entering the profession. Workflow tools that used to belong to the “top of the pyramid” are being improved as access to them is being democratized, which sets the stage for a new, entrepreneurial form of accounting.
Right Tools, Right Thinking
Once a notorious technology laggard, accounting is being disrupted by software-as-a-service products that put sophisticated billing, invoicing, contracting, and client relations tools in the hands of every accountant—whether or not they’re on the partner track at a Big Four firm.
These tools automate many repetitive tasks, freeing up accountants to serve as financial consultants and thought partners to their clients. If a job prospect learns that an accounting firm still relies on Excel spreadsheets and programs like Notepad, this says to them that the social, integrated, dynamic experience that they’re craving can’t be found here.
Every firm, as well as prominent industry groups like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and American Accounting Association, need to learn how to attract digital natives. These organizations should become the most vocal proponents of new SaaS products that are shaking up the industry. They should be bragging that accounting now has tools that can do for accountants what Atlassian and other companies have done for software developers: giving them the freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial by taking entry-level work off their plates.
Because younger workers are reconsidering the idea of the “partner track,” the industry should roll out the kinds of digital tools that enable any accountant to begin building their own accounting consultancy. This streak of independent thinking and entrepreneurship among younger workers is taking hold whether the industry approves of it or not. Accounting associations and accounting firms would be wise not just to accept this, but to encourage it.
It will become harder over time for any firm to convince younger workers that plodding along the partner track for years—even decades—is the way to reach the pinnacle of the industry. Connected social technologies are allowing any professional to build equity in their own brand, and collaboration tools help them join forces with the brightest and the best, wherever they are. This kind of functionality is a must-have for digital natives, so that’s what it should become for the industry.
Accounting has never been viewed as entrepreneurial, but going forward, it must be. This is the only way to attract the new crop of talented accountants, who increasingly demand independence, flexibility, and the ability to work on their own terms. A SaaS-enabled market network is making this possible, and the network is growing.
The accountant shortage doesn’t have to reach a critical level, because the country has no shortage of business- and tech-savvy graduates with top-flight math skills. The industry just needs to meet these young professionals halfway—to continue the transformation that is making the profession more entrepreneurial, more of an adventure, and more fun.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Anees Pretorius is the CEO and co-founder at Bean, a SaaS-managed marketplace for specialized accounting services. He previously led audit teams at Deloitte.
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