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Careers of the Future: Accounting Helps Students Get Beyond the Numbers

Karen Osterheld

Millennials: Interested in an accounting career? In this sixth installment of our seven-week Careers of the Future series, Karen Osterheld, senior lecturer of Accountancy, explores the both the challenges and opportunities that await graduates with the critical thinking, analytical and communication skills needed to meet the rapidly growing demand for accounting professionals. 

When you’re talking about the jobs of the future, I believe you have to seriously look at accounting, because it is a wide-open field that represents huge opportunities. From the students’ point of view, it’s a great profession to enter, because it offers lots of room for career growth and advancement.

That said, many employers are finding that the college graduates they’re hiring lack three important things in terms of career preparedness: critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly.

In the past, entry-level employees spent a good amount of time comparing numbers, to make certain that financial statements were correct. But much of this work is now being outsourced or automated, and, as a result, our accounting graduates are starting their careers at a higher — and more responsible — level, because the mechanical tasks are being done elsewhere.

The other big change, which puts a preparedness premium on us at the university level, is that young accountants are now constantly being asked to work on teams with a host of varied personalities. This requires a whole new set of skills, and we are adapting our teaching methods to accommodate the new requirements.

If I were to boil it all down, though, the most important preparedness skill that future employers want from Accounting majors is a comfort level and facility with out-of-the-box thinking.

Employers expect that our students will have the book knowledge; but now, in addition to the basic number skills, young accounting students need to be trained to make complex decisions — it’s not mundane or straightforward anymore.

Millennial accounting students are shaping the terms and conditions of their employment, too.

Increasingly, they’re demanding that employers find a way to allow and encourage work-life balance. Law firms can continue working associates nearly 24/7, because there is more supply than demand. But that’s not true in the accounting profession, where there is a real need for young talent. Many of the large accounting firms are trying to figure out how to deliver this crucial work-life blend. One area that will be interesting to watch is working from home and flexible hours during non-peak periods throughout the year.

Millennials who are going into accounting are also making their voices heard. They want to put in long, hard hours and become partners, but they also want to be able raise a family. This is another issue to watch in the accounting field, and I believe that the firms will work it through, because the accounting talent coming out of colleges and universities is strong.

Finally, looking to the future, accounting students need to be prepared for the international standards that are on the way. It’s unclear right now what global standards will be adopted; but there will be new international rules, and that means that the education and training of young accountants will have to change and adapt.

I also think that integrity — always central in accounting — will become more and more important in the global marketplace. And, in my view, this is a place where every accounting graduate must stand out. If we do just one thing to prepare our students for the accounting profession of the 21st century, it has to be in the area of ethics. That’s job one, without any question or hesitation.

Careers of the Future Series

Read other installments in our Careers of the Future Series:

Our 21st Century Mission: Preparing Students for the Careers of the Future
Blending Theory and Practice with Big Data
Human-Centered Design Is Putting Innovative Insights Into Action
Sustainability, the Merging of Science and Business
Economics Has Many Career Options, From Rock Singer to President of the United States
Will You Be Able to Recognize the Next Big Thing?