Skills Gap

Technological and cultural change can shield firms from accounting talent shortages

In an industry with high staff turnover, firms need to build resilience and encourage retention by embracing the capabilities of technology, says Courtney Kunzig, Industry Solutions Manager, Accounting at M-Files.

In recent years, a skills gap in the accounting sector has been gradually widening, as firms have had fewer applicants to choose from and interest in a career as an accountant has fallen.  
The number of accounting applications dropped by 36% between 2021 and 2022, highlighting the scale of the challenge partners and firm owners are faced with. There are even concerns that rising vacancies could destabilise the accounting industry as a whole, with some firms reporting that they have had no choice but to refuse work due to a lack of skilled staff.

To tackle this issue before its impacts become more pervasive, accountancy firms must look for new strategies not only to attract and retain employees, but to identify ways they can support incumbent staff in doing their jobs more quickly, efficiently and accurately.

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Openness to automation is essential for growth

Firms of all sizes are already demonstrating a forward-looking view on technology and growth. Innovation officers have been tasked with evaluating their tech stacks to determine how compatible they are with current partners' roadmaps. Scalable solutions and a congruent appetite for progressive innovation will guide firms to select the right partners. The continued development of new technology has shone a spotlight on automation and innovation for firms looking for new ways to remain competitive. A key requirement for digital transformation teams has been the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other advanced technologies that can automate tasks and increase efficiency.
However, automation is not being introduced with the intention of replacing accounting professionals. Instead, this technology will be used as a tool to compliment the work they already do that can make them more productive and efficient. Ultimately, finding the right balance between automation and human expertise will lead firms to success.

When implemented thoughtfully, automation results in a higher quality of service for a firm’s clients. Automating routine tasks and workflows frees up staff to channel their efforts into more complex and high-value activities, even broadening their revenue streams into more profitable lines of business such as Client Advisory Services (CAS). As an added benefit, automation enables firms to provide better and faster service to their clients while reducing manual error. 

When ‘one out, one in’ is no longer a possibility

During periods of high employee turnover, firms are finding it more difficult than ever to find experienced and new talent. Automation has the potential to fill the skills gap currently impacting the accounting sector. Supplementing staff shortages with built-in automation improves speed to delivery for clients, while reducing costs and boosting the efficiency of their engagements.

A prime example of how automation can streamline workflows and save time in the accounting industry is through the use of AI. This technology can automate entire processes, from document creation and management to workflow automation through identifying key metadata points and applying predefined rules. Other time-saving features of AI-powered technology include the increased ability of accountants to ask questions of their data, summarise documents or even translate content into other languages quickly.  
Such applications of AI and similar forms of technology reduce the administrative burden on accountants, as they automate tasks, workflows, and content creation that would otherwise be manual. As a result, firms can complete engagements more quickly and efficiently.  

Technology is here to support, not replace

As professional services organisations, accounting firms manage many thousands of documents each year which can be overwhelming for staff without the right resources. Adding layers, like the remote ‘work-from-anywhere’ model or travel to client sites, means firms need to ensure their employees can access client information no matter where they are working.

As innovation officers and IT directors evaluate the future of their tech stack, they must include a robust document management system. These systems allow for peace of mind for technology leaders that their employees can freely work while compliance requirements are embedded into their solutions to reduce risk of data loss and breach. There are several ways of automating the production and updating of documents (which is where accountants spend the majority of their time) that can enhance the reliability of the data and efficiency of a short staffed or new engagement team. The ability to arm employees with the tools they need to do more with less will enable firms to perform more consistently by eliminating some of the manual work. This will allow them to more accurately measure utilisation resulting in more accurate staffing and the ability to take on more clients. 
Finally, automation supports accountants by easing the compliance burden and preventing them from compromising sensitive information. AI can scan documents and update metadata tags, trigger workflows and automatically assign permissions even as teams change, meaning that files are only viewed by the right employees or clients. As a result, accountants no longer have to worry about classifying documents or datasets or applying access controls themselves. 

Ensure staff are comfortable with new technology

According to recent research, 42 % of accountants claim to be overwhelmed by the pace of technological change in their role. This emphasises the importance of delivering proper training and education for all employees when new technology is introduced. 
It’s also essential that partners communicate to more junior accountants exactly why a new piece of technology is being introduced, what challenge it is solving and how it will make employees' lives easier. For example. a problem that knowledge workers face, especially in the accounting industry, is finding and retrieving historical documents. More and more firms are introducing technology that enables accountants to access client files or datasets through simple keyword searches instead of laboriously navigating folder hierarchies.  
Firms that make this technological change must convey to the whole workforce that they are doing so for their benefit, as this will allow them to delve right into the heart of the engagement and reduce time wasted searching for the files they need.  
By being clear and transparent with all new processes and making sure employees are thoroughly trained on how they work, firms can adapt to new ways of operating and lessen the challenges skills shortages present.

Main image: Courtney Kunzig, Industry Solutions Manager Accounting, M-Files