It’s Time to Reframe Our Views on the Accounting Profession — Here’s Why

By Robert Half on June 13, 2022 at 9:00am

By Paul McDonald and Jeff Thomson

Paul McDonald is senior executive director at Robert Half, the world’s largest specialized talent solutions firm. Jeff Thomson, CMA, CSCA, is president and chief executive officer at IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants), a global organization with about 140,000 members.

What’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced in the last two years?

Ask this question of 10 management accountants, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Some cite managing risk, supply chain issues, and industry volatility at degrees we’ve never seen before. Others note implementing new technologies at warp speed to enable remote work. We also hear a number of accountants discuss continuous challenges around hiring and retention, as well as leading cross-functional teams to manage pandemic-related issues.

There’s no question that accounting and finance professionals are essential: Organizations cannot survive without having a solid function in place. The onset of Covid-19, however, put an even greater spotlight on the value highly skilled individuals bring to the table – and their capabilities when faced with enormous pressure. Accounting professionals work in multifaceted roles requiring diverse skill sets, and they’re viewed as trusted advisers and stewards helping guide an organization’s success.

Another challenge: harmful misconceptions

Unfortunately, people with limited exposure to the field don’t share these views. Instead, they cling to perceptions of accounting frozen in decades-old stereotypes. Rich Singer, senior vice president and director of permanent placement at Robert Half, wrote about this issue earlier this year. In his insightful post, “In Defense of the Accounting Major,” he noted two misconceptions that cause college students to abandon accounting majors. The first is that accountants are “bean counters,” stuck in the back office with spreadsheets and calculators. The second: Accountants must have a CPA to succeed in the field.

While these notions are untrue, they have a powerful effect on diminishing and narrowing the field:

They discourage the next generation: College students question why they should study “boring and mundane” accounting, and instead look to the sizzle of other majors, like those focusing on technology or business. The fact is, technology has automated many accounting functions, thereby transforming roles to focus more on analytics and strategy (quite the opposite of boring and mundane, if you ask us).

They ignore a large sector of the field: Those who think “accountant = CPA” overlook the millions of professionals working for organizations outside of public accounting. IMA seeks to promote all accounting and finance professionals working in business, from global, publicly traded companies to small and midsize organizations. Roles include finance data analytics leader, accounting manager, head of financial planning and analysis (FP&A), strategic planning manager, controller and chief financial officer (CFO), among others.

The employment market for accounting professionals

Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) underscores the need to fight disinformation and promote the accounting profession as heavily as possible: We simply don’t have enough skilled professionals to meet demand. More than 11 million job openings were recorded in April, according to the BLS.

In May, BLS reported a national unemployment rate of 3.6%, a 54-year low. College-educated and highly skilled workers have even lower unemployment rates: For accountants, the rate is a staggering 1.8%. Organizations trying to hire feel the pain of this current employment market.

Expanding value and career marketability with the CMA

IMA and Robert Half work together to promote management accounting, show how roles continue to expand and enable people to advance in the profession. We encourage people to boost their career marketability by pursuing the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) certification.

The CMA is an excellent way for management accountants to uplevel their skills and provide greater value to their employers. Employers recognize the value of the designation and, in many cases, pay for exam preparation and fees. Earning the certification opens the door to more opportunities, higher compensation and a seat at the leadership table. While the job market is strong for highly skilled candidates, those who have earned in-demand certifications put themselves into an elite category that is in the greatest demand.

Pursuing the CMA also demonstrates one’s proficiency in several areas essential to advancing the success of a business. The two-part CMA exam* tests knowledge based on 12 relevant content domains, which are updated following a periodic Job Analysis Study:

  • External financial reporting decisions
  • Planning, budgeting, and forecasting
  • Performance management
  • Cost management
  • Internal controls
  • Technology and analytics
  • Financial statement analysis
  • Corporate finance
  • Decision analysis
  • Risk management
  • Investment decisions
  • Professional ethics

Many people are surprised to see so many more domains beyond financial reporting. To provide substantial value to their organizations’ success, we believe management accountants must go beyond providing numbers: They must explain the “why” behind them, formulating analysis and strategy to guide decision making for multiple areas.

Lasting value

CMAs provide thorough and balanced counsel to their organizations, which is valuable at all times but even more so during times of uncertainty and crisis, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. We believe those with the certification have been better equipped to manage multiple challenges they faced and the unknown challenges they will encounter moving forward.

It’s up to all of us to continue transforming the accountant’s role and increasing its value to businesses of all sizes. Changing perceptions and educating the next generation will bring more people to the profession to meet growing demand. Enabling accountants to invest in themselves and expand their skills will help them become indispensable to their employers, both now and in the future.

*Note: The two parts of the CMA exam are Part 1 – Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics; and Part 2 – Strategic Financial Management

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