What Accounting Skills Do Hiring Managers Really Look For?

Accounting Skills

The latest Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance contains plenty of good news for professionals with regard to accounting skills.

Competition for talent is growing, as firms seek help in expanding and launching revenue-generating initiatives. In addition, as it does at the end of each year, the search for CPAs is intensifying as public accounting firms gear up for the upcoming tax season. And there’s more: The wave of retirements among baby boomers means that many companies are losing senior members, creating a demand for staff at all experience levels.

But exactly what accounting skills do top companies look for in new staff? Whether you’re applying for finance jobs or in search of a raise or promotion, it’s good to know what employers value and what your particular skill set is worth.

Technological savvy

Besides basic accounting skills, IT skills are at the top of CFOs' wish lists. According to a Robert Half survey, the No. 1 worry of CFOs is keeping their organizations current with technology. That’s hardly surprising, given all the ever-evolving technology used by accounting and finance organizations, from new software applications and mobile devices to enterprise resource planning (ERP) and cloud services. This concern is reflected in the job market, where employers will pay competitive salaries and bonuses to secure accounting professionals with IT proficiency.

Here are some of the particular IT skills employers seek:

• Software skills

The finance sector is in something of a transitional phase in relation to technology, according to Robert Half's Benchmarking the Accounting & Finance Function, which found that more than half of U.S. and Canadian firms still rely on a manual reconciliation process. But the clear trend is toward greater computerization in every aspect of the field. Accounting professionals with a good understanding of a variety of business software will find themselves at an advantage in the job market.

Knowledge of any general ledger software is a plus, especially QuickBooks and Thomson Reuter’s UltraTax. A solid understanding of ERP software, such as Oracle and SAP, is also an asset. Larger firms need workers with knowledge of business intelligence tools such as IBM Cognos Analytics. Across the board, there’s a shift to cloud-based solutions. As experience with many of these tools is in short supply, software proficiency will help your application stand out.

Still, don’t dismiss Microsoft Office. The single most important software for accounting professionals remains Microsoft Excel, the workhorse when it comes to budgeting, planning and a host of other functions. Everyone uses it, but not everyone knows how to get the most out of it, especially for analysis and reporting. If you’re still unsteady with charts, formatting shortcuts, pivot tables and other features, make it a New Year’s resolution to master the more advanced aspects of Excel.

• Programming skills 

Because of the growing importance of data and analytics, an accounting professional with some programming abilities has a career advantage. Two particular ones stand out: Visual Basic (VB) is used in conjunction with Excel to perform complex functions and automate tasks. Given the omnipresence of Excel, it’s easy to see why knowledge of VB is a plus. In addition, most systems use relational databases to store information, and these databases are managed by queries written in Structured Query Language (SQL). Having an understanding of SQL makes it easier to work with these databases, allowing you to pull data and create detailed reports.

Regulatory knowledge

Even though the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed more than a decade ago, Protiviti’s latest Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Survey finds that “the interestingly dynamic nature of SOX” makes compliance a challenge for many U.S. firms even today. Regulatory pressures also come from the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Public firms in Canada must follow Bill 198, which is similar to SOX. With the majority of surveyed companies — 72 percent in the U.S. and 66 percent in Canada — expecting their compliance burden to rise, according to the 2015 Benchmarking report, regulatory knowledge is an in-demand accounting skill.

Interpersonal skills

While technical knowledge and accounting skills are essential, the best finance employees have something a bit harder to quantify: soft skills. Two traits employers especially look for in accounting professionals are communication abilities — both written and verbal — and a collaborative personality. The most effective CPAs know how to interact well with a wide range of personalities, be they clients or colleagues.

Hiring managers are also looking for leadership abilities, so if you have project management experience, highlight that on your job application. There’s also a demand for multilingual accounting professionals, which is no surprise given the increasingly international nature of finance.

As you consider your career trajectory, think about what accounting skills you possess and what ones you lack. Then make a commitment to yourself — and your professional future — to shore up the areas where you’re weaker. 

Looking for more advice? Check out our career center for help in writing a resume, preparing for common interview questions and eventually landing your next position.