Fixing the Shortage (by Explaining What We Do)

A few weeks ago, we wrote on where all the accountants have gone (largely, to better-paying jobs with better work-life balance and lower education requirements). I posited the idea that we might be able to address this shortage partially by improving the image of accountants, by explaining what we actually do. Spoiler: it’s not meticulous bean-counting and ledger maintenance.

Accounting is a language of numbers, but it’s equally important that modern industry professionals be fluent in technology. Understanding where a transaction hits debit and credits is no longer enough; accountants now often have to also manage tech stacks. For example, one e-commerce customer purchase may hit four different interwoven softwares: a merchant processor, an inventory-tracking system, a sales tax calculation and filing service, as well as all feeding directly into a cloud-based accounting system. If those integrations are not structured correctly, errors can occur that not only affect year-end taxes but inventory showing available for sale, sales tax filings, or even customer fees. An accountant is often the person responsible for not only structuring those system, but for reviewing the data and ensuring accuracy.

If, for example, entries were double-feeding into the sales tax processor how can you tell? How do you fix it? What if the sales tax has already been overpaid?

At this point, people skills become crucial, as the error has to be communicated not only to the client but addressed with departments of revenue to obtain refunds, or file correcting amendments. Of course, people skills aren’t crucial just when there is an issue. Accountants serve roles not just in business, but sometimes in court. Expert witness testimony is used to present forecasts and potential payment plans in bankruptcy court, or to help validate a business valuation in divorce court. In these situations, an accountant doesn’t have to just know what they know and exhibit their own expertise, but also has to present the information in a way that makes sense to those outside of any finance-related profession.

In some ways, what can be even more difficult is interconnection with finance professionals who don't always know accounting in-and-out. This is much of the day-to-day experience for CFOs and accounting managers. (See our article on the difference between the two here.) Beyond quarterly presentations to owners, board members, stockholders, etc., accounting professionals have to “tell the story” of an organization’s financials to lenders, or partner with revenue recognition specialists on structuring systems. These are people on the other side of the equation, who understand money but not perhaps where the debits and credits go. In these situations, it’s not enough to know and understand what you're doing, you have to be able to explain it. There is a quote frequently attributed to Einstein which applies: “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

This understanding and explaining has to take place in a format that suits the audience, whether that’s graphics, or slide decks, or a verbal presentation. So, a degree of marketing skills come into play. That’s compounded by a need to understand which information is most relevant, how frequently it should be revised (as in the case of projections), and when priorities shift. (A company looking to scale quickly is very different from an established business looking to sell.) Throughout all of this, there is an innate challenge in communicating information that is equally important and, to most, boring.

But, as we alluded to earlier, this is not what anyone pictures when they think of an accountant. And that perspective has to change, not just so that there’s better appreciation for the work (though that would always be nice), but so that potential new accountants can understand the diversity and appeal of the profession. Until we can move public opinion beyond the stock photo vision of “accountant”, it will be hard to recruit into the industry, and the shortage will worsen.