Accounting Students Lack Hard and Soft Skills After Graduating

by Kathleen Hoffelder, content editor, NJCPA – April 18, 2018
Accounting Students Lack Hard and Soft Skills After Graduating

Accounting students today are coming out of college a lot more technology-savvy than their predecessors, but they are still lacking key hard and soft accounting skills needed for minimum competencies in the business world.  

Brad Muniz, CPA, partner in charge, Accounting and Auditing at Sobel & Co, LLC, said at an NJCPA Accounting Educator’s meeting last week that today’s students “are great with their phones but not always with the computer.” Since students don’t typically own desktops; they are more often to be familiar with apps. 

More Technology

Learning the varied ways to use tables, sort numbers, and analyze groups of data in Excel is an important skill for students to have, and one that shows up right away when those skills are absent. This would help students in adapting to the changing needs of the profession, said Muniz, and in the practical demands of auditing and tax. “Students don’t know how to do any research,” he adds.   

Part of the problem is the lack of training at both the high school and college level in Excel. For example, schools predominantly use Google Docs in classrooms, which is aligned differently than Microsoft Excel, and the two are not compatible when downloading data. “There’s a big struggle. The business world is doing it one way. The body that controls school districts is doing it the other way,” said Muniz.

With limited electives and no department willing to take ownership of inputting a separate Excel class into their curriculum, it can easily fall through the cracks. Some teachers prefer to weave Excel into every class they give, while others prefer to have a set Excel class that students are required to take. Still, others say an Excel class is something that students can, and should, take on their own.

Understanding how to utilize pivot tables in Excel is another area where students are lacking. Students often learn this expertise in college or in an equivalent advanced accounting course, but most do not know how to apply it in dealing with clients and with a variety of data when they start working.

Similarly, knowing how to convert files to Adobe PDFs, as well as make comments and footnotes on documents for clients, is an important skill for students to know before they land their first job.

For Joe Zapf, CPA, a newly minted accounting senior associate at Sobel, using technology successfully helps staff perform their job functions more efficiently, and not knowing how to use a certain technology can hinder one’s ability to analyze data or find the answer to a specific problem. “Technology becomes an issue when you can’t even get to the accounting side of it,” he said.

To be able to manipulate data is a boon for clients, he adds, since most “want to see a nice report” with the use of charts and graphs, compared to just seeing year-end numbers spewed back at them.  And he reminds that “critical thought will not get replaced by technology.”

Soft Skills

In addition to knowing how to use Excel and Adobe, students also need better communication skills, which are not at the level that they should be in dealing with clients. Preparing power presentations, understanding Microsoft Word and preparing memos/documents for clients is a must in today’s accounting firms, explains Muniz. “Students need to know how to type. We still do a lot of memos.”

Documentation skills are also useful. As Muniz explains, his firm has to tell interns and new hires how to put notes and certain documents in client files, and they don’t know how to do it. “I can’t spend the time to teach this for all of the students coming in.”