Heat turned up on future training needs debate

 More people skills and less time in front of a screen could be one answer to future-proofing the chartered accountancy qualification, argues LSCA Business Board member Bruce Claassen.  

During a recent reunion dinner with ex-colleagues, one end of the table got into a discussion regarding how best to address the training needs of future accountants. Our impromptu ‘panel’ included a committee member from one of the largest chartered accountancy professional membership organisations, a Big Four tax partner, a FTSE100 CFO, a FTSE250 CFO and me. We ended up in a somewhat heated debate.

In summary:

  • Large accounting firms are looking to reduce the cost of training new accountants.
  • Intake levels into the profession have dropped over recent years and the training organisations are trying to address the cost of training in addition to ensuring that the qualification is commercially relevant (insert references to the threat of computerisation of accountants).
  • Accountants in business are frustrated by the perceived increase in the number of part- and newly qualified audit staff who spend their time glued to their tablets and laptops, unable to have a meaningful face-to-face conversation with the client.
  • A culture of “the computer says no” persists, with junior auditors sometimes insisting a specific schedule is required, whereas a different summary would tell the same or a better story. Have they got the commercial awareness or confidence to ask senior business partners these questions? 

It was suggested that this particular professional training organisation is considering a restructuring of its qualification into a wider range of specialised, selectable modules, enabling future accountants (or their training firms) to target the areas in which they wish to specialise during their training period. The trainee would therefore not complete all modules to qualify as a chartered accountant, but would be able undertake further modules in later years to broaden their skills as their careers develop and needs (or seniority) demand as part of ongoing CPD.

The hope is that these newly qualified accountants would become more commercially relevant from the get-go, in addition to future-proofing the profession. Cue heated debate.

It was then suggested that a way to reduce the training costs could be to replace class-based tutoring with a computer-based approach, reducing the delivery cost and enabling accountants to train remotely. Cue expletives from the FD group.

Our main challenge to these suggestions centred upon the need to increase, not decrease, face-to-face training, as well as expanding training materials to include softer skills development. Disappearing into even more computer-based technical modules may help with technical skills development, but it’s typically the lack of people skills or the ability to influence decision making through structured, effective and commercially-relevant conversations that’s seen accountants in the broader marketplace being criticised.

Bruce Claassen is a director at Sonar Consulting and member of the LSCA Business Board.

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