There is a discernable gap between what firms are looking for in a new hire and the skills possessed by the upcoming cohort of accounting students. Because Wiley’s mission is to support students and businesses through education, we conducted research to gain clarity on what hiring challenges firms are experiencing and what skill gaps and strengths the upcoming accounting cohort has.

We surveyed and interviewed over 200 firms to identify challenges they face when hiring and onboarding new cohorts. Subsequently, we had 105 accounting seniors and juniors complete a personality (DiSC™) assessment and self-report their aptitude for different soft skills and knowledge.

about the skills gap cpa

  Firm surveys to identify challenges around candidate skills
  Cohort skills assessment interviews to determine student-identified skills
  Cohort DiSC assessments to provide deeper understanding of their work traits

 

Firm Survey Sample

The following categories represent the sample of firms interviewed for this research:

firm survey sample pie charts

 

Student Survey Sample

The sample of students selected to participate in the interviews and assessments can be divided into the following categories:

student survey sample pie charts

 

Student Survey Skill Categories 

When rating their skills, students were presented two categories:

The knowledge and content-focused section asked students to report on their exposure to the following sub-categories:

General accounting knowledge (5 items)
Technical/computer knowledge (4 items)
Finance knowledge (4 items)
Data strategies and analysis (5 items)
Specialized experience (4 items)

 

The soft skills and trait-based section asked students to report on their aptitude for the following sub-categories:

Communication (3 items)
Analytics (4 items)
Business skills (5 items)
Learning skills (4 items)

 

Understanding and Applying the Data

In reviewing this research, a gap was quickly apparent, and the results of the research revealed some interesting insight. These insights will be revealed by discussing:

What the Skills Gap Is
Analysis of Our Skills Gap Research
What to Expect from the Upcoming Cohort of Accounting Professionals
The Role of Firms in Addressing the Skills Gap
How to Address the Skills Gap

What is the Skills Gap?

The skills gap is the space between what firms are looking for in new hires and the skills the upcoming cohort of accounting professionals bring to the table. Our research found that the biggest skill gaps between what firms are looking for in new hires and what skills the upcoming accounting cohort possesses were in problem solving, Excel, and communication.

The Analysis

The firm interviews identified an array of soft skills as a challenge when hiring new candidates, whereas the student surveys identified knowledge and content gaps as their biggest challenge when entering a new job role. This suggests a disconnect between what firms are seeking and what cohorts believe they bring to the table. It also suggests that firms are open to a learning curve regarding knowledge and content skills, as these can be learned through hands-on training, versus the soft skills being more challenging to ‘teach.’

The firms we interviewed reported difficulty finding candidates with the right soft skills (56%) and the right job-specific skills (45%), but on average, students rated themselves highly in those soft skills and other job-specific skills.

Firm Survey Response to “What are the challenges you face when hiring employees at your organization?”

Firms reported difficulty finding new hires with strong skills in problem solving, Excel, communication, and data analytics. However, students ranked themselves positively on some of these crucial skills. As you see below, the biggest gap is found with problem solving, Excel, and communication.

Student vs. Form Skill Ratings graph

Students were quick to identify their weaknesses in technical skills, which rated the lowest of all skill sets. When it came to soft skills and capabilities, here is how they rated their top strengths:

Business Skills
Analytic Skills
Learning Skills

Highest-rated sub-categories:

Number crunching
Accepting constructive criticism
Problem-solving
Open-mindedness
Active-listening

Interestingly, students rated themselves higher in all four soft skill categories than any of the five knowledge and content-focused categories.

They ranked their lowest skills as specialized experience and data/analytics strategies, which is not too surprising given their lack of job experience. However, we see some contradictions with the analytics ranking, which could expose a student weakness around understanding analytics in the job role.

What to Expect from the Upcoming Cohort of Accounting Professionals

Students completed a DiSC© assessment to discover their personal preferences and tendencies in a work environment. This powerful model describes four basic styles: D, i, S, and C, and serves as a way to deepen knowledge of self and co-workers, making workplace interactions more effective.

By reviewing these results, firms can improve their team’s performance, deal more effectively with conflict, and value the differences that each team member brings to the group. These results define how an individual performs, communicates, and functions within a group, leading to better more successful organizations.

 

DiSC Assessment Results

The most common student profile identified by the DiSC© assessment was conscientiousness (C). Just over 50% of the student sample had C as their primary trait.

Cohort DiSC Assessment Results - Primary and Secondary Traits

How to Best Manage These Professionals Based on their Results

Managing these professionals is aided by understanding their personality traits and what motivates them. The hallmarks of a C culture are quality, accuracy, and order. This profile and this cohort values high standards, careful analysis, and diplomacy. They pride themselves on getting perfect results and can be cynical towards new ideas.

The potential downfall of this group, and something to be aware of when managing them, is that they may miss opportunities for fear of lowering standards. This can make them resistant to change, but you can motivate them to move past this fear if you manage them correctly.

A key to managing this cohort is regularly checking in on them and asking yourself if they are meeting your expectations by evaluating these questions:

  1. What are the advantages and drawbacks of this group or individual’s working style?
  2. Does this group or individual take enough risks?
  3. Does this group or individual spend too much time ensuring accuracy when they should be acting?
  4. Does this group or individual attend to the emotional and social needs of other members of the team?

The first few questions will ensure they are helping move the company forward, and the last question will determine if they are being a team player and part of the group (which was a skill gap identified by the firms surveyed).

The Role of Firms in Addressing the Skills Gap

Knowing what motivates a cohort, how they function within a team, and what they value in a job is powerful knowledge when nurturing new candidates. Firms can use this information to help their new hires succeed in their first 12 months. Based on the findings, we suggest the following:

DiSC© assessments for all new hires and a review of their working team make-up so they can recognize, understand, and respect the differences within their groups.
This is important given over 50% of the cohort is a single profile, which could quickly develop into an oppressive environment for those who like to work at a faster pace.
A roadmap for employee development will be appreciated by all profiles, but especially the C style who appreciates being awarded for their dependability and hard work. Tie this to the skills you know they need to continue to develop, such as those offered through Wiley and AICPA partnership:
Data Visualization Certification
Forecasting and Predictive Analytics Certificate
Specialized Forensic Accounting Certificate
Tax Staff Essentials, Level 2: Experienced Staff
Offer time and change management courses so the strong C style culture is less likely to resist or miss growth opportunities.
Check-in with your C-styles frequently during remote work to ensure they are progressing as needed and to be supportive of their efforts.

How to Address the Skills Gap

Bridging the gap should be accomplished early in a cohort’s career to help them succeed in their new role and company. Supporting them from the beginning through required training will build their confidence and help them avoid imposter syndrome in that first year where self-assurance can waver very quickly. A few suggestions for bridging this gap would be:

Invest in mandatory courses for first-year cohorts that offer bite-sized lessons to fit their schedule with interactive and current material.
Provide cohorts with a variety of test prep course options to ensure their individual learning needs are met.
Ensure that the cohorts have stable study groups or mentor programs, even if those are external, to carry them through their first challenging year.
Understand what motivates them.

With knowledge about the skills gap and work strengths of the upcoming cohort of accounting students, firms can prepare for these new hires and give them tools and trainings to succeed in the first 12 months of employment.

For a deeper dive into this information, particularly about the research conducted and the personality traits and work tendencies of this cohort, click here to get the full research paper.