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Stand out with sharp tech skills

Recruiters put tech ‘on par’ with accounting knowledge.

It’s not enough for today’s college accounting students to learn accounting. Potential employers also expect them to graduate with technology knowledge and skills they can put to work right away.

"It's definitely a must" for students to have a strong knowledge of technology, said Bob Batz, CPA, attest practice leader at Mayer Hoffman McCann, P.C., in Tampa, Fla. Batz helps recruit his firm's interns and hires."The focus on technology has become more important," he noted. "We're constantly looking at doing things more efficiently." He puts technical prowess "on par with the understanding of accounting."

The same goes for Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member of the Grant Thornton network of global public accounting firms, which seeks out soon-to-be CPAs who have skills in both accounting and tech. Today's market demands knowledge of tax automation, data management and visualization, and emerging technologies like blockchain, noted Charlotte, N.C.-based Kelli Knoble, CPA, the firm's national tax leader of business lines and people. "What we're looking for in students is that they have awareness and, more importantly, curiosity around these technologies," she said.

Academic institutions are revamping their curriculums to help students prepare for their careers. West Virginia University, for instance, is attempting to incorporate technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), and cybersecurity into its classrooms, and last spring it launched the Audit Data Analytics Project with the West Virginia State Auditor's Office. "Our objective is to get these technologies spread throughout the curriculum," said Richard Riley, CPA/CFF, Ph.D., professor of public accounting and director of research for the Institute for Fraud Prevention.

With so much to learn, how can students make sure they have ample technology know-how to offer potential employers? Batz, Knoble, and Riley offer the following advice:

First, be serious about technology. Recognize that "technology" is a skill set you need to develop, Riley said, and become as knowledgeable as you can while in school about things like AI, blockchain, data analytics, and more. Then, during the interview process, take notes and ask questions, including about processes and software used by the organization. Know what the firms do and how they do it, and if you’re a candidate with the skills to match, Batz advised. "If they have strong tech skills, they definitely jump up on my list because I've got less investment to make in them to be a productive member of our team," he said.

Know the basics. Have a strong grasp of Microsoft Word and Excel. "Nobody is using handwritten workpapers anymore," Batz said. "You need to be well versed in Word and Excel as a basis for doing your job." In addition, try to learn the more advanced capabilities of Excel; these skills will make you more marketable to future employers. "When students walk in on day one, they need to be able to use Excel and use it in a fairly sophisticated manner without a whole lot of training," Riley noted.

Take tech-focused electives. Since there may be little wiggle room in your course load, try to take classes focused on topics such as data analytics, AI, or robotics. Attempt to learn audit analytics applications like CaseWare IDEA and data visualization programs such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau. Courses on "emerging technologies only make you a stronger professional when you get into the accounting field," said Knoble. Also, take some courses on business communication, she advised. “The best technologies are centered around how we interface and communicate with our clients."

Use online resources. Stay abreast of emerging technologies by reading online, Knoble advised. Study data analytics, software programs, and other applications by watching YouTube videos or tapping into the UiPath Academy, webinars, or other sites. If possible, get certified on technologies such as RPA and Tableau. "The best way to learn a software is to jump in and learn by doing," Riley noted.

By making sure technology is part of your accounting studies, you will make yourself a sought-after candidate during the internship and job interview process. Students "have to become lifelong learners that embrace technology — at least for the foreseeable future," Riley said.

By Cheryl Meyer, a California-based freelance writer

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