Accounting is synonymous with money, and money typically involves math. So if you’re an accountant, are you destined to a life of crunching numbers and formulating equations all day? To some extent, yes—but that’s not the complete story.
While it is true that a good portion of accounting involves math, don’t be deterred if you don’t consider yourself a math whiz. Successful accountants need more than just hard math skills. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Robert Half, 54 percent of CFOs said that when hiring finance professionals, they consider both hard and soft skills equally.
We talked to real accountants and experts to find out what these skills are and broke them down by transferable and technical skills—or soft and hard skills—so you can get a better idea of what you will learn in school and what will be asked of you in an accounting position.
So take a peek and maybe you will be surprised at the variety of accounting skills there are. Who knows, you may already possess a handful of them.
Transferable skills for accountants
Accountants do more than simply sit behind a desk all day. They are frequently required to meet and talk with clients, discussing everything from budgets to recommendations.
“The accounting industry is a service industry, and therefore good customer service skills are essential,” says Matt Roberge, CEO of SLC Bookkeeping. Knowing how to interact and respond to client’s needs and problems is a must-have in this client-facing field.
An eye for detail
Much of accounting involves careful management of important documents such as tax returns, income statements and cash-flow reports. Making one error could cost a business substantially, so detail-oriented people are needed to ensure accuracy in every document. With spreadsheets full of data, it can be easy to let something slip, especially after a few hours of work. Those who have a natural eye for detail and who would enjoy staying focused and alert on such tasks would be well-suited for the accounting field.
You may be wondering why accountants need writing skills. Don’t they work with numbers all day? While you definitely don’t need to be the next Hemingway, it does help knowing how to write for a professional audience.
Accountants are called upon to write financial analyses, memorandums for clients and reports for their managers. Thus, they need to know how to communicate their findings, recommendations and other important news in a clear and concise way. Though this is a soft skill, many schools offer classes specifically for business writing.
In another study conducted by Robert Half, 41 percent of accountants surveyed said that problem-solving was their favorite part of working in the accounting profession.
“Accounting and finance professionals regularly mine data to identify historical trends and make projections based on those findings,” Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half says in the survey’s news release. “They also can uncover potential areas for concern and put their problem-solving skills to work in the process.”
Organization and Prioritization
Accountants are responsible for keeping track of an assortment of files, statements and data. Having top-notch organization skills will help ensure you stay on top of everything that needs to be done. Going hand-in-hand with organization is also the ability to prioritize.
“If you’re working in a big firm, chances are that you’ll have multiple managers giving you work to do urgently,” says Steph Taylor, former KPMG accountant. “You need to learn how to prioritize these tasks, and also manage the expectations of those who are counting on you to get it done.”
Technical skills for accountants
“This seems very obvious, but a new accounting professional has to be able to perform on the job pretty much straight out of school,” says Gabe Lumby, CPA. This is especially pertinent if you are choosing to specialize. For example, if you are planning on working in public accounting, you will need a strong understanding of auditing and taxation, Lumby says.
Don’t let this discourage you; the right schooling will teach you the ins and outs of accounting. Lumby does advise prospective and current students to understand the specialization they’re entering though, as many companies don’t provide extensive training periods. Being able to prove your knowledge and competency will help you succeed in the field.
Many people say they have Microsoft Office skills, but in accounting, you must have excellent skills in Excel and know how to enter formulas and equations into spreadsheets to keep track of expenses and budgets. A good school will offer classes and training to help you master this skill. As for other technological skills, Lumby says most of the additional software that will be used on the job will be learned on the job.
GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles, are an industry-wide set of accounting rules and regulations. All companies in the United States must abide by the generally accepted accounting principles. They are used to help gauge and record economic activity, organize reports of economic information and disclose any information regarding economic changes. Using the generally accepted accounting principles helps accountants stay fair, honest and consistent in their work.
SAP stands for statutory accounting principles, a standard used primarily for financial reports related to the insurance industry. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners requires all insurance companies to abide by SAP standards. For any accountant with a potential future in the insurance industry, the statutory accounting principles are a must-know.
Although not all accountants work primarily with taxes, this is an incredibly valuable area to have a demonstrable understanding of.
“Accountants that are skilled in taxation are becoming more and more valuable, which means that they can get paid a lot more than regular accountants,” says Paul Kroger, a positions trader.
A good education will prepare you for everything you need to know about taxes—from dealing with income tax to corporate tax structures. So even if you don’t end up as a tax accountant, you will have valuable, long-lasting skills to help your resume shine.
Do you have what it takes?
As you can see, accounting is about a lot more than just math. We’ve shown you some of the most in-demand accounting skills employers are looking for, so you can see how diverse the work of an accountant can be.
So don’t get too hung up on the math—it’s obviously a big part of the job, but it doesn’t mean you’ll succeed or fail based solely on your ability to crunch numbers. Like with nearly any subject, you can learn and improve with practice.
This means you shouldn’t be intimidated if you lack some of the skills detailed above—these are the things you’ll master in an Accounting degree program. If you think you’re ready to begin your accounting journey, find out what to do next and check out our article, “Your Step-By-Step Guide on How to Become an Accountant.”