Top skills you need to pursue a career in accounting

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To be a great writer or reporter, it’s important to have a way with words. Similarly, to succeed in engineering, you need to be nimble with numbers. A successful accounting career requires a little bit of both. In today’s fast-paced, performance-oriented environment, employers and accounting firms are on the hunt for individuals who excel in more ways than one, possessing a favorable combination of hard accounting skills and character traits.

With an online master’s degree in accounting from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business, you can develop the competencies that will enable you to build a stable, professionally rewarding career in accounting. From capably parsing financial records to accurate financial reporting, the online master’s in accounting program can help you develop the talents and accounting skills that these professionals — especially certified public accountants — leverage daily.

Here, we’ll discuss what it takes to become an accountant, from hard and soft skills needed to the degree programs that can open up career paths and opportunities in accounting.

An accountant with glasses smiling at a client in an office space.

Accounting skills: What do I need to pursue a career?

What are the basic accounting skills?

Soft skills are essential in any career, but certain specific core competencies (or hard skills) unique to finance accounting professionals can make you more appealing to accounting firms and other potential employers. Here are some of the basic skills that are useful for an accounting resume and can help you pursue a career as an accountant:

Technical accounting skills

In job advertisements, employers frequently mention specific capabilities that they want in candidates, which often require training or schooling to develop. Classic examples include knowledge of anti-money-laundering rules issued by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Dodd-Frank Act. Obtaining a certified public accountant (CPA) title also frequently comes with certain technical skill requirements that weren’t taught in undergraduate accounting courses.

In short, technical accounting skills traditionally don’t come naturally. At the UAB Collat School of Business, students can choose from several different branches of accounting, such as auditing, fraud examination, or forensic accounting. While some of the courses in these disciplines overlap, each includes a customized curriculum geared for that particular line of work.

Analytical accounting skills

Numbers tell a story, and part of an accountant’s job is to get to the bottom of what those figures mean. This entails ongoing analysis. A classic example is forensic accounting. A forensic accountant’s services are often called upon in instances where a business is affected by fraud or theft, such as if an employee may be stealing from the company. It’s the forensic accountant’s task to examine the numbers to determine if there is some kind of malfeasance going on. They may also be asked to appear in court to present their findings.

This all requires analytical skills — i.e., the ability to go behind the data to identify why the numbers are what they are.

Software efficiency

Businesses increasingly deal with massive amounts of data, but software programs help to keep the volume more manageable and digestible. These systems frequently aren’t intuitive, so accountants should be proficient in how to use them and remain apprised of any updates when new versions become available. Here are some of the technology-related accounting skills employers love in new bachelor’s in accounting graduates, according to Robert Half:

  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft Visual Basic
  • QuickBooks
  • Advanced modeling techniques
  • Enterprise resource planning
  • Hyperion

Building an accounting resume with these proficiencies can help improve your chances of getting noticed by an employer.

How can you improve your accounting skills?

Exposing yourself to technology on a regular basis, learning how to analyze data, and improving your software literacy are essential to enhancing your accounting skills. Higher education is another important element; exploring master’s degree programs in accounting is ideal for enhancing skills and making yourself more desirable to employers.

Helpful soft skills

Soft skills — the kind that are applicable to a variety of working conditions, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving — are highly sought after among employers. In a survey of 500 hiring managers and human resources professionals, good listening skills, effective communication, and attention to detail were the most-cited skill sets that companies wanted to see from recent college graduates and those who participated in degree programs, according to Inside Higher Education.

All three of these talents come in handy as an accounting professional, as can a number of other soft skills that will help you thrive in the fields of accounting and finance. Let’s take a closer look at some of the soft skills that should be on your accounting resume:

Listening skills

In many ways, accountants are intermediaries. Medium-sized and large firms frequently have several divisions so work can be accomplished in a more orderly fashion. Accounting is a common bond between these departments, given that a business can’t survive if its finances aren’t in order. But accountants often rely on other departments to get their work done and listen attentively to ensure financial statements are accurate and complete. Good listening skills are also important from a customer service standpoint. Clients — whether current or prospective — want to feel like their needs, questions or concerns are being attended to, and the best way to do that is by developing a customer service orientation, according to Robert Half. Being a good listener is key to exceeding customer expectations.

Communication skills

Whether it’s taxes, profit and loss statements, or finances in general, numbers can be complicated and difficult to digest. Accountants should be able to break down these concepts so decision-makers can better understand them and use them to inform the steps they should take for the company based on data-driven insights.

It isn’t just executives or business owners who want to know and understand money matters; a vast majority of employees do as well. A 2020 Robert Half Management poll found 82% of workers would like to receive updates on how their employer is doing in terms of financial performance.

Skilled accountants extract the most important information from data and break it down so stakeholders have insight into their company’s bottom line. Good writing skills are one component of communication, as in some instances accountants may need to provide context into datasets so reports can be more easily interpreted.

Organizational skills

The ability to remain organized is an ideal skill to have in virtually all lines of work, but in accounting, it’s particularly crucial. Crunching numbers can be inherently messy, even when it’s all done on calculators or spreadsheets. If you’re working for yourself or for an accounting firm that handles the finances, taxes, and statements of multiple clients, documents can easily get misplaced if they’re not handled properly and put in their right place. Advancements in technology and enterprise resource planning software have made it easier to stay organized, but accountants should ideally be familiar with these tools and how to use them to be truly effective.

Attention to detail

Compliance is a significant component to accounting. Whether it’s for auditing or making forecasts on earnings, accountants should adhere to established rules and regulations of governing bodies, organizations, and policy boards. For instance, the Securities and Exchange Commission sets the rules regarding generally accepted accounting principles, something students learn a great deal about in an online master’s in accounting program.

Principles, by their very nature, are specific and precise. Accountants should strive to obtain a keen understanding of generally accepted accounting principles so financial reports are complete and accurate.

Time management skills

Similar to good listening, communicating clearly, and staying organized, time management is a key skill set for success in many different work settings, and accounting is no exception. Whether it’s expense reports, taxes, earnings statements, or quarterly performance outlooks, they all have deadlines. Some of these deadlines are hard and fast, and may come with a penalty if they’re not met.

Accountants should be conscientious about the clock, gauge how long it takes for certain tasks to be completed, and plan accordingly so deadlines aren’t missed. Poor time management can lead to costly mistakes and oversights.

Willingness to be flexible

While accounting is typically a traditional 9 to 5 job, technological innovation and the immediate availability of data means accountants’ services may be called upon at any time of the day. An ability and willingness to remain flexible is crucial to a successful accounting career, and can also enhance productivity. A separate 2020 poll from Robert Half revealed that 80% of respondents who leveraged windowed work were more productive. Windowed work is an arrangement that allows employees to break up their day into parts, where they perform certain tasks during those intervals, some of them personal in nature.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director at the research and staffing firm, noted that flexibility is a two-way street, where both the employer and employee must be willing to make sacrifices and be accepting of change.

“While the upsides of flexible schedules are clear, professionals must make a concerted effort to succeed,” McDonald said. “Communication is key to ensuring everyone is aligned on priorities, projects stay on track, and colleagues feel equally motivated and accountable to achieve business goals.”

Critical thinking expertise

Accounting isn’t just about putting numbers on a page; it’s about using data to make judgments. In some cases, accountants may be required to simply produce expense reports or complete tax documents. In others, they may be called upon to form an opinion about how a company should proceed with an initiative, project, or campaign. This requires an objective evaluation of data to draw conclusions, assertions, and recommendations.

How accounting degree programs support top career paths

While accountants can get a job with a bachelor’s degree, most accounting firms and other employers prefer to hire an accountant with a master’s degree.

Pursuing a graduate program in accounting allows you to gain those important core competencies and hard skills that make for a successful accountant.

Whether you’re looking to change your career or become more proficient in accounting, UAB’s Collat School of Business can supply you with the capabilities that employers expect to see on an accounting resume. The online Master of Accounting program is uniquely designed to provide you with the core capabilities you need, supplemented by coursework that may inspire you to pursue something new, such as not-for-profit accounting, corporate governance, or tax entities. This graduate program allows you to expand on the characteristics needed to succeed in accounting, such as analytical skills and leadership skills. By the time you gain your master’s degree in the accounting program, you can feel confident in your ability to take the next step in your career.

Ready to learn more? Apply today and explore the world of accounting with a master’s degree.

Recommended readings:

Becoming a Sales Manager: Job Overview, Qualifications, and More

5 Benefits of Getting an Online MBA


Robert Half – Survey: 82% of Workers Want Updates on Company Financial Performance

Inside Higher Ed – Employers Want ‘Soft Skills from Graduates

Robert Half – Survey: A Window into Windowed Work

The Balance Careers – Accounting: Job Description, Resume, Cover Letter, Skills

Robert Half – Accounting Skills You Need to Succeed on the Job

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Accountant

UAB – Master’s degree in accounting

UAB – Master these skills for a successful career in accounting

UAB – Skills Employers Love in Bachelor’s in Accounting Graduates

UAB – What is Management Accounting?

UAB – Online Master’s Degree in Accounting