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 and soft skills.

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 achieve and 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 that accounting professionals — especially Certified Public Accountants — leverage on a daily basis.

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

What are soft skills in accounting?

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, Inside Higher Education reports.

All three of these talents come in handy as an accounting professional, as can a number of other skills that can help you thrive in the fields of accounting and finance:

Solid 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 divisions, 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.

Impeccable 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 helped to make staying organized easier, but accountants should ideally be familiar with these tools and how to use them to be truly effective.

Keen 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 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sets the rules regarding generally accepted accounting principles, something students learn a great deal about in the online master’s in accounting program.

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

Conversant with state-of-the-art software

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 that employers desire in new hires, according to Robert Half:

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

Clear 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 what 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. 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.

Time management proficiency

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 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 successful accounting, 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 as it pertains to work is a two-way street, where both the employer and employee must be willing to sacrifice 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.

What are technical accounting skills?

Soft skills such as these can be improved upon and strengthened on an ongoing basis, whether at the office or in one’s personal life. But a number of specialized skills are unique to accounting and finance. 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, or the Dodd-Frank Act. Obtaining a CPA also frequently comes with certain technical skills 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 customized curriculum that is geared for that particular profession or line of work.

What are analytical skills in accounting?

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, the ability to go behind the data to identify why the numbers are what they are.

Why choose UAB’s Collat School of Business?

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. The online Master of Accounting program is uniquely designed to provide you with the core capabilities you need, paired with coursework that may inspire you to pursue something new, whether it’s in not-for-profit accounting, corporate governance, or tax entities. Plus, you can complete the program at your own pace, since all of the classes are available online.

Apply today and take your career to the next level.

Recommended reading

Skills Employers Love in Bachelor’s in Accounting Graduates

What is Management Accounting?


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