Technical Skills Still Important?
Cindy Blanthorne, Sak Bhamornsiri, and Robert E. Guinn
MARCH 2005 - For
decades, various groups and institutions within the accounting
profession have been advocating a change in accounting education
to address the skills necessary for success in the workplace.
The 1989 Big Eight white paper “Perspectives on Education:
Capabilities for Success in the Accounting Profession”
first emphasized the need for general skills, including
communication, intellectual, and interpersonal skills. The
Accounting Education Change Commission was subsequently
established to help educators achieve the white paper’s
objectives. Since then, many have suggested incorporating
into accounting curricula classroom activities that enhance
nontechnical, or “soft,” skills in accounting
accounting programs responded by incorporating into their
curriculum group work, essay exams, and oral presentations.
In addition, some textbooks have deleted technical information
or have placed it in the appendices, which is significant,
because courses are often textbook-driven. Many accounting
professors that changed emphasis to the soft skills are
now reemphasizing technical skills, because their experience
has convinced them that class time is better used for developing
students’ technical accounting skills.
research has been conducted in search of definitive accounting
skills. The perceptions of CPAs, accounting educators, students,
and Fortune 500 executives have been studied. The
majority have ranked communication as the most important
skill in accounting. A survey by Usoff and Feldermann (Journal
of Education for Business, March/April 1998) found
that students thought that accounting knowledge was the
most important skill. Based on this finding, Usoff and Feldermann
concluded that students were out of touch and suggested
that undergraduate students needed to be more aware of the
importance of nontechnical skills.
recent article by Moncada and Sanders (CPA Journal,
January 1999) investigated skills related to recruiting.
Students and faculty ranked characteristics important to
prescreening and office visits; the rankings were compared
to those rankings by CPA firm recruiters. Interestingly,
accounting GPA was ranked most important for prescreening
by all three groups. This suggests that technical skills
are important when screening students for a campus interview.
study discussed in this article identifies skills necessary
for promotion and success in the public accounting environment.
Recently promoted Big Five partners were asked to rate six
skills—interpersonal, communication, administrative,
technical, leadership, and practice development—in
terms of their importance for promotion at three levels:
from staff to senior, senior to manager, and manager to
partner. The survey consisted of 402 partners (162 in tax,
240 in audit). The average ratings shown in Exhibit
2, and Exhibit
3 for each skill is based on a six-point scale ranging
from 1, not important, to 6, very important.
to senior. In Exhibit 1, the same three skills
were rated as most important for promotion from staff to
senior in tax and audit, but not in the same order. In tax,
the average ratings among technical, communication, and
interpersonal skills differed substantially in importance.
to manager. In Exhibit 2, the six skills are
rated in the same order for promotion to manager in both
tax and audit. When comparing the promotion from senior
to manager with the promotion from staff to senior, there
is an increase in the average ratings for all of the six
skills, which suggests that perceptions of technical skills
become even more important at higher levels in public accounting
to partner. The most dramatic change in the
rankings occurs at the promotion from manager to partner,
seen in Exhibit 3. In both tax and audit, technical competence
drops to only the fifth most important skill. Administrative
skills also dropped in importance, but all other nontechnical
skills rose in importance. The reason for the change in
rankings may be related to the added nontechnical responsibilities
expected of partners.
150-Hour Requirement and Technical Skills
4 displays partners’ assessments of whether the
additional education in the 150-hour requirement was important
in developing skills essential for promotion toward partner
status. The majority indicated that increased education
was not important in developing such skills.
“soft” skills become increasingly important
at higher levels, accountants also must possess a high level
of technical competence throughout the promotional process
in order to reach the point of consideration for partnership.
technical skills still important? The findings of the current
study would indicate that they are. The fundamental goal
of accounting education remains the same: providing students
with sound technical competency.
Blanthorne, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor,
Sak Bhamornsiri, PhD, CPA is an associate
Robert E. Guinn, PhD, CPA, is an associate
professor, all at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.