Are Technical Skills Still Important?

By Cindy Blanthorne, Sak Bhamornsiri, and Robert E. Guinn

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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 education.

Many 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.

Much 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.

A more 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.

The 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 1, Exhibit 2, and Exhibit 3 for each skill is based on a six-point scale ranging from 1, not important, to 6, very important.


Staff 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.

Senior 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 firms.

Manager 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.

The 150-Hour Requirement and Technical Skills

Exhibit 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.

While “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.

Are 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.

Cindy Blanthorne, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor,
Sak Bhamornsiri, PhD, CPA is an associate professor, and
Robert E. Guinn, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor, all at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.




















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