Smart Growth may be one of CPA Alberta’s strategic priorities, but this important issue has struck a chord at the post-secondary and national levels as well.
CPA Alberta is thinking ahead with its smart growth plan, which considers both the needs of Alberta CPAs as they navigate their careers and the accounting needs of the business community in an ever-changing economy.
Many of us associate the term ‘smart growth’ with urban planning, which ensures new communities are designed with a city’s future needs in mind. But in our rapidly changing world, the term has spread beyond its origins and is now applied to a variety of disciplines and industries—from oil-and-gas to entrepreneurship to the evolution of the accounting profession in Alberta.
Of course, Chartered Professional Accountants (CPAs) know that, in the accounting profession, planning for the future is nothing new or radical; accountants have long used their skills to help organizations strategize their advancement. And long before unification, leaders in the field were forward-thinking about the advancement of the profession itself. But in today’s world, staying abreast of change has taken on new meaning.
“[Looking ahead] has always been important, but it’s perhaps more important now because the speed of change is increasing,” says Bronwen Webster, CPA Alberta’s Director of Member Products and Services. “It’s so important for us at CPA Alberta to stay apprised of the disruption in the accounting profession so we can best support CPAs to remain nimble and flexible in response to change.”
That’s why CPA Alberta has created a five-year smart growth plan, which will guide almost every aspect of the organization’s recruitment work from now until 2024. The plan aligns with one of the key priorities (achieving smart growth) named in CPA Alberta’s five-year strategic plan of 2017-2022.
The meaning of ‘smart growth’
Whether in the context of accounting, or in the designing a suburb or planning of a new pipeline, smart growth rejects the idea of unfettered growth and the old business maxim, “Grow or die.” One of the goals of the smart growth plan is ensuring the province has the right number of CPAs to meet marketplace demand in the coming years—neither too few nor too many. After all, there’s no sense in graduating unlimited numbers of new CPAs if they won’t find job opportunities on the other side.
But Bronwen, who led the development of the plan in her previous role as Director of Recruitment and Employer Relations, notes that smart growth is about more than just the numbers: “It’s working to ensure the right number and mix of CPAs to meet marketplace demand, but also ensuring that the training of CPA candidates and post-certification professional development meets the needs of employers so CPAs have the expected skills and competencies.” And Bronwen points out that CPA Alberta’s conception of smart growth also considers the expectations of CPAs themselves: “It’s also about making sure the profession meets the needs of individuals aspiring to pursue a career as a CPA.”
Surveying the landscape
Like any good plan, the smart growth plan is built on a foundation of reliable and current data. Last year, CPA Alberta partnered with the CPA Education Foundation to retain an external research firm to conduct marketplace research related to anticipated marketplace demand for CPAs over the next five years or so. The company conducted an online survey of over 1,000 CPAs and over 30 extensive, in-depth interviews with industry, public-practice employers, and representatives of post-secondary institutions.
“I think our biggest finding was validating that technical skills are table stakes when it comes to being a professional accountant,” says Bronwen. CPAs today are expected to operate at a strategic level, but advancing to leadership roles is going to require a full complement of soft skills as well as skills not traditionally associated with accounting. Those skills could include IT knowledge, training in data analytics, familiarity with finance competencies and superior communications skills. She points out that technological advances are rapidly changing the way accounting is practiced, largely because the more laborious aspects of accounting—like reconciliation and cutting cheques—don’t need to be done manually anymore. This means that the CPA that employers look to hire in the future could look quite different from what has customarily been perceived as the typical accountant.
The importance to future CPAs of enhanced competencies in areas such as IT and artificial intelligence has certainly been made clear to Richard Iwaniuk FCPA, FCA, VP (finance and business operations) for Blind Enthusiasm Group, whose portfolio includes a brewery of the same name in Edmonton’s Ritchie neighbourhood. Richard received his designation in 1993—long before “the Internet, mobile phones, and the cloud”—and says there’s no underestimating the impact of technology on the field. “The velocity of change is a logarithmic increase year after year.” He’s seen machine learning and other technologies drastically improve automation and how accounting is practiced. “I see a need for CPAs to become more integrated with technologies,” he says.
CPA Alberta is poised to help CPAs enhance their tech know-how with appropriate professional development opportunities, as they do with other types of skill gaps, says Bronwen. The organization will also work with post-secondary institutions to discuss where accounting curricula could be adjusted to help future CPA candidates be more tech-savvy. But when it comes to ensuring the province has enough technologically minded CPAs, recruitment efforts will also be important. “It’s working to expand the reach and awareness of the profession with non-accounting degree holders so they can potentially couple their education with a CPA designation,” she says. Bronwen adds that there’s also the possibility of attracting more tech-aware CPA candidates at the high school level.
The market research also brought a number of other trends to the surface, explains Bronwen. In addition to technological knowledge, future CPAs will need to understand the “triple bottom line” of people, profits, and planet, and possess social and environmental knowledge (especially in regard to climate change). The survey also revealed that in addition to possessing soft skills (like communication and leadership skills), CPAs will need to have strong problem-solving and analytical skills. Employers also expressed an interest in hiring CPAs with dual designations in fields like finance and law.
But Bronwen points out that the research findings were inconclusive about the profession’s growth. About half expected modest growth of 2% net increase in marketplace demand for CPAs each year over the decade or so, but many just weren’t prepared to offer an estimate of future need because Alberta’s economic future is uncertain. “There was no clear consensus,” she says, “but we think it’s safe to assume that demand for CPAs will continue to grow, and so CPA Alberta can’t stand still in terms of recruiting skilled and bright individuals into the profession.
CPA Alberta has already begun to implement many parts of the multi-year smart growth plan. It’s looking at ways to ramp up its recruitment work on Alberta campuses and in high schools and is also endeavouring to strengthen its connections to employers who are providing CPA candidates with their practical experience. And, as Bronwen notes, one of the best ways to help ensure the growth of the profession is truly “smart” is to keep listening to what CPAs themselves are saying. “CPA Alberta knows that its members are the ones who are creating future interest among employers in terms of hiring CPAs,” she notes. “Every day, CPAs prove their value in the marketplace, so heeding their advice and learning from their experiences will help guide our efforts to grow the profession effectively and responsibly.”
SMART GROWTH PLAN GOALS FOR YEAR ONE
CPA Alberta’s plan to achieve smart growth spans five years. For the first year, the following six goals were identified for action:
- Increase the number of post-secondary business students who choose accounting as their major.
- Work toward having at least 85% of Alberta post-secondary accounting graduates register for the CPA program.
- Undertake ongoing research to ensure the profession is responsive to the needs of the marketplace.
- Undertake research to determine and develop strategies to address the key stages of member and candidate attrition.
- Increase the number of Pre-approved Program training positions for CPA candidates.
- Increase outreach to employers and CPA candidates with the EVR (Experience Verification Route) in order to support those candidates in achieving success.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Dividends magazine | Written by Caitlin Crawshaw