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The untapped potential of accounting technicians

The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) has 180 members across 135 jurisdictions. These members, referred to as Professional Accountancy Organisations (PAOs) collectively represent over 3 million accountants. All accountants that qualify for PAO membership, by successfully completing exams and any other requirements such as amounts of experience, do not necessarily remain as members of the PAO throughout their whole career. However, those that provide services to the public, and those that recognise the value of membership for employment opportunities, career progression and leadership roles, do. Qualified accountants that choose not to retain membership, do so with some significant risk.

The untapped potential of accounting technicians
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Whilst this matter can be discussed at length, the Confederation of Asian and Pacific Accountants (CAPA) are looking at another, but similar, matter.

The accountancy sector is more complex than just being defined as those who have qualified as accountants or are members of PAOs. Many individuals are involved in the ‘recording, classifying and reporting of transactions’ – a simple definition of accountancy – and a significant number, perhaps a majority, may not have undertaken any form of professional qualification1 and therefore are not members of PAOs.

IFAC research published in 2015 (Nexus 1: The Accountancy Profession Behind the Numbers) estimated that PAOs represented only one‐third of those working in accounting related fields:

“The remaining two thirds are, for example, people who identify as accountants – but whose jurisdiction may not require professional training or qualification – and people who identify their role as an accounting support function.”

There will always be a cohort for which qualifications and membership are not on their personal radar and are not required for their employment. However, in other cases, this does become attractive, and the most commonly recognised form within today’s accountancy profession is the Accounting Technician (AT). Indeed, in some countries separate organisations have been established to train and provide membership opportunities to this cohort, and these organisations are themselves members of IFAC2. In other countries, the already established PAO may support this cohort, possibly across many countries in which they operate. These ATs become an important part of the overall regulated accountancy profession, in other words ‘professional ATs’. Importantly as members of a PAO, they are subject to CPD requirements, Codes of Conduct and investigation/disciplinary regimes, just as all other members. For many, this represents their final qualification and will define their career; others may pursue pathways towards a PAOs main qualification and the opportunities that affords.

However, the number of ATs (or an equivalent term) that are members of PAOs remains relatively low when compared to those that have completed that PAOs main qualifications (often denoted as CAs, CPAs or CMAs3). Further, in a similar vein, as noted from the IFAC research referenced earlier, for every accountant that is a member of a PAO, they may well be working closely with, and in some cases relying on, one or more who decided not to take any qualification. The 1:2 ratio is not surprising to some who would suggest that this might be a minimum. As with many occupations a pyramid structure would not be unreasonable to assume, with fewer senior, highly qualified accountants and a larger number of either ATs, or it would seem based on the research, simply unqualified personnel undertaking accounting related tasks.

This situation may vary across the different sectors that employ accountants, though it can be imagined to apply for accountants in practice, accountants in industry, and accountants in the public sector. Outsourcing and offshoring of transaction processing may on occasion make identification of the extent of this situation difficult. The situation may also vary by jurisdiction. For example, where education systems are not as strong, attaining qualifications established with a ‘high-bar’ may not be realistic for many aspiring accountants. Further, many such jurisdictions are ‘developing4’ and their needs may tend towards basic book-keeping rather than the sophisticated accounting required by highly developed capital markets.

What do we know about the AT sector?

It is with these thoughts in mind that CAPA has been exploring the AT (or equivalent) sector for a number of years. Accounting Technicians: Exploring Opportunities for the Profession was released in 2018, and 2020 Update: Recent Developments followed. The aim of the 2018 publication was to encourage a better understanding of the AT sector and for PAOs to consider the importance of ATs as part of the wider accountancy profession. The findings from this publication, which were partly informed by a 2016 CAPA Survey, were clear – a strong AT cohort can be beneficial to the economy, government, businesses and individuals, and is in public interest. The 2020 Update report includes nineteen (19) ‘Country Updates’, nine (9) of which are updates to ‘Case Studies’ featured in the 2018 publication.

This work demonstrated that the level of activity and interest across Asia Pacific was high – much higher than originally anticipated. Our counterpart in Africa, the Pan-African Federation of Accountants (PAFA) conducted similar survey work in 2021 to gather information about AT qualifications in Africa, as part of the World Bank’s AT Qualification for Africa initiative. Accordingly, we expect this area to receive heightened attention in Africa in coming years.

Why should more attention be given to the AT sector?

Why is a strong AT cohort beneficial to the economy, government, businesses and individuals, and in the public interest? Whatever their stage of economic development, all countries, across all sectors, have a workforce supporting the preparation of financial information at an operational level. Professionalisation of this workforce is fundamental to increasing the quality as well as the quantity of finance staff. Government and business, if they are to thrive, need to be able to call on a workforce fit for purpose: the right people with the right qualifications and the right experience in the right place at the right time. A regulated AT cohort, recognised as professional and part of the accountancy profession, fulfils this need.

In even the most developed and thriving of economies, there will be talented people, who for a variety of reasons, do not have access to higher education and thus a role as, for instance, a CA or CPA. In emerging economies, where opportunities are fewer, this can be the norm. Establishing an accounting qualifications framework with more flexible entry criteria can open up access and opportunities to a larger, more diverse, talent pool. This benefits those disadvantaged by lack of higher educational opportunities and, just as importantly, facilitates PAOs wishing to recruit from a wider range of students.

And lastly, the public interest argument. The accountancy profession as a whole is relied on to engender trust in organisations and financial markets. Accordingly, there is no room for ‘weak links’ and the professionalisation of a workforce that can be recognised as ATs, including demonstrated technical competence and adherence to ethical values, contributes greatly to this.  

CAPA decides the AT sector requires much stronger recognition.

In recent years, there has been some initiatives to support the rise of ATs. In 2018, with the support of development partners, IFAC was involved with a feasibility study that assessed the need for education and training for individuals working in finance positions at the most junior level—the foundational level—in Africa. This work also resulted in the development of a competency framework showcasing the competencies that are thought to be necessary for a competent foundational level accountant to have acquired once fully trained, which in turn informed the illustrative competency framework for accounting technicians published by IFAC in 2019.

As previously mentioned, the interest in ATs in Africa continues, and IFAC has contributed to various initiatives supported by development partners. This includes the development of an accounting technician certification, in Rwanda in 2020, and the FASE (Foundational Accounting and Financial Management Skills Enhancement) project in five Francophone African countries during 2019-2022. In Asia, CAPA affiliate member, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, assisted the recent introduction of an AT program in Cambodia.

These developments are all important, but not widespread. Nor need it be a matter only for developing countries. So why are there so few PAOs operating in this area? Why are ATs not discussed to any great extent on the global, regional and national stages?  The responses appear to be many and varied, ranging from historic circumstances or concern for impact on the existing profession, to a lack of understanding or a lack of resources to pursue.

As CAPA gathered a wide range of interested parties together, it was agreed that the key impediment was a lack of recognition. Discussions were often of a ‘chicken or egg’ nature – a lack of ATs means they are not recognised; a lack in their recognition means no investment in AT programs. It also gave rise to the question ‘what is meant by a lack of recognition’.

The outcome is CAPA is staging a series of roundtables to debate various related matters, including:

  • Imagining the future AT
  • Positioning an AT qualification
  • Identifying the benefits of a professionalised AT cohort
  • Defining an AT

Technological advances, including artificial intelligence, are changing the future for many occupations and this will include the accountancy profession. The accounting technician will not be immune to this, however roles tend to evolve as some tasks and activities are replaced. Developments in this area may provide as an opportunity as much as a threat.

The ultimate aim is to consider whether, and if so to demonstrate, that the accountancy profession should focus more on providing programs aimed at an AT, or equivalent, designation and supporting qualified ATs through organisation membership. The greater array of qualifications, with more flexible entry and exit points and pathways from one qualification to another, could be attractive to students that otherwise may not consider a career in accountancy, and thus assist the overall supply of accountants. 

If the public’s trust is strengthened as a result of professionalising all those working in the accounting sector; if governments and businesses benefit from access to a wider range of highly trained employees in the accounting arena; and if PAOs become more sustainable and deliver more value and services as a result of increased membership – then the accountancy profession has been missing a trick for many years.

[1] CAPA’s Professional Qualification Guide provides a comprehensive description of the elements that give rise to a professional qualification.
[2] Includes Association of Accounting Technicians (UK); Association of Accounting Technicians of Sri Lanka; Accounting Technicians Ireland; Pakistan Institute of Public Finance Accountants
[3] Variously includes the words chartered, certified, professional, practicing, public, or cost and management
[4] As classified by the World Bank

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