If you’re a finance professional with business partnering and IT skills plus experience in automation, ERP and business transformation, Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard wants you. Badly.
“When I started eight years ago, most of the requirements were for finance and accounting technical skills,” says the managing director of international executive recruitment firm Robert Half Singapore. “Today, most of the requirements are more around business partnering and IT skills within the finance and accounting functions.”
Whenever we have candidates that have accounting skills, excellent communication skills and come with analysis, business partnering and IT experience, they are in high demand
Imbert-Bouchard spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about talent management in finance and accounting in an Asian environment where employers expect finance professionals to be business partners, analytics experts and experienced in automation and transformation projects. Edited excerpts:
Is supply of finance professionals across Asia, including Singapore, now in balance with demand?
It has been a constant struggle over the years for the CFO to secure finance and accounting talent, not just in Singapore but also in Hong Kong and other countries around the region. We’ve run some surveys recently that shows 97% of Singapore CFOs find it challenging to source skilled finance and accounting professionals. Ninety five percent find the same in Hong Kong.
Part of the challenge is the business environment, which is moving faster and faster. When I started eight years ago, most of the requirements were for finance and accounting technical skills. Today, most of the requirements are more around business partnering and IT skills within the finance and accounting functions.
That adds to the challenge to source people that are accounting trained and that have the ability now to influence businesses, explain the numbers that would drive business decisions, and also that are more IT savvy, whether it’s ERP related, cloud application base or travel and expense systems.
Whenever we have candidates that have accounting skills, excellent communication skills and come with analysis, business partnering and IT experience, they are in high demand.
The logical step is to increase the supply of these candidates. Why is this not happening?
It requires time and lot of work to get a CPA or CA qualification. We also see an increase as well in demand just because the number of data transactions has massively increased compared to ten years ago. So we require more capabilities to capture the information.
We ran another survey recently where we asked CFOs what are the five finance skills their finance team needs to develop over the next five years. It was quite surprising because they actually came up with pretty much everything that was related to ERP, analytics, communications and business partnering.
Only 17% of CFOs said their team needs to upgrade finance and accounting technical skills. All the rest was around business partnering, and technology and analysis skills.
Can automation, robotics and so on help?
What has been outsourced is mainly transactional data entry, clerical functions. With the rise of robotic process automation (RPA), a lot of CFOs see this as an opportunity to bring back some of those functions in Singapore.
If you look at the cost of an accounts-payable automation software, it’s half of the price of what it would cost to hire an accounts payable clerk in Manila.
Some of our clients have implemented OCR (optical character recognition) programs that scan invoices, input the data into the system. We are seeing more and more demand for process improvement and RPA professionals as well, which is quite new. Two years ago we didn’t have those requirements.
If RPA is replacing transactional work in the finance and accounting function, does it mean that this current talent shortage we are seeing will go away?
The current shortage won’t go away because those roles will be replaced by other roles. In its 2017 budget, the government in Singapore has recognized that the Singapore workforce needs to constantly upgrade their skills to stay relevant in the market. They’ve introduced Key Future, which is a S$3 billion investment where people can upgrade their skills.
It’s also the responsibility of employers to see the automation projects coming their way. They have to start to work with the current workforce in order to upgrade their skills to make sure they stay relevant within the organizations.
There are currently about 130 jobs in Robotic Process Automation in Singapore that were posted online over the last 90 days. This didn’t exist a few years ago
But some jobs will also be at risk.
We haven’t seen yet any department that’s been replaced by RPA. We’ve just seen the testing phase, implementation phase. It’s hard to say because it’s up in the air.
We haven’t seen any big organization saying, we’re going to [let go of] 50 people because now we have the machines. It’s not there yet.
For example, we have a client that implemented OCR (optical character recognition) technology. The CFO is trying to replace the AP function by intelligent scanning . . . Subsequently, the company added more accounting staff to make sure the technology is up to date and to check and double-check to make sure all the data is correct and reported in the right way.
You do need still a lot of humans to check the software [in the transition to automation]. There are currently about 130 jobs in RPA in Singapore that were posted online over the last 90 days. This didn’t exist a few years ago.
Is Robert Half looking for accountants for OCR and RPA checking?
We look for accountants that have been involved in financial process improvements. Anyone that has an ERP transformation experience, for example, or with very good IT technical skills and has been involved in business process re-engineering, or business process improvements within finance functions.
Are there many of them in Singapore?
No, there is definitely a lack of talent.
We’ve seen over the past three years demand for subject matter experts within finance and accounting transformation projects, whether it’s ERP, whether it’s process improvement, so we are also looking for those niche talent. Six months, one year, roll on program, and then roll off.
They are always in demand. We actually have difficulty finding people with such skills.
How do you find these independent contractors?
We do have currently quite a lot of people working for us that we outsource to our clients. They are people that we know, they’ve worked for other clients in the past who rolled off similar solutions a few times. They could also be independent consultants in the market.