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Every day we see leaps in technology and more evidence of a deepening climate crisis. Professional accountants want to know what the future looks like for the organizations they serve. Young professionals want to know how they’ll fit into that future—and what they can do to prepare for it.

They’re seeing up close the biggest challenges and opportunities we have as a profession, and they have a lot of ideas to offer.

Last week, IFAC held panel discussions among ten young professionals—nominated by their professional accountancy organizations (PAOs) because of their exceptional achievements—to get those ideas in front of an audience of the chief executives of PAOs around the world. We found that everyone—PAOs, firms, individual accountants of all ages—has an excellent chance to use their insight to more effectively prepare a future-ready profession.

The feeling in the room—with panelists joining by video from around the world—was palpable: as a profession, we have urgent challenges and promising opportunities, and both require immediate and continuous adaptation.

That adaptation will comprise forward-thinking about the evolving role of the professional accountant; proactive responses to the climate crisis; and thoughtful approaches to educating, attracting, and retaining next-generation talent.

The role of the professional accountant

The role of the professional accountant is changing because the needs of the organizations they serve are changing. Where that role hasn’t kept up with change, we need to catch up.

This is not only an imperative for young professionals; older professionals will, of course, do well to pivot to providing services that defy stereotypes of the accountancy profession. But with decades of work ahead of them, stepping boldly into new roles and maintaining the profession’s relevance will be exceptionally important for young professionals.

Many of our panelists said their clients or firms are looking not just for traditional services, but for dynamic and trusted advisers. The model of an effective professional accountant can’t be described by proficiency in crunching numbers, or even by the technical skills to provide new kinds of professional services; rather, the in-demand professional is a motivated critical thinker, prepared not just to perform technical tasks, but also to apply skills creatively to find new ways to add value.

Technological disruption and the climate crisis are creating risks and opportunities that professional accountants can help organizations navigate. They can set targets, establish themselves as integral to the planning and operations of their organizations, and, in the process, demonstrate leadership. That’s a clear path to continued relevance and greater value creation for the profession—and one many of our panelists plainly stated.

Responding to the climate emergency

Young people are deeply worried about the threat climate change poses to the planet: not just to entire economies, but also to the livelihoods and daily lives of millions of people. And they are seeing the expectations of many stakeholders among their firms and clients change along with the times.

Our panelists were no exception, and they were eloquent in their description of professional accountants’ unique position in responding to the climate crisis.

One of the profession’s top priorities should be to take on targets for sustainable growth, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and use them as a guide for getting our organizations from business-as-usual to future-fit.

We are on the front lines of nearly every organization’s assessment, measurement, and management of its value creation. We have a more complete view of our organizations than other stakeholders do.

Young professionals, as much as anyone, see how we should rise to the occasion. We need to plant the seeds of change and, as they take root, set up frameworks and processes for sustainable growth. And we need to think about how the accountancy profession can support young professionals in developing the skills to do this from the moment they begin studying accountancy.

Education and training

Our panelists frequently returned to where their education and work experience could have done more to prepare them for the future.

Just since they’ve started working, demand has fallen for many of the skills they picked up in school or in junior positions. Meanwhile, demand for new skills—things outside the traditional curriculum, things they’ve often had to learn on the fly—has risen, and they think it’s certain to keep rising.

They’re right. So what should we do about that?

Some of the panelists have found their PAOs to be helpful in meeting change head-on. A training program in SDG reporting offered by CPA Canada, for example, has helped its members pursue a crucial skill in emerging assurance services. That’s an example the rest of the profession should follow: wherever they can, PAOs should try to advance the skills and competencies of their members to meet demand for new services. Even something as simple as aggregating information on SDG reporting on PAO websites could go a long way.

Leaders of the profession should also talk to universities and other educational institutions where students first pick up the skills they’ll bring to professional life. Some lessons can only come through work experience, but we should look for ways to adapt the accountancy curriculum to the new challenges young people face. We can save them time and effort right out of school.

Attracting and retaining talent

We will make life easier for young professionals in the process of improving education and training. And that furthers our work toward another goal of education and training: to attract and retain young professionals.

Young people want a reasonable work-life balance. They want to know their hard work will lead to advancement along their career paths. They want to contribute to environmental sustainability. They want to see the profession continue to lead on ethics by adapting to new questions digitalization has raised. They want to see, as they consider entering the field, that they would be setting out to make a difference in the world.

Employers, PAOs, and all other stakeholders in the accountancy profession need to show young people that all of this is possible—that our profession will adapt to the future and set them up for successful and fulfilling careers.

We’re fortunate that so many talented young professionals are leading us toward progress.

I would like to thank each panelist for contributing to this discussion. I wish them continued success in their promising careers.

  • Jackie Crane – Tax Technical Assistant Manager, PFK Francis Clark, UK, ICAEW
  • Muhammed Razin Shah – Associate Director, Finance for Ekuiti Nasional Berhad, or Ekuinas, MIA/ACCA
  • Jay Sivakumaran – Assurance Director, PWC
  • Candice Czeremuszkin – Office Profitability Partner, Moore Cayman, CIIPA/ACCA
  • Zehra Ilyas – Senior Associate 2, PwC UK, ICAP
  • Sarah Keyes – Principal, ESG Global Advisors, CPA Canada
  • Sophie Medwell – Senior Accountant, Grant Thornton LLP, CIPFA
  • Eriona Bajrakurtaj – Managing Director, Major’s Accounts & Co Ltd; Fellow Council Member, QuickBooks Accountants Council, Intuit; Vice President for UK Division, Albanian Global Diaspora Business Network, ACCA
  • Shivarm Bhajan – Experienced Associate, PwC, ICAB
  • Caleb Bullock – Director of Business Development at Somerset CPAs in Indiana, AICPA
Russell Guthrie

Russell Guthrie is a former IFAC executive director. From 2001 to 2023, Mr. Guthrie held various leadership roles in strategy development, finance, capacity building, and membership and external affairs.
Prior to joining IFAC, Mr. Guthrie worked for 12 years in the assurance practice of KPMG—initially in Dallas, Texas, followed by two years in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He also has extensive experience in the development and maintenance of firm quality control programs, having served for three years in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, as KPMG's Director of Global Quality Assurance.

Mr. Guthrie graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1988, receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration. He is a licensed CPA in the US states of Texas and New York and a member of the American Institute of CPAs.