5 talent issues for African finance departments

There is a critical skills shortage within cost and management accounting.

Finance departments are being deeply affected by rapid advancements in technology such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, and machine learning the world over. At the same time, the widespread corporate focus on innovation and agility is forcing finance teams to fulfil a more dynamic, integrated, and strategic function within businesses.

According to a white paper by recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, Bridging the Skills Gap in Finance Functions, employers are now looking for finance professionals who can go beyond their traditional technical roles and provide strategic insight to the rest of the business, helping the company ensure long-term financial stability. This evolution is forcing CFOs and finance departments to re-examine their recruitment models — and make sure that they have the right mix of skills to both leverage technology and fulfil a more advisory role within businesses.

For African finance departments, the challenges presented by the fast-changing world of work are being compounded by existing skills shortages as well as the departure of highly skilled finance professionals (often referred to as the “brain drain”).

We spoke to finance and technology experts to delve deeper into the key talent challenges facing Africa’s finance departments today.

Scarcity of technical skills: There is a critical skills shortage across all African countries, said Pieter Bensch, executive vice-president, Africa and Middle East, at Sage. “In South Africa, skills shortages are rife in the areas of cost and management accounting,” he explained. “The financial skills required such as accounting, financial management, auditing, and investment analysis are all in high demand across a range of industries.”

According to Bensch, businesses of all sizes need advice around how to navigate tough economic conditions, as well as guidance on where they can cut costs and benefit from tax breaks. Yet, given the scarcity of key accounting skills, Bensch explained that finding this level of consultancy is proving difficult for many African businesses. “As a result, they’re forced to hire accountants and financial administrators who lack the appropriate experience and qualifications,” he said. “This is when we end up with situations like failed audits, bankruptcy, and liquidated businesses.”

Accelerated “brain drain”: A 2017 white paper on emigration from the South African Department of Home Affairs also found that for every professional immigrating to South Africa, eight professionals are emigrating.

Similarly, other African countries are losing skilled professionals at a rapid rate — prompting the African Union to draft a ten-year plan of action to stop migration to developed countries of African professionals with critical technical skills (estimated to reach up to 70,000 professionals annually). “We are currently seeing a massive increase in emigration in South Africa, with younger professionals not envisioning their future in the country,” said Maura Jarvis, associate director at PwC Africa. “Within the accounting environment, skills are very portable across borders — so the accelerated outflow of these skills is going to be a huge issue for SA businesses going forward.”

Strategic skills gap: Although many accounting professionals have the required skills for their current role and tasks, Jarvis said a skills gap is emerging as automation becomes more entrenched within finance departments.

“For example, professionals will be required to do more strategic and analytical work as opposed to input work,” she said. “Many people don’t necessarily have the skills to do that as their jobs become more augmented by digitisation.”

Sage’s Bensch echoed this sentiment and stated that finding candidates with the right mix of skills is proving to be a challenge. “Advances in accounting technology have radically altered the skillset required to be a successful accountant,” he said. “We’re business advisers.” This means that finance professionals also need to be able to communicate more effectively with clients, understand their businesses and industries, and advise on changing market conditions.

Lack of personal branding: Derrick Carolin, founder of Crayon, a South African online talent-sourcing startup, said that many financial and accounting candidates and job-seekers in Africa lack insight into how best to portray and market their own skills. “There is currently a lack of standardisation and guidance around this in South Africa and other African markets,” he explained. “Africa has a long way to go in educating the talent pool around how best to market themselves, which includes everything from crafting accurate CVs to performing well in introductory meetings.”

According to Carolin, the lack of knowledge and skills around personal branding directly impacts recruiters and potential employers within the accounting sector. They have to filter through thousands of poorly crafted applications — often missing out on talent because the relevant skills and experience haven’t been listed, or candidates have applied for positions that don’t best suit their skillset and experience.

Generational differences: According to Bensch, the changing expectations about work amongst younger generations is also emerging as a major challenge. “There’s a cultural shift underway in accountancy — and 90% of accountants surveyed in our Practice of Now research agree,” he explained. “Workforces are becoming multigenerational. The profession is being infiltrated by new and different attitudes, skills, and expectations … Attracting and retaining talent is becoming very difficult as businesses and accounting firms navigate an increasingly diverse workforce.”

Today, organisations consist of at least four generations of employees, from the Baby Boomers to Generation Z. Each cohort has a range of workplace expectations — some of which may seem contradictory to others. These changes and conflicts can prove disruptive if they are not managed correctly. In short, companies should start taking a “multigenerational” approach to recruitment practices and skills development.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at