How finance professionals can fill the gap with freelance work

In a rapidly evolving labour market, contract and consulting work can offer flexibility and variety to finance professionals with the right skillsets.

As companies across industries continue to undergo rapid digital transformations, many will struggle to develop in-house talent quickly enough to keep pace with the changes. According to Gartner's Brian Kropp, this skills gap could open up opportunities for talented finance professionals looking to contract their services to companies at premium rates. Those who hold the CGMA designation, with their depth of knowledge and varied skillsets, are in a unique position to take advantage of these opportunities.

"People who have that understanding of accounting but also business processes can help make big inroads within organisations," said Donna Carter, CPA, CGMA, managing director of Carter Financial and Forensic Consulting, a financial services consulting firm based in Florida. "A lot of companies are going to see that they need people who have been there, done that, and experienced the issues, and they're going to need to start bringing in more consultants."

While there are certainly downsides to contract or consulting work, including a potential lack of stability, job benefits, and traditional office atmosphere, the flexibility and variety of the work is increasingly desirable to those who can handle a bit of risk. For skilled professionals who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, contract work is one way to quickly re-enter the workforce. According to Upwork's 2020 Freelance Forward survey, 36% of adults in the US freelanced at some point over the last year, and freelance professionals in the finance and business sectors are among those in highest demand. And according to a survey by Robert Half, nine out of ten CFOs find consulting work an appealing career option.

In addition to the flexibility offered by contract work, Kropp argued that it can provide a glimpse of the culture at a given company and set you up for a full-time role down the line. 

"Contract work can provide insight about what it could potentially be like to work for someone before you actually work for them," said Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice. "And if you are looking for a full-time role at a particular company, doing a contract gig can give you a set of introductions with the people who are working at that company."

With the increase in finance professionals considering contract and consulting work, it could prove difficult to secure top projects going forward. Here are some tips for CGMA designation holders looking to leverage their skillsets in a rapidly evolving labour market.

Figure out your niche. If companies are paying premium rates for a contract or consulting role, they are likely looking for expertise they don't have internally, explained Tim Hird, executive vice president of enterprise optimisation for Robert Half.

If you want to position yourself as an expert, the first step to securing a contract position might be figuring out what your niche is, whether it's fluency with a particular accounting software, enterprise resource planning (ERP) system implementation, performance management, financial modelling, risk management, internal control, or data protection and privacy.

"The most important thing is to self-evaluate, and figure out what your skills and strengths are today, and what skills and strengths you think you need to develop in order to remain competitive as a job seeker in the next three years," Hird said. "This digital revolution is booming and changing the world so fast it's actually very difficult for accounting and finance professionals to keep up to date with digital and regulatory skills, but it's never been more important."

Develop in-demand technical and soft skills. Perhaps the most successful contract or consulting professional is going to be someone who can marry technical expertise with a cocktail of soft skills.

The skills that companies are looking for have been rapidly changing every year. Gartner analysed over 7 billion job postings over the past few years and found the number of skills employers are looking for has increased by a third between 2017 and 2020, and only about 50% of the skills listed in postings in 2017 were still listed in 2020. In other words, employers are looking for more things, and what they're looking for has changed drastically.

Within financial sector job postings, Gartner found the top emerging skills (meaning skills that are recently appearing in job postings) include enterprise risk management, digital banking, public cloud, and software management, while growing skills (meaning skills that are in an increasing number of postings) include information security, agility, and automation. Top core skills include interpersonal skills, dedication, analysis, and collaboration.  

It's a shift that Hird recognises as well. "Communication skills, influencing skills, leadership, and change management are equally important as actual technical competence," he said. "You can't have all the softer skills without the technical expertise, and it's difficult if you have all the technical expertise but not the softer skills."

According to the Robert Half 2021 Accounting and Finance Salary Guide, the key technology and soft skills for this year include the following:

Key technology skills:

  • Data analytics, protection, and privacy;
  • Cloud-based payroll and human resource information systems;
  • ERP systems;
  • Electronic health records;
  • Excel (advanced);
  • QuickBooks (for smaller businesses);
  • Financial modelling and forecasting.

Key soft skills:

  • Ability to work independently, in virtual teams;
  • Attention to detail;
  • Commitment to continual learning;
  • Creativity and innovation;
  • Comfortable with change;
  • Customer service;
  • Problem-solving;
  • Writing and verbal skills.

Network to find projects that don't make it onto job boards
. A key way to secure a prime contract or consulting project is through networking, according to Carter.

"The only way I've ever gotten any of these projects is through networking, and I've never even had anybody ask me for references," Carter said.

In her experience, a project might even materialise out of a conversation with an acquaintance who is interested in process improvement, fraud prevention, or organisational development for their clients or company. After a conversation, Carter might give a presentation to the company's board and get hired to do a project that was never going to be listed on a job board.

In order to increase your chances of landing a contract or consulting gig, Carter recommends networking as much as possible, which can mean attending events at your local chamber of commerce, joining committees, connecting with other professionals on LinkedIn, joining professional and industry organisations, reaching out to software vendors, and leveraging existing networks. 

"The majority of those introductions will come from people you know, so we always encourage job seekers to really leverage networks," Hird said. "While there may not be as many in-person networking events right now due to the pandemic, look for virtual events to attend and reach out to online connections. Referrals are very strong ways to find this type of work."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at