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Fueling the Accounting Profession Pipeline: What Will it Take?

Mscpa pipelineI recently attended the AICPA’s Spring Council session in Washington, DC where I had the pleasure of going to a fascinating session on fueling the accounting profession pipeline. I’ve had some time to reflect on what I think the research means in terms of active steps that CPAs and state CPA societies should take to ensure there is a bright, talented and diverse applicant pool available for new and experienced hires.

Below are three main areas that research indicates impact an individual’s decision to commit to a career in accounting, as well as suggestions for how we can leverage these areas to help foster the greatest number of young professionals entering the accounting field.

Early Exposure

Did you know that individuals who are introduced to the accounting profession at a young age are more likely to join the profession? To clarify, if you have a close friend or family member who is a CPA you are more likely to pursue a career in accounting. That may come as a surprise to some of you, given the crazy hours and tight deadlines, but there you have it.   

What can we do about it?

While some people grow up in families full of CPAs, many young people, especially those from diverse backgrounds, have likely never met a CPA in their lives. While we can’t control people’s friends and families, we can do things to increase their exposure to CPAs.  One easy way is to have members of the profession volunteer to provide hands on outreach and education about financial literacy– perhaps in partnership with a local school or a Boys and Girls Club. What better way to not only provide young people with an important life skill, but also to spark their interest in a great career?

Sitting for the CPA Exam

Sitting for the Exam takes time and money - lots of it. These are two commodities in short supply for students and aspiring CPAs. The research indicates roughly one-third of accounting students who intend to sit for the Exam fail to take it. Financial barriers work against expanding the profession to a more diverse “first generation” of accountants.

What can we do about it?

  • Reduce the financial barriers with scholarships. For example, some states have endowments while others raise money annually. This is an investment in the future of the profession and well worth it.
  • Support aspiring CPAs in your firm with time off to study for the Exam. The short-term “work,” like providing scholarships, is a critical investment in the future.
  • Work with NASBA and the state boards to build some flexibility into the process, look at blackout periods and restrictions on what courses are creditable to minimum education requirements.

We don’t want anything to lower the bar for professional competence and integrity, but easing the logistics could go a long way.

Finding Value 

There are some young people who find that public accounting is not a good fit for them, and they leave the profession for financial and management roles elsewhere.

What can we do about it?

The Spring Council meeting featured a panel of bright, articulate students and young professionals who talked about what they value in a career. These folks are looking for work-life integration; they want opportunities to socialize and network with their peers and to “do good” in the world (hint: see financial literacy above). Firms should not be afraid to allow their young associates to mix and mingle.  It will strengthen their ties to the profession and ultimately, to you. 

Another thing to think about - organizational culture. It matters.  An individual who does not find a good fit, for example, in a large firm might find one in a small or mid-size firm.  We should consider counseling programs to help bright young people transition to firms with a better cultural fit rather than lose them altogether.

In conclusion, it is almost impossible to be in a room of managing partners or senior members of an accounting firm without the talk turning to questions of how to recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent for the future of the profession.  It’s easy to think about short-term tactical solutions to the problem, career fairs, better on campus recruiting, better software to manage the process, etc., but I think the real answer lies in embracing some of these long-term,  high-value, strategic solutions which will ultimately make the real difference in fueling the pipeline.

Amy Pitter, Massachusetts Society of CPAs President and CEO. Amy Pitter was named CEO of the MSCPA in May of 2015 following four-years as the Commissioner of the Department of Revenue (DOR) – a 2,000-employee state agency overseeing tax administration, child support enforcement and oversight of certain municipal local services. Prior to being appointed Commissioner, Ms. Pitter worked at CGI, an independent information technology and business process services firm, where she consulted with agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Australian Tax Office on strategic planning initiatives and program design. From 1991 to 2000, Ms. Pitter served in a variety of roles at the Department of Revenue including Deputy Commissioner of Taxpayer Services, and Deputy Commissioner of Child Support Enforcement. She earned her undergraduate degree from Connecticut College, her master’s degree in accounting from Northeastern University and her law degree from the New England School of Law.

Students courtesy of Shutterstock

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