Accountants work to shed ‘boring’ tag amid hiring crisis

“We’ve heard the rumours that accounting is nerdy and boring,” a US accounting trade body confides on one of its websites, before adding: “We’ve gotta let you in on a secret. That is just not true.”

Faced with a sharp decline in the number of people taking exams for entry to the profession, and a slide in interest in university accounting courses that hints at deeper trouble to come, the industry is trying to reverse the trend.

From the Big Four audit firms to state accounting regulators, players are pursuing a raft of new measures to attract people to a career in accounting, including advertising to high-schoolers and programmes to cut the cost of becoming a certified public accountant (CPA).

“As a profession, our ability to protect the public interest could be at risk,” said Lara Abrash, chief executive of Deloitte’s US audit business. With declining numbers of new entrants and a “cliff” of baby-boomer retirements, a crunch could come within a decade, she said.

Christina Ho, a member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, the industry’s regulator, called the shortage a “crisis” in a speech last month.

The number of people sitting the CPA exam had hit a decade low even before the pandemic, which caused a further drop to just 72,271 last year, from almost 103,000 five years before. With 43,000 candidates in the first half of 2022, the rebound does not look strong enough to recover lost ground.

“The downward trend is very recent,” said Abrash. “As people are planning their careers, we have just lost our ability to tell our story.”

Column chart of  showing . . . and the number of US accounting graduates is falling

The Center for Audit Quality, the trade body that runs the myth-busting Accounting+ website aimed at youngsters, said it was seeking additional backers beyond the eight largest accounting firms that launched the campaign earlier this year.

Its website emphasises how technology and artificial intelligence has automated many old accounting tasks, opening up avenues for more creative work such as data analysis, advising on business decisions and hunting down fraud. (The site also offers quizzes and astrological advice on which type of accountant youngsters may want to become. Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are the “thinkers, communicators and doers of the zodiac” who “analyse, synthesise, and probe” and “would thrive in a forensic accounting internship program”, for example.)

The Accounting+ campaign echoes Warren Buffett in calling accounting “the language of business”.

“We believe this is a tie for students of colour, that it is the language of business and provides a pathway to entrepreneurship,” said Liz Barentzen, vice-president at the CAQ. The group believes that increasing the numbers coming into the profession depends on widening its appeal to diverse communities.

“There is a generation coming up that places a premium on a diverse and inclusive workforce, but we do not have that story to tell yet,” Barentzen said.

Bar chart of US CPA firms by ethnicity (%) showing Accountancy’s diversity issue

The industry’s leaders do not think a simple rebranding will be enough to bring in the number of accountants needed or to break down barriers in diverse communities. Many point to the CPA exam itself, which requires candidates to have completed 150 hours of higher education, a financially onerous fifth year on top of a traditional four-year course.

Big Four firms have created numerous CPA “accelerator” programmes. KPMG, for example, is offering to start paying next year’s new hires two months early while they complete the extra study, according to Becky Sproul, talent and culture leader for KPMG in the US.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s state accountancy board recently changed its rules to allow some work experience to count towards the 150 hours, something that the industry hopes will catch on nationwide. PwC last week began offering such work experience to accounting students at New Jersey’s Saint Peter’s University.

There will also soon be more flexibility in the CPA exam, with candidates able to elect specialist modules such as business analytics or information systems from 2024.

The industry is lobbying in favour of two bills on Capitol Hill that would allow funding from government programmes for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses to be directed to accounting, too, on the grounds that it is now a high-tech profession.

“The profession has changed so much,” said Colleen Conrad, executive vice-president of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (Nasba), which represents industry regulators. “Technology is in pretty much everything you do in the accounting profession and CPAs spend a lot of time with internal controls, system controls, cyber security.”

In her speech, Ho of the PCAOB identified lower starting salaries compared with other professions as a key problem. “Starting salary in the audit profession is lower than other professions, such as data scientists and IT professionals,” she said. “In my opinion, this is a crisis. We cannot afford a world with no accountants or a capital market with no auditors.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics found average annual salary for auditors and accountants nationally to be $77,250 for 2021, though pay for those at the largest firms is significantly higher. Social media forums and jobs boards often carry complaints from early-career accountants about gruelling hours, as well as low pay.

Abrash said the shortage was “not an economic only issue” as “this is not a generation that is all about money”.

And Nasba’s Conrad said an economic downturn might help swing people back to the profession.

“When the economy is good, the market is good, there is a lot of M&A activity, people that might go into accounting may say they’ll go into finance,” she said. “If the economy starts to turn and we start to see lay-offs as we have recently among the investment banks, you may see people coming back to accounting.

“Accounting is solid. You can always get a job as a CPA.”

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