The CPA pipeline has been leaking for a while, but there are things everyone can do to help mend it.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, the number of accounting graduates decreased by 2.8% at the bachelor's level and by 8.4% at the master's level, according to the AICPA 2021 Trends report. Total hiring of new accounting graduates in 2020 decreased by 10%, and the number of candidates who passed the CPA Exam decreased 5.5% between 2020 and 2021.
Factors contributing to these declines include an overall reduction in college enrollment, increased costs of higher education, a wider array of job options for students, and misperceptions about the profession.
"We have to try and convey the excitement and understanding of how dynamic the profession really is to a younger generation," said Bruce K. Behn, CPA, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate and executive education and Deloitte LLP Professor in Accounting at the University of Tennessee.
At this point, everyone involved with the profession is likely aware of ongoing pipeline issues. Stakeholders including the AICPA, state societies, firms, state boards, high school and university faculty, and individual CPAs are all working to address various aspects of the problem, but there is always more that can be done.
WAYS TO PROMOTE THE PROFESSION
Whether you're a CPA, firm leader, faculty member, or high school teacher, here are some ways you can help promote the profession and increase the number of students interested in becoming CPAs.
Firms can support employees as they pursue their CPA license
Accounting firms have a large stake in the future of the profession, and firm leaders can do plenty of things to increase the pipeline, including the following:
Increase salaries and benefits. Starting salaries at firms have been stagnant for years and just recently started to budge. If your firm is in a position to increase salaries and benefits for employees, doing so could help attract top talent to your firm and draw students into the profession.
"Students entering the workforce want meaningful work that challenges them to develop skills and collaborate with others, while compensating them fairly for their hard work and talent," said Becky Sproul, CPA, KPMG audit talent and culture leader.
In the past year, KPMG has reduced the employee portion of health insurance premiums, replaced its 401(k) match program with an automatic, firm-funded contribution, enhanced caregiver and parental leave, and increased paid time off.
Many firms, including Grimbleby Coleman CPAs, a midsize firm based in Modesto, Calif., have also started providing employees increased flexibility in number of hours worked, location of work, and what times they work.
"This has allowed us to recruit as well as retain staff that we otherwise might have lost," said Jane Johnson, principal and COO for Grimbleby Coleman CPAs.
Support employees as they take the exam. Preparing to take the CPA Exam while holding down a job is not easy. The more firms can do to support their employees as they pursue their CPA license, the better.
That support can involve paid time off to study, free prep tools and resources, organized mentoring groups, and exam expense reimbursement.
Grimbleby Coleman CPAs started a CPA Exam support group several years ago named Sector 75. The group meets on firm time and enables employees to talk about challenges, highlight upcoming changes to the exam, share words of encouragement, and hear the success stories of those who have passed the exam.
The firm pays for most of the CPA Exam review course and allows four full paid days off for taking the exam as well as sabbaticals for those who want to accelerate their exam progress. Those who pass the CPA Exam within 18 months of eligibility or hire receive a bonus.
In May, KPMG's audit practice announced its CPA Kickstart program — a two-month, 40-hour-a-week program that provides new hires the time, along with compensation and full benefits, to focus on two of the most difficult sections of the CPA Exam. The program ties into Accelerate 2025, KPMG's firmwide diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, by helping reduce inequities in the CPA pipeline and supporting the career development of underrepresented talent.
"While certain undergraduate and fifth-year programs provide extensive support in passing the CPA Exam, students coming from less traditional academic paths or smaller programs have a steeper hill to climb," Sproul said. "Importantly, underrepresented groups are more likely to come from those academic tracks, and that inequity contributes to a less diverse talent pipeline.
"We designed our CPA Kickstart program to address those issues by providing paid time, resources, and structure to study for the CPA Exam," Sproul added.
Connect with local area schools and offer scholarships. Firms can make a strategic investment in students, the firm, and the profession by partnering with high schools, community colleges, and universities to offer internship programs or activities such as Shadow a CPA for a Day, said Orumé Hays, CPA, CGMA, founder and managing director of Hays CPA LLC, a small firm based in Staten Island, and adjunct lecturer at City University of New York—College of Staten Island.
Grimbleby Coleman's Johnson, for example, partners with California State University, Stanislaus, where she serves on the business advisory board. This allows her firm to stay connected to the university, guide curriculum, and build relationships with professors. The firm also participates in recruiting events and allows its employees to use their community service time to provide free tutoring services to CSU Stanislaus students.
Firms can also work with neighborhood not-for-profit organizations to showcase the CPA profession and fund scholarships for students interested in pursuing an accounting major, Hays said.
Individual CPAs can advocate for the profession
Individual CPAs can be ambassadors for the profession by communicating the benefits of becoming a CPA to younger generations.
"We can help promote the profession by communicating about the interesting and exciting aspects of a CPA career," Hays said. "For example, young folks who want to work in crypto, sports, entertainment, or for companies like Google can achieve their goals with CPA credentials. This should be communicated across all platforms and networks so that the students see the value of the profession."
Here are a few other ways CPAs can strengthen the pipeline:
Mentor students and young professionals. If you see a young person who could benefit from a helping hand, extend one, Hays said.
"A couple of students who have gone through my classes had no interest in the CPA profession when they first started taking my class," Hays said. "However, with my encouragement and persistent talks about the profession, by the end of the semester, a couple of students often jump into the CPA track."
Volunteer to speak in high schools and on college campuses. Individual CPAs can work with their state society to go to middle schools, high schools, and universities to show students the dynamic nature of what CPAs do. Or CPAs can start by approaching their alma maters, where they might have existing connections.
"Any exposure to the profession you can give to these kids would be beneficial," said Behn of the University of Tennessee.
Be positive about the profession. When students only hear about the potential downsides of the profession, such as long hours and a stressful busy season, it's no wonder they're hesitant to become CPAs. Individual CPAs can help combat those stereotypes by speaking about the positive aspects of their jobs.
"The top characteristics of what young graduates want out of a career include entrepreneurship, security, stability, growth, and culture," said Mike Decker, vice president—CPA Examination & Pipeline at the AICPA. "If you're a young student and that's what you want, being a CPA offers all those things. You want to work for a global organization? Be a CPA. You want to create a firm with a great culture or join a firm that's changing its culture? Be a CPA. I think if we start talking about what the CPA offers in a more positive way, that could really help."
Teachers and faculty can increase awareness and engagement
Many people first hear about the accounting profession in a classroom. From that first math class in elementary school to the introductory accounting class in college, teachers have the power to spark curiosity about the profession.
Faculty at all levels are already doing amazing work, but here are a few ways to increase student interest in the profession:
Invite interesting speakers into the classroom. Professional CPAs have been speaking in classrooms for years, and they remain an effective way to pique students' interest in the profession.
"Bring in accountants with all different experiences and perspectives," said Nancy A. Bagranoff, CPA, DBA, accounting professor at the University of Richmond. "I teach cybersecurity, and I have a partner who specializes in cybersecurity at PwC who is going to come in and get people pretty excited about those careers."
Students also love to hear from alumni who recently graduated and can offer advice on entering the profession, Bagranoff said.
Getting professionals into high school classrooms can be a bit trickier than at the university level because high school teachers typically don't have as much built-in time for guest speakers and getting permission to visit schools can involve more steps, such as a background check.
Lisa Johnston, CPA, CGMA, director of finance at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, Ariz., suggested getting creative and scheduling visits outside of class time.
"Maybe we don't try and get into the classroom and instead bring doughnuts in the morning and invite anyone who is interested in general business to listen," Johnston said. "CPAs can talk about anything from business owners to marketing. There's so much we can tell people who are interested."
Professionals can also bypass a lot of the difficulties of in-person visits by creating virtual presentations or speaking to high school students through live video.
"With our current remote environment, professionals can literally Zoom into the classroom and engage with students," Hays said.
Make classes as engaging as possible. Introductory accounting classes can make or break a student's interest in becoming a CPA. While students need to learn the fundamentals, faculty are finding creative ways to make the material engaging and relevant.
For example, Bagranoff has her students choose their favorite companies at the beginning of each semester and uses those companies' financials as examples throughout the year.
"Using companies that they know and love is a really great way of making the class more interesting to them and helping them understand," Bagranoff said. "These students don't know much about business — it's their first real exposure — but they do shop at and interact with companies."
Teachers can also engage students by using case studies that show the impact CPAs can have.
"Auditors have the best stories on the planet — [about] the things people have done to falsify documents and try to fool auditors," Johnston said. "Get people engaged in what accountants do that's really exciting and helpful to the world. This generation wants something more than just a job; they want to better the world and their community."
Because the profession is constantly evolving, faculty also need to stay up to date on changes in the profession. One way to do that is by visiting the This Way to CPA Academic Resource Hub and attending the monthly Faculty Hour webcasts.
Support efforts to get accounting AP courses and STEM designation. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are a great way to expose high school students to potential college majors, which is why the AICPA has been training high school teachers to teach advanced accounting courses as it continues to work to advance accounting as an AP course with the College Board.
At the same time, the AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy have been working to evolve the accounting skill set and get accounting recognized as part of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program in schools. The AICPA has also been proactive in assisting university accounting programs to change their Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code to one on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) approved STEM list for its optional practical training program and is asking DHS to consider adding accounting and related programs to its approved list of CIP codes.
Anything faculty can do to expedite these efforts, such as voicing support for legislation, will help draw attention to these causes.
Foster a CPA culture on campus. Campuses with a good "CPA culture" typically have a few licensed CPAs teaching in classrooms, or at least an environment that espouses positive messaging about the benefits of being a CPA.
"Our role, especially as accounting faculty or as Beta Alpha Psi representing the profession, is to reach out to the underclassmen and make them understand and appreciate what this profession is all about," said Kelly Ann Ulto, CPA, clinical associate professor of accounting at Fordham University.
Faculty should generate CPA Exam awareness early, encourage students to get involved with Beta Alpha Psi, and talk about all the things they can do with an accounting degree and CPA license.
"If I look at everyone who majored in accounting, there's probably 120 different types of jobs they're doing right now across the board," Behn said.
Faculty can direct students to the Start Here Go Places and This Way to CPA websites to learn more. They can also take advantage of free career materials from This Way to CPA.
About the author
Hannah Pitstick is a content writer for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.
"New Strategies to Grow the Profession's Pipeline," JofA, March 24, 2022
"Lessons in Building the Accounting Pipeline From ENGAGE 2021," JofA, July 29, 2021
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