Hiring and enrollments reached record highs last year

By Courtney L. Vien

Unlike many in their Millennial cohort who face continued underemployment, accounting graduates find themselves in high demand from employers. Top students are often recruited, offered jobs during or after their internships, and enticed with signing bonuses.

According to the AICPA report Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, hiring at public accounting firms jumped 7% to reach record levels in 2013–14. Ninety-one percent of all firms said they expect to hire accounting graduates at the same or higher levels in 2015.

On the supply side, enrollment in accounting programs also reached record highs in 2013–14, the survey found. More than 253,000 students enrolled in accounting at all levels, 5% more than in 2011–12. And universities expect this trend will continue: 97% of bachelor’s accounting programs and 70% of master’s accounting programs anticipate that enrollment will be the same or higher than it was in 2013–14.

While enrollment has seen a steady increase for more than a decade, there has been some easing in the momentum of undergraduate and graduate accounting degrees awarded. Degrees awarded held steady at the previous record high level (less than a 1% decrease), owing to a sharp increase in master’s degrees awarded (31%) and a decline in bachelor’s degrees awarded (11%).

“The data in the Trends report is very positive overall, and the outlook for accounting students entering the profession is bright. At that same time, we’ve continued to see a slight widening of the gap between the number of students who are graduating with accounting degrees and the number of candidates sitting for the CPA exam, although the growth of the gap has slowed,” said Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, CEO and president of the AICPA.

“It is critical that we’re producing enough CPAs to replace the retiring Baby Boomers and that the profession is continuing to meet the ever-changing needs of the U.S. capital markets,” Melancon said. “We’ve been looking into this issue in great detail and are considering a number of professionwide initiatives to complement our existing programs and ensure that qualified accounting graduates are earning their CPA license.”

Complementary AICPA research has found that accounting programs that stress the importance of the CPA and on-campus employer recruiting increase students’ interest in becoming a CPA. Once students graduate, the single greatest influence on whether they sit for the CPA exam is support from their employer to pursue their license, including time off to study and financial compensation. Conversely, accounting graduates who are recruited by companies directly out of college, and foreign accounting students who return to their home countries after graduation, are less likely to earn their CPA license than those who begin their careers in public accounting.

The AICPA has conducted the Trends survey since 1971. It polled hundreds of firms and universities from January through April 2015 about data from the 2013–14 academic year. The Institute also is working to understand the demand for accounting graduates on the business and industry side of the profession, said Joanne Fiore, AICPA vice president–Professional Media, Pathways & Inclusion.

Other finding of the survey include:

Number of women partners increases: The survey examined the demographics of accounting personnel. The percentage of partners who are women, the survey found, increased 5 percentage points between 2012 and 2014, climbing from 19% to 24%. The gender distribution of professional staff at all firms is now 52% male and 48% female.

Spike in master’s program enrollment: In 2013–14, master’s degree enrollments rose 19% over the 2012–13 academic year, while bachelor’s degree enrollments increased by 3%. Moreover, the number of master’s graduates rose by nearly one-third (31%), while the number of bachelor’s graduates dropped 11%.

“There has been a growing trend of specialization in the profession, as well as a higher level of performance expected for today’s entry-level CPAs,” Fiore said. “Accounting students have responded to that marketplace demand by increasingly earning master’s degrees and developing specialized skills to complement their strong technical base before they enter the profession.”

Demand for experienced talent: Ninety-three percent of public accounting firms—and 100% of firms employing 50 or more CPAs—said they expect to hire candidates with three to seven years’ experience this year at the same or higher levels than they did last year.

All told, the survey suggests that firms are optimistic about the future. “These findings indicate that job prospects for current enrollees in accounting programs as well as recent graduates remain extremely bright,” Fiore said.

Courtney L. Vien (cvien@aicpa.org) is a JofA associate editor. 

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