A bright future ahead for young CPAs

By Sarah Ovaska

Becoming a CPA takes intention and effort. But the rewards for joining a profession known for its trustworthiness and rigor are numerous for those who meet the requirements, several of the AICPA's top leaders said recently to a group of motivated accounting students from diverse backgrounds.

Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, president and CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA, emphasized the importance of a strong educational foundation for future CPAs. "Education is one of the things that sets CPAs apart," he said. "And combined with the Exam and experience requirements, CPAs are upholding the responsibility of working in the public interest and meeting the needs of their clients."

Melancon was one of the speakers at a virtual fireside chat held Oct. 13 at the AICPA's 2021 Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop (ASLW) and Accounting Profession Diversity Symposium, events led by the AICPA's member-facing Diversity and Inclusion team. ASLW is an annual invitational program for ethnic minority college students with an interest in a career in accounting. The workshop's aim is to strengthen professional skills and understanding of the possibilities and benefits of becoming a CPA and joining the accounting profession. The symposium provides a platform for organizations, universities, faculty, and state societies to explore best practices and identify ways to overcome obstacles in filling the accounting pipeline with diverse professionals.

The chat featured prominent leaders in the profession. In addition to Melancon was Sue Coffey, CPA, CGMA, the CEO of the Association's public accounting division; and Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, the CEO of KET Solutions LLC, past chair of the AICPA board of directors, and current National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion chair, who moderated the discussion.

The discussion was wide ranging, with leaders talking about how they came into accounting as the first in their families to enter the profession. They also shared practical advice on how young accountants from nontraditional backgrounds are needed and can thrive in the profession.  

"We know that the playing field is different for some people than others," said Ellison-Taylor, who was the first Black accountant to chair the AICPA. "But I also recognize that it is a profession that has allowed each one of us to chart our own course, to decide what we wanted to do, and to decide in a way that was uniquely us."

Below are five major takeaways from the panel discussion.  

There's no single path. A career in accounting is not linear and can take people through myriad opportunities once a person earns his or her CPA, panelists said. Though working in public accounting firms is intellectually and financially rewarding for many, it's not the only career path. Accountants today are sitting in key positions in corporate boardrooms, conducting high-level government auditing work, and leading the growing field of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) work where CPAs help identify businesses' social impact, Melancon said.

Professionals can build on their CPA licenses with additional credentials in forensic accounting (Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF)), personal finance work (Personal Financial Specialist (PFS)), information technology (Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP)), and more.

Ellison-Taylor said having a CGMA (Chartered Global Management Accountant) designation was a great complement to her CPA.  

"We also have a path for you if you are going into corporate finance, and that's the CGMA," Ellison-Taylor said. "Please consider that credential, in addition to being a CPA, because it is an amazing combination that you can take anywhere."

CPAs thrive in the changing world. The educational and experiential foundation of CPAs prepares them to meet the never-ending challenges delivered by today's complex global economy, Melancon said. When the U.S.-based AICPA and the U.K.-based Chartered Institute of Management Accountants joined forces in 2017, it strengthened CPAs' ability to advise in global boardrooms and specialize in areas like supply chain management and more.

"We're about really creating that global footprint," Melancon said. Twenty years from now, he predicted, "our organization will have blossomed into this really powerful force, helping to make sure that the profession is successful on a global stage for decades to come."

How CPA Evolution will diversify the profession. The leaders also spoke about how the profession is evolving and, in response, so is the CPA Exam. The CPA Evolution initiative, a joint effort between the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and the AICPA, is transforming the CPA licensure model to recognize the rapidly changing skills and competencies the practice of accounting requires today and will require in the future.

Coffey shared that CPA Evolution will include a revised model that will allow for the flexibility to add or remove disciplines to reflect the reality of practice and protect the public interest. She also spoke to the misconceptions that could exist about the difficulty of the new Exam. The changes to the Exam are not making the process any harder or easier or adding barriers to entry, she said.

"It will help us make sure that we have the pipeline that we're looking for and the skill sets we need," Coffey said. "It's really about changing education and the CPA Exam to reflect the demands of the marketplace and the expectations and the needs for greater knowledge in things like technology."

The AICPA is committed to getting diverse perspectives throughout this process to ensure a fair opportunity for all who take the Exam, panelists said. In a survey conducted with minority accounting students on how CPA Evolution affects their interest in becoming a CPA, 34% said it increases their interest and 54% said it keeps them very interested. In addition, the AICPA has heard from academic surveys and discussion groups that their biggest needs were model curriculum and education and resources for faculty. Based on this input, the AICPA launched a model curriculum, Faculty Hour web series, and Academic Resource Database.

Students should prioritize the Exam. There was also practical advice for students. Time required to study for the Exam is what research points to as a challenge for many, so taking the Exam right after finishing school is the way to go, Melancon said.

Both Ellison-Taylor and Coffey encouraged students not to get discouraged if they do not pass the CPA Exam on their first try, as they did not either. They shared that the number of attempts is not important. Coffey said people will still have success in the profession and that it's not unusual for people to retake parts of the Exam.

Ellison-Taylor suggested finding study partners who are motivated to strategize on Exam preparation. She recalled telling herself, "I need a study partner who's already thinking about how we're going to pass this test. And if we don't, then we'll worry about that then. But I'm not planning for failure, because I'm not going to put barriers in my own path."

Different backgrounds are embraced. The AICPA's 2019 Accounting Graduates Supply and Demand Trends report said that approximately 16% of CPAs in accounting and finance functions at U.S. CPA firms in 2018 were an ethnic minority. This is the best metric the AICPA has available, since demographic information is omitted from Exam scoring, Coffey explained. However, she and other panelists said there is still much work to do to improve diverse representation within the profession.

Many firms are looking to strengthen their organizations with talent that better reflects the nation and world, Coffey said, which includes ethnic and racial diversity. Firms and organizations need to make sure they have supports in place for those who may be the first in their families to hold professional jobs, or who had to work in order to finance their undergraduate studies, she added.  

Businesses are more successful when they have diversity of thought, Coffey said, which includes diversity of gender, race, and all elements of diversity in leadership positions. But that requires firms and corporations to keep working to ensure that everyone is truly supported and can aspire to the highest levels in the organization, Ellison-Taylor said.

No matter what path a young CPA takes, the profession is one that is well regarded and respected.  

"We're the trusted adviser," Melancon said. "We bring credibility and rigor to decision-making."

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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