Talent acquisition: AICPA chair hears student voices, shares strategies

By Bryan Strickland

Anoop Natwar Mehta has a clear vision for the impact he wants to make as 2022–2023 chair of the AICPA board of directors and chair of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

His extensive encounters with accounting students have helped him develop a clearer view of the future workforce.

"They have such great passion. They have such great drive," Mehta said during a recent AICPA Town Hall. "I can't wait for these students to enter our profession."

Accounting leaders looking to bridge a challenging talent gap can't wait either.

That's why Mehta has logged lots of miles during his tenure and continues to do so. He estimates that he met with 2,500 students from 10 colleges during the fall semester, and he has another 10 visits scheduled for the spring.

"Eastern Michigan. Temple. Auburn. University of Maryland. N.C. State," Mehta said during a recent interview with the JofA, reeling off several of his upcoming destinations. "Marketing majors. Finance majors. Supply chain majors. But predominantly accounting students."

Mehta believes that CPAs thriving in the profession have a responsibility to support aspiring CPAs. He also believes that firms and organizations can benefit from doing the same.

Halfway through his road trip, Mehta shared some strategies, based on his experiences, that could work for organizations seeking quality talent.

Get involved with college students early

Though it wasn't common among Mehta's peers when he was in school, he got work experience in accounting while still a student. He believes that gave him a leg up, and he believes today's company leaders can benefit from offering the same opportunities.

"These students are getting recruited before even they finish their degrees, which is new and which is exciting," Mehta said. "If I relate back to my own career, I started working after a couple of years in college, and I do know that I felt that I came out ahead because of it."

Mehta made mention of an AICPA program in development to help firms and students alike. Students finishing their undergraduate degree who haven't yet reached the 150 hours required for CPA licensure would be hired by firms and work as first-year associates while taking up to 30 hours of cost-effective classes catered to the skills the firms need.

"I'm all for figuring out a way to formalize one year of work experience tied in with their education," Mehta said. "If we can figure out a way to make that affordable, I think we're really going to start to move toward solving pipeline issues."

Get an understanding of what motivates students

Mehta's travels confirmed something that's been widely observed, namely that the current generation of students gravitates toward what it perceives as purpose-driven work.

It's up to the accounting profession to make sure students understand that the profession offers exactly that.

"They need to know that their work matters; that is critical," Mehta said. "They want an opportunity to grow. They want leaders to invest in them."

Mehta described encountering a lot of positive energy from students on his visits. He thinks it's important that organizations looking to hire reflect and foster that energy.

Mehta said one student mentioned hearing that the profession was boring.

"I said, 'Do I look boring to you?,'" Mehta said with a laugh. "I said, 'I've had an amazing career, and a lot of it has to do with the CPA designation.'"

Get students educated on the value of earning their CPA

"You can do things with an accounting degree," Mehta said. "But the CPA designation really is what launched my career advancement."

Mehta has shared his personal success story, his ascension from intern to CFO to president, with students on his travels. His observations from the road suggest a few tweaks that could make a big difference in the percentage of accounting graduates that ultimately sit for the CPA Exam.

"I mean, we know the statistics. We've heard the discussion about some students not wanting to take the Exam," Mehta said. "Well, I can tell you with the 2,500 or so students that I've talked to, I would say probably 90% to 95% of them said they are going to be sitting for the CPA Exam. There's a huge disconnect there.

"Part of it is perhaps when the student graduates, that from the community they're surrounded by — perhaps there are other CPAs, perhaps there are other accountants — maybe they hear about the Exam and how hard it is."

Whatever the reasons that some students planning to take the CPA Exam never do, Mehta personally displayed the impact that current professionals can have on that decision.

"Eighteen out of the 18 students I talked to from Miami of Ohio are finishing their 150 credit hours in four years, and 17 of the 18 are sitting for the CPA Exam," Mehta said. "And that one, she texted me later and said I had convinced her that she should sit for the CPA Exam."

Get in front of students even earlier

It's safe to assume that some of the students' high school classmates never even considered accounting because they didn't have a clear picture of the profession.

For starters, people always associate it with math. And, this just in, a lot of capable high school students don't like math.

"You have to understand basic math, but that's not what the profession is about," Mehta said. "It's developing communication skills. Do you get along with people? Do you like interacting with people? All of that. That's what it is.

"Say you want to pursue an interest in sports. The NFL, the NBA, all the professional leagues, they need CPAs. Those are the kinds of things that you have to really promote."

How does the profession deliver those types of messages?

"Give me a half-hour," Mehta said.

It takes time, but, as Mehta has discovered, it's time well spent.

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Bryan Strickland at Bryan.Strickland@aicpa-cima.com.

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