How firms can help employees obtain their CPA license

Mentorship, study time, and more can help new accountants get licensed quickly.
By Samiha Khanna

Before Jess Wong, 23, even moved to Philadelphia to start her first job out of college, she had a road map for earning her CPA license and the knowledge that her new employer was going to help.

A mentor from PwC—a CPA Ambassador, as they're called—had already emailed with info on earning her license within her first year and assurances that everyone at the Big Four firm would support her as she studied for the challenging exam.

"They made this process so easy for me," said Wong, who is an assurance associate in audit. "I didn't even have to shell out any money. I could just focus on studying with the materials they provided me and take the exam."

Although many firms incentivize employees to earn their CPA license, not all have robust or formal programs, said Kari Hipsak, CPA, CGMA, manager with the Private Companies Practice Section for the AICPA. PCPS surveyed nearly 500 firms last fall to learn more about their expectations of employees for earning their licenses, how firms support employees pursuing licensure, and the resources firms could use to better support them.

"This is something that can be a real challenge for some firms," Hipsak said. "We're working with a number of other teams in the AICPA to put together a toolkit to help firms promote a pro-CPA culture."

Licensure support is just one aspect of a larger priority for the profession: fortifying the pipeline of accounting professionals who are entering the field from college and ensuring they are positioned to best serve clients and reach leadership roles in their careers, Hipsak said.

Wong said she learned as an undergraduate at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that if she wanted to work at a Big Four firm, she would need to earn her CPA license.

"Getting my licensure is proof that I have the technical knowledge," Wong said. "Clients have a reason to trust me. It shows I have the additional knowledge, and I'm here to do the best job for you."

Indeed, the licensure is valuable at PwC. Employees entering assurance and tax service lines at the firm are required to have enough credit hours to take the CPA exam before their first day of work, said Alexa Merschel, national talent ID leader at the firm. Associates must earn the license to be considered for a promotion, she said, as it's critical to serving clients.

"Earning a CPA credential is a key milestone in the development of many PwC professionals, and early completion is a priority for many of our associates," Merschel said. "As individuals progress in their career, finding the time to prepare for and complete the CPA exam can become more challenging. Trying to prepare for the CPA exam while meeting high performance expectations, as well as personal and professional demands on their time, can be difficult. This is one of the reasons that we recommend they begin to take the exam prior to starting employment."

Once employees are on board, it's important to support them through the exam process to help ensure success. Here, using some examples from PwC, are ways for other firms to do that:

Supportive culture: A supportive work culture was critical to her success, said Wong, who passed all of the exams on her first attempt.

"I've been astounded by how many people at all levels are being understanding and empathetic," she said. "These are managers, partners, people who have been at the firm for a long time."

Shortly after arriving at the firm last August, Wong met several other new associates who were also studying for exams. They would meet in the mornings before work to study. The week of an exam, her department adjusted her work demands to allow her to focus on preparing for the exam, she said.

"The seniors in my group laid out that type of work environment," she said. "The day before your exam, they wouldn't even question it if you needed to leave early to study."

Financial support: PwC provides employees free test preparation through the Becker CPA Exam Review, Merschel said. Registration fees for the exams are covered for the first attempt, and the firm offers cash incentives for those who earn their licenses within the first two years.

Mentorship: In several markets, PwC provides formal mentorship through CPA Ambassadors—employees who recently completed the exam and can guide new employees through scheduling and studying for the exam while working full time, Merschel said.

By and large, having a mentor in her CPA Ambassador was the most positive influence in her journey to earn her license, Wong said.

"Right off the bat, pairing you with someone and hearing from them consistently was one of the best things they could have done," she said.

The experience has inspired Wong to want to be a CPA Ambassador for the next class of associates entering PwC.

"When they're looking for mentors, I will sign up," she said.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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