the Best and the Brightest: The Role of Accounting Societies
John A. Elfrink and Gregg S. Woodruff
FEBRUARY 2008 - To be successful, the accounting profession needs
to recruit the best and brightest prospects into the field. Accounting
societies are assisting in this effort by encouraging faculty, practicing
accountants, professional organizations, and public accounting firms
to help fulfill the profession’s need for talented individuals.
Supply and Demand of Accountants
According to the AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section
(PCPS), finding and keeping professionally qualified staff has
consistently been the most significant concern for private accounting
firms since 1997 (“Best Practices in Recruiting and Retaining
Talented Staff,” AICPA; see pcps.aicpa.org/).
Though there has been a recent rebound in the supply of accounting
graduates, staffing remains a serious issue for accounting firms
due to the demands of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) (J.L. Koehn
and S.C. DelVecchio, “Revisiting the Ripple Effects of the
Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002,” The CPA Journal, May
2006). This assertion is supported by the 2005 PCPS survey, as
reported in Top Issues in Practice Management, and the 2005 AICPA
report, The Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand
for Public Accounting Recruits Report—For the Academic Year
2003–2004 (B. Sanders, L.B. Romeo).
The PCPS survey indicates staffing is still the most important
issue, and is growing in importance, to all sizes of CPA firms
surveyed except sole practitioners. Additionally, the 2005 AICPA
report indicates that the recent increase in the number of accounting
graduates is exceeded by the increase in demand for those graduates.
In the 1991–92 academic year, American universities graduated
60,390 accounting majors. By 2001–02, the number of new
accountants graduating had bottomed out at 44,695. The latest
academic year available (2003–04) shows a rebound to 53,760.
The number of CPA examination candidates has also declined since
the adoption of the 150-hour requirement by most states. Despite
the financial and review- course support offered by the largest
public accounting firms to newly hired accountants to prepare
for the CPA exam, the AICPA 2005 report shows 109,872 candidates
sat for the exam in 2003 (latest available data), as opposed to
the 113,629 who sat for the exam in 1979, when approximately the
same number of accounting students were graduating. The number
sitting in 2003 was also 34,000 less than in 1990, representing
a 24% decline from this peak year. The 150-hour requirement is
attributed blame for some of the drop in the number of candidates
sitting for the exam (J.P. Boone and T.D. Coe, “The 150-Hour
Requirement and Changes in the Supply of Accounting Undergraduates:
Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment,” Issues in Accounting
Education, August 2002).
The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)
has tracked the number of CPA exam candidates since 1982. NASBA
reports that another likely cause for the decrease in the number
of candidates was the move to a computerized format in 2004. Assessing
the extent of the decline is complicated, however, by the candidates’
increased options for sitting for the exam under the new format
(“Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination—Reports
and Commentary on the 2005 CPA Examinations,” NASBA,
December 2006). Irrespective of the reasons behind it, the relative
decline in the number of candidates indicates a weakening interest
at a time when the demand for CPAs is increasing.
The staffing needs of accounting firms continue to grow faster
than the supply. The AICPA 2005 report shows an 8% increase in
graduates and a higher increase in the demand. Reflecting this
increase in demand, average starting salaries for entry-level
accountants rose to $45,723 in 2006. This makes accounting salaries
more competitive with fields such as finance ($45,191) and management
information systems ($44,138), according to a 2006 survey by the
National Association of Colleges and Employers. By 2009, firms
of all sizes project hiring increases of about 15%, while the
U.S. Department of Labor anticipates an overall increase of 52.6%
in the number of accountants over the period of 2004–2014
(U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry-Occupation
Employment Matrix, data.bls.gov). Consequently, the profession
can expect accounting salaries to rise.
The AICPA 2005 report also shows that more new graduates are
beginning their careers in the auditing units of CPA firms. In
2000, 65% of new hires were placed in auditing. By 2004, this
number jumped to 77%. The relative decrease in graduates who have
completed the CPA exam and the increased demand for CPAs have
reduced the quantity of professionally qualified individuals within
the hiring pool and pushed up salaries significantly.
Retention is as important as recruiting. The AICPA 2005 report
indicates that turnover rates for all CPA firms increased to 12%
in 2004, up from 10% in 2003. Over a five-year period, small local
firms were experiencing a 7%–9% turnover rate while national
firm rates were in the 17%–28% range. The reasons individuals
give up positions in public accounting vary, but they are often
attributed to work-life balance issues, especially for new mothers
(Mai Browne, “Flextime to the Nth Degree,” Journal
of Accountancy, September 2005). There is also evidence that
intergenerational conflicts and management style contribute to
the problem (David Satava, “The A to Z of Keeping Staff,”
Journal of Accountancy, April 2003).
An AICPA whitepaper, Best Practices in Recruiting and Retaining
Talented Staff, reports the results of a recent PCPS survey
of 500 firms which found that few firms have either formal programs
or documented processes to address staffing issues. Retention
efforts seem especially weak. Less than 10% of the firms have
leadership development programs or methods addressing generational
differences. Only 25% have a documented pay-for-performance program.
While internship programs are generally recognized as effective
recruiting and training tools, nearly 90% of firms do not have
formal, documented internship programs, which may lead students
to weigh the benefits against the potential delay in graduation.
An internship may also preclude interns from participating in
academic opportunities to build leadership skills in campus organizations
during their junior and senior years. The lack of programs is
significant, because it has been noted that development, compensation,
and intergenerational communications are critical to maintaining
high morale and to retaining valuable accounting staff members.
Recruiting and retention problems affect more than just staffing.
Searches are both expensive and time-consuming. Turnover often
causes a disruption in the office environment as adjustments are
made for new personalities. A lack of experience can affect client
perceptions of quality and consistent service. Succession plan
efforts can also be hampered by the scarcity of manager- and partner-eligible
New CPAs need to be recruited and supported during three stages
of their development:
- High school students and college underclassmen who possess
high academic aptitude. Recruiters must promote the accounting
major and encourage these students to enroll in accounting programs.
- Upperclassmen who are declared accounting majors. Recruiters
must promote the career benefits associated with being a CPA
and encourage candidates to sit for the CPA examination.
- New entrants in the job market. Recruiters and employers
must promote the career benefits associated with public accounting
and increase mentoring efforts to persuade them to stay in the
The Role of Professional Societies
The AICPA has the expertise and resources to reach new CPAs at
all three stages described above. For example, the AICPA just
concluded a five-year campaign (Start Here. Go Places) to increase
interest in the CPA designation and encourage entry into professional
or public accounting. The AICPA’s mass-market experience
and developed modes of delivery can be used to raise awareness
of the opportunities for CPAs. Additionally, the AICPA has the
structure in place for gathering data and training volunteers
to complement recruiting and retention efforts.
State societies, on the other hand, are in a position to address
local needs and promote accountancy on a more personal level.
The state societies and their local chapters have contacts within
area high schools and colleges, where they can connect with students
and educators. The societies can also provide customized training
to local and regional firms and recruit member volunteers.
The AICPA and the state societies are aware of the accounting
profession’s staffing problem. Their mission statements
either directly or indirectly commit their organizations to promoting
careers in the profession. The AICPA and several state societies
have undertaken high-profile projects to attract students to public
accounting and to encourage graduates to seek licensure. Many
of the projects are designed to assist firms in recruiting. Other
projects rely on member volunteers for success.
The following sections identify the retention and recruiting
resources available through the AICPA and a sampling of the efforts
state societies are using. The following is not meant to be an
exhaustive discussion, but rather to illustrate current efforts.
The AICPA has traditionally been involved in recruiting for the
profession. Not only is it part of their mission, but new CPAs
are the source of membership growth. To its credit, the AICPA
also recognizes the lack of diversity in its ranks. Retention
is a natural extension of its efforts to maintain membership.
The AICPA recruiting program begins in elementary schools and
continues through early college, the first stage of recruitment.
A series of videos and classroom activities is available for use
in elementary and middle schools. The emphasis in this program
is on financial literacy, but a secondary purpose is to raise
awareness of careers in accounting. Initiated five years ago,
the “Start Here. Go Places” project centers on an
interactive website (www.startheregoplaces.com)
aimed at young adults. This multifaceted campaign uses games,
e-mail, direct marketing, and other innovative tools to promote
the accounting major and the CPA certificate. To assist practitioners
and educators in their recruiting efforts, the AICPA offers a
revised “Takin’ Care of Business” information
pack, available through www.cpa2biz.com,
that includes a user’s guide, a career video and guide,
bookmarks, and a poster to facilitate a classroom presentation.
The AICPA also recognizes the need to encourage accounting majors
to sit for the examination and join the profession, the second
stage. Part of the motivation behind computerizing the CPA exam
was to reflect today’s learning style and emulate the work
environment. To help students register and prepare for the exam,
the AICPA developed a website (www.cpa-exam.org) with application
information, preparation tips, and a newsletter. To assist future
CPAs in determining if they have the skills and aptitude for various
specialties in accounting, the AICPA developed a competency self-assessment
tool offered through CPA2biz and free to AICPA members.
The AICPA offers a number of tools to accounting educators to
help professors prepare and recruit new CPAs. The AICPA Core Competency
Framework identifies the functional (technical), personal, and
broad business competencies needed by prospective accountants
in any related field. The Educational Competency Assessment website
can be used by accounting instructors to develop student outcomes
and classroom materials. The “On-Campus Champion”
program recruits accounting professors from universities offering
accounting degrees. The program’s primary goal is to establish
direct, personal connections with students. The volunteer point
person on campus serves as a career counselor and a liaison to
The period immediately after graduation is a critical point in
a new accountant’s career, the third stage. Recruiting and
retaining technically strong individuals and future leaders from
the pool of new graduates is important to the profession. Many
of the tools discussed above are helpful in recruiting accounting
graduates, but additional tools are needed to encourage new hires
to sit for the CPA exam and to help acclimate them to their new
jobs. The AICPA’s work-life balance initiatives have included
research projects on this issue. Their efforts have identified
women’s advancement, workplace flexibility, and minority
underrepresentation as important issues. The PCPS and the AICPA’s
Work/Life and Women’s Initiative Executive Committee have
published research and guidance that are of value to new accountants
and their employers. The Young CPA Network provides resources
for mentoring, networking, professional development, and other
needs of new entrants. The Minority Initiatives Committee (MIC)
recruits potential CPAs in all three stages. The MIC has scholarships,
a faculty development program, and awareness projects that are
designed to improve diversity within the profession. Additional
information on all of these programs is available from www.aicpa.org.
In 1987, the NYSSCPA implemented COAP, in partnership with Pace
University and the National Association of Black Accountants,
to recruit high school students from historically underrepresented
groups into the accounting profession. The programs, presented
annually during the summer, include workshops, presentations,
and other activities designed to introduce talented students to
the accounting profession and recruit them into accounting programs.
Since the inaugural COAP effort, more than 1,000 students have
participated in the program; more than 150 students attended last
summer. The program has expanded beyond Pace University; it is
conducted at 10 different academic institutions in three-to-five-day
programs. The academic institutions are Siena College in Loudonville,
SUNY Brockport, the University of Buffalo, Hofstra University
on Long Island, SUNY New Paltz, Long Island University in Brooklyn,
St. John’s University in Queens, Pace University in Westchester,
Le Moyne College in Syracuse, and Westchester Community College.
According to William Pape, the NYSSCPA director of member relations,
seven of the 10 academic institutions offer residency programs
while three offer commuter programs. While COAP is a key program
for the NYSSCPA, which provides both monetary and human resources
support, Pape noted that members of local chapters in concert
with faculty at participating institutions have taken the lead
role for the NYSSCPA and made the most significant contributions
to the program’s success. More information, including past
articles focused on alumni, can be found at www.nysscpa.org/futurecpas/coap_description.htm.
‘Bring It On’
The California Society of CPAs (CalCPA) sponsored the production
of the video “Bring It On” in 2004. This video won
a 2004 MarCom Creative Award honoring excellence in marketing
and communications. The goal of the video was to introduce both
high school and college students to the career opportunities in
accounting while confronting historical stereotypes associated
with accountants. The opportunities highlighted include careers
in public accounting, financial institutions, law firms, sports
teams, movie studios, and the FBI. The video can be accessed online
Through its educational foundation, the Alabama Society of CPAs
(ASCPA) annually provides 20 $1,500 scholarships to
students majoring in accounting at accredited colleges and universities
who are within one year of completing their accounting degree.
To encourage donations, the ASCPA provides a link from its homepage
to a webpage where information about the foundation and its scholarships
is provided (see www.ascpa.org/Content/37340.aspx).
One of the Indiana CPA Society’s more successful programs
is the “Key Contact” program. The high school–focused
Key Contact program began in 2000 and has 62 member volunteers
working in as many as 200 high schools (see
These mentors work with guidance counselors and make presentations
during career days and other events to promote the accounting
major and highlight accounting as a prospective career. The Indiana
CPA Society (INCPAS) initiated the Emerging Leaders Alliance two
years ago, with the primary goal of providing young professionals
with one to seven years of experience opportunities to develop
their leadership skills and create other opportunities for service
to the profession and future accounting professionals. In developing
these opportunities, the Emerging Leaders Alliance identified
the mentoring of college students as a worthy goal. The mentors
encourage students to sit for and successfully complete the Uniform
CPA exam and join the accounting profession. Additionally, Emerging
Leaders Alliance mentors seek to make at least one presentation
per semester on each campus at Beta Alpha Psi and accounting society
meetings, and are planning to make presentations at daytime classes
to expand their reach to a larger, more diverse audience.
In another specific attempt to maintain interest in accounting
and develop college students’ research and presentation
skills, the INCPAS educational foundation also supports a college
case study competition. Student teams from as many as 16 different
schools participate in the annual competition. Each member of
the top three winning teams receives a scholarship award of up
to $1,000. For more information, see incpas.org/Students/lwCaseStudyInformation.asp.
The Missouri Society of Certified Public Accountants (MSCPA)
has implemented a series of related projects under an umbrella
venture titled Lead and Enhance the Accounting Profession (LEAP).
In 2001, the MSCPA created LEAP in response to the decline in
accounting students. The original mission was to raise awareness,
build understanding, and change perceptions of CPAs. Since then,
the venture has evolved to address the needs of the three stages
Early efforts of LEAP centered on encouraging high school students
to major in accounting. The project emphasized the opportunities,
empowerment, and flexibility that accompany a career in accounting.
Promotional material was developed and disseminated to high schools
through guidance counselors. LEAP ambassadors are now recruited
from the MSCPA membership to serve as local representatives. The
ambassadors make classroom presentations, attend career fairs,
and maintain contact with the schools. The goal is to have an
ambassador for every high school in the state. The MSCPA also
undertook a campaign to increase scholarship dollars and moved
the award decision process from the chapter to the state level.
Award winners and their families are recognized at the annual
MSCPA convention. LEAP symposiums are held each October, where
hundreds of high school students and their teachers gather to
explore accounting careers and improve their financial literacy.
The MSCPA expanded the LEAP project to include college accounting
majors. Student networking events are held across the state, allowing
accounting students to mingle with professionals in a social setting.
Student memberships are free to students who attend. The LEAP
scholarship program extends to college students. The MSCPA also
serves as a clearinghouse for students seeking mentors or internships.
The MSCPA began a campus champion program to recruit professors
and student leaders to promote LEAP events and distribute LEAP
material. The MSCPA also participates in the annual Missouri Association
of Accounting Educators meeting. In 2004, the MSCPA began the
“LEAP Challenge” for Missouri universities. This trivia
contest uses CPA exam–type questions; regional winners compete
at the annual MSCPA convention for scholarships.
The MSCPA also realized that its membership was aging. Less than
a third of its members are currently below 40, and few new CPAs
are involved in the leadership of the society. To combat the trend,
in 2005 it formed the Young Professional Advisory Council (YPC)
from the society’s LEAP and the Work/Balance Committees.
In order to serve this segment of accountants (under 35 or with
less than five years of experience), the Council surveyed this
age group and held focus groups. In response, an extensive website
was developed with links to CPA exam information, an electronic
newsletter, and work-life balance assistance. The YPC also offers
social events. Future plans include scholarships for CPA candidates,
a referral service for volunteers, and seminars on leadership,
practice development, and work-life issues.
Since the formation of LEAP, Missouri CPAs have seen evidence
of success. Over 275 CPAs are acting as LEAP ambassadors, covering
70% of the state’s high schools. Over 600 students applied
for $170,000 in LEAP scholarships in 2005. More than 750 students
and teachers attended five LEAP symposiums last year. Student
membership in the MSCPA has grown from 100 in 2001 before the
LEAP initiative to 1,200 in 2006. Participation in the “LEAP
Challenge” also increased during its second year of competition.
Participation and Research Needed
A variety of tools and programs are in place to aid the accounting
profession’s recruitment and retention of the best and brightest.
However, many tools are underutilized, and some may be ineffective.
Although the professional organizations are charged with promoting
the CPA certificate, success relies on the participation of individual
members and their employers. The CPA designation is sought and
maintained by new accountants because it is rewarded by their
employers and recognized by their peers.
As in most multilayered ventures, coordination in such efforts
is critical. There are many players who benefit from a healthy
CPA profession. Even well-designed programs, however, will fail
without cooperation. The AICPA must continue working with the
state societies. Universities must be more involved. Perhaps most
important, employers need to recognize the value of the CPA and
reward certificate holders and active society members. Although
the AICPA and state societies can play a key role, bright young
professionals will choose to pursue a CPA largely because of the
personal attention they receive from an established member of
The AICPA and the state societies have developed and implemented
numerous recruiting programs. Research is needed to identify the
best practices so that limited resources (e.g., volunteer time)
can be used effectively. Locating and promoting the successful
programs are the keys to success.
Opportunities for new CPAs have never been better. Likewise,
the need for quality professionals has never been higher. The
interest for the profession among young adults should be nurtured.
Promising new graduates should receive a positive image of the
profession. Accounting offers the opportunity for a successful
career that can be complemented by an excellent balance between
work and life.
John A. Elfrink, PhD, CPA, is the chair,
and Gregg S. Woodruff, PhD, CPA, is an associate
professor, both in the department of accountancy at Western Illinois
University, Macomb, Ill.