Recruiting the Best and the Brightest: The Role of Accounting Societies

By John A. Elfrink and Gregg S. Woodruff

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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 staff.

Market Segmentation

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 profession.

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.

AICPA 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 (www.aicpa-eca.org) 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 AICPA.

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.

COAP Program

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 at www.calcpa.org/Content/yourcareer/students.aspx.

Alabama

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).

Indiana’s Efforts

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
incpas.org/Students/KeyContacts/VolunteerPool.asp). 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.

LEAP Initiative

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 discussed above.

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 profession.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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