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A Sustainable Profession

Joanne S. Barry, CAE

What does sustainability mean to you? As a growing number of companies look to communicate their environmental, social, and corporate governance performance, you might think of it in the language of disclosures and reporting principles, however new and uncertain that language may still be. Or perhaps you think of sustainability in terms of revenue streams—a chance to expand your firm's bottom line with new service opportunities. These are common responses within the CPA community, but they're not the only possibilities for considering the issue. At the NYSSCPA, when we talk about sustainability, we don't just mean a set of services that CPAs can offer clients; we're also looking at how we might create a more sustainable profession, one that draws a constant influx of new talent and is considered an attractive career option with diverse avenues for success. Sustain-ability for us means figuring out how we take the 119-year-old CPA designation into the next century.

What Will Sustain the Next Generation of CPAs?

At its core, sustainability reporting asks us to connect the dots between a business's operations and its impacts and assess whether an entity's actions are consistent with its stated values. If we apply this to the profession itself, then we have to ask ourselves: Is the desire to strengthen the CPA brand and better serve the public reflected in the internal strategies of CPA firms? When many practices consider both the changing face of the country and the importance of the global stage, they recognize the need for a more culturally diverse profession. But beyond the pretty pictures in firm brochures—beyond the lip service to stakeholders—are we doing enough to meet that challenge? Has your firm put any resources toward engaging populations that have traditionally been overlooked? Has it thought beyond the recruitment of women and professionals of color, and has it created strategies aimed at their retention? What's the plan?

We need to ask the same tough questions about our efforts to cultivate young talent. We know that the profession is graying at a rapid pace, with a raft of mergers in recent years partly driven by the retirement of baby boomers. In order to woo millennials, the group that will soon comprise the biggest portion of the workforce, we'll have to do more than talk—we'll have to rethink our business models and be willing to discard outdated attitudes about office culture.

In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a global study on next-generation professionals after the firm's leadership observed that increasing numbers of millennials were leaving within just a few years and that younger staffers “didn't seem to be motivated by the same things that motivated the generations before them.” Indeed, researchers determined that the traditional selling points of fair pay and a stable career trajectory were no longer enough to retain young professional talent. Instead, the study of 44,000 employees found that a work/life balance was “one of the most significant drivers of employee retention and a primary reason this generation of employees may choose a nontraditional professional career track.”

The emphasis on work/life balance is consistent with the findings of other recent surveys, including an NYSSCPA survey of more than 600 New York CPAs conducted last year. Our survey found that among newer professionals (respondents who had been a CPA for less than five years), the desire for a better work/life balance was the most important reason they had decided not to work for a public accounting firm.

Perhaps the solution is offering greater flexibility in where, when, and how work is performed. For example, some firms allow parts or all of their teams to work virtually; or maybe a comprehensive IT overhaul is the answer, given that millen-nials expect to work in an environment where the latest technology is fully utilized. We need to consider issues important to this next generation in order to create a space for them that they'll actually want to fill.

Beyond that, firms must also have a plan that allows that next generation to take the reins one day—something that the NYSSCPA's survey found to be sorely lacking. A full 48% of the CPAs we surveyed identified their level within their organization as either an owner or partner. Of them, nearly half said that they did not have a clear succession plan in place—a figure that was consistent across the state and in both public and private firms.

There's no one approach that will single-handedly help us to ensure the survival of the profession. What is needed, though, is a sense of urgency and a desire to be proactive rather than reactive. If we don't wake up and think about the long term, we run the risk of being lost when the short term passes.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director & CEO, NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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