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Mending the Gaps in the Generational Bridge

Joanne S. Barry

For those of you who have heard me speak and have read my CPA Journal columns over the past two years, you know that I often discuss the power of professional associations. I strongly believe, as French historian Alexis de Tocqueville opined centuries ago, that an association is a collective society, one that sets shared goals and works toward them together—many individuals working jointly will always accomplish more than those working in isolation.

During the Society's pursuit of a younger generation of members over the past year, I have been cautioned by our more established members that young CPAs don't buy into that philosophy, and that our 116-year-old organization will be a mere shadow of itself once the baby boomer generation retires.

Those naysayers could not be more wrong.

Just last week I had breakfast with one of our young CPAs, a member employed by a Big Four firm who is proactively seeking professional development opportunities with the NYSSCPA. Our paths first crossed at the 2012 AICPA Spring Council Meeting in Washington, D.C. She had not been invited; in fact, she had no reason to be there other than wanting to get a better understanding of her place in the accounting profession zeitgeist, and she believed that the profession's national association was the right place to do it. This alone negates two cynical assumptions that certain people have about new CPAs entering the workforce, especially those who work in public firms:

  • That junior associates have no time to focus on their professional development

  • That the time young CPAs do dedicate to professional development won't be spent volunteering with a professional association.

Educators: The Ties That Bind

Like the baby boomer CPAs who came before her, this young woman believes that membership in a professional association is a crucial aspect of being a licensed professional. As we talked, I realized it was her college professor who had instilled in her the importance of membership in a professional association.

One goal of mentoring is to prepare the next generation in order to ensure the quality and commitment of the profession going forward. Students with good mentors are more likely to value the importance of professionalism, and they will seek the support that mentoring provides early in their professional careers. One good way to do that—as this young CPA understood—is via membership in a professional association. CPA educators are a vital bridge between the academic and the professional world. If students form mentoring relationships with professors in college, they will know that they can seek out a similar relationship either in the office or through a professional association. Academics are in the best position to channel these young professionals into the NYSSCPA, and many CPA educators are doing just that every day.

But simply convincing aspiring professionals to become association members won't lead to career-long members unless we deliver on our promises. We tell our younger members that the NYSSCPA is not their “grandfather's CPA society.” But what makes us different from the Society we were just a few years ago? Through surveys and other forms of outreach, our younger members told us they want web-based learning, philanthropic and networking opportunities, and the chance to develop their leadership skills. We also learned that we need fluid and flexible projects that require less than a year of commitment. We have a new perspective to welcome a new generation into the fold of our professional Society, so that's what we aim to deliver.

While the tools we use to communicate have changed, our need for connection with others still remains. And although the Internet allows us to form groups in new ways, young CPAs are not going to get real-world experience just by reading a blog about life in an accounting firm. They will always look to their educators, their first managers, and other successful professionals for cues on how to navigate a firm's professional culture. Our goal is to provide those opportunities in new ways.

If you have young CPAs on your staff, be a mentor. You can start by learning more about what the Society is doing for its youngest members, including the Foundation for Accounting Education's two-day conference for emerging leaders taking place this month in Verona, New York (www.nysscpa.org/youngcpa). Make it possible for young CPAs to attend the conference, and consider sending a few seniors or managers as well. You will like what they bring back to your firms and businesses, including the knowledge that they have your support. That's one way of bridging the generation gap.

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

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