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CPA ROUNDTABLE: Given the declining numbers of accounting graduates, what should firms do to attract and retain young talent?

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Aug 24, 2023

NINA T. DORATA  |  Associate Dean of Strategic and External Partnerships and Professor of Accountancy  |  Queens

The latest news that has significant importance for students who are potential candidates for the profession are Work-for-Credit programs. PwC has one with Northeastern University in Boston and another one with Saint Peters University in Jersey City, N.J. The AICPA and NASBA [the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy] recently launched an Experience, Learn and Earn pilot program with Tulane University that is similar in that it reduces the cost to attain the 150 credits.

The Work-for-Credit program is a win-win for the profession and for the candidate entering the profession as well. It eliminates the candidate’s cost burden of the extra 30 credits for licensure. In the Work-for-Credit program, the firm contracts with the educational institution, which agrees to provide credit for what is called the “work experience.” This arrangement not only funds the tuition but also pays the candidates a wage while they are working for credit. So the institution doesn’t lose the tuition revenue because they’re being compensated, essentially, by the firm for the tuition, and the candidate earns the 30 credits.

Work-for-Credit not only satisfies the 150-credit requirement, but also it satisfies the one-year licensure experience requirement. From the firm’s perspective, it is actively involved in promoting talent. I think that this is a major step in improving the pipeline. It alleviates the costs of the additional 30 credits by removing the burden of that cost from the students. And that cost is a barrier—we’ve seen enrollments decline significantly, and most students are obtaining their education at public institutions because of the tuition benefit. Nevertheless, I would like to see the other firms create Work-for-Credit contracts with the universities. Work-for-Credit programs have been the most significant development in improving the pipeline because they make entry into the profession more economical.

My only concern is that it is a tall order for a student to work a full-time schedule for the firm, for these 30 credits, and to study for the CPA exam. That model has been in place for years, but with discipline and stamina, it is achievable.

With changes reflected in the CPA Evolution exam content and format, coupled with NASBA’s historic amendment to increase the length of conditional credit from 18 months to 30 months, and the availability of Work-for-Credit programs, there truly is a significant evolution in attaining the CPA licensure, which, collectively, will attract more candidates to the profession.


FRANK MANZI  |  Assistant Professor of Accounting    |  Riverdale

This is a difficult question, and it’s not just an accounting question; this is really a societal trend.

I always viewed public accounting as the best management training program for finance and accounting professionals in industry. Basically, you get out of school at 21 and you get thrown into working very hard, delivering to clients by the time you’re 23; you’re running small engagements and you’re managing people and you’re interfacing with higher-level issues. By the time you’re in your mid-to-late 20s, you could be going to board meetings, where you are presenting to the board, so you have to learn a lot about business pretty quickly. And it’s sink or swim.

To address declining enrollment, programs need to be seen as pathways to a professional career. They need to have a much closer relationship with businesses. They can do that by incorporating more specific industry-needed skills into the curriculum, such as teaching more about the actual running of a business, using more data analytics, and teaching subjects such as artificial intelligence, fraud prevention, blockchain and cybersecurity. Data analytics is a commonly overused term, but accountants and finance people—and businesspeople, in general—need to know how to understand and use data to fuel decision making.

Soft skills should also be a priority. When I and several of my colleagues interviewed about 35 C-suite executives about the technology-related gaps of recent graduates, we found that these executives were less concerned with the technical computer skills because they could teach those. These graduates needed to learn skills in management, communication, critical thinking and professional ethics.

Retention is something that firms are grappling with now, and I’m not sure that the way they’re dealing with it is the right way. I think it’s a mistake to give your employees more and more free time. They are not getting the professional development that we got when we were young pups in the business world because we were there and learning. So, a lot of these students today think they want to work from home, but they don’t really have any interaction with people. And it could get lonely and growth limiting.  


PHILIP C. SOOKRAM    |  Assistant Professor of Accounting & Legal Studies and Director, M.S. in Accountancy Graduate Program  |  Jersey City, N.J.

When it comes to retention, it’s very important to understand human capital. It’s an important mechanism that is used to help businesses achieve their short- and long-term goals. We have to think about the skills that we can help our employees to develop that would qualify them for a managerial position.

It is important to invest in, and identify strategically, the skills that you are looking for in order for someone to advance to the next promotion. A junior accountant doing bookkeeping on one account can potentially take an online course to gain the skills to understand financial reporting. Maybe, within the next year, you eventually promote that person, who might be able to give that manager more support, take on more responsibility and be more skilled. Ultimately, you’ll be getting more of a benefit as an employer.

Hard skills and soft skills are also needed to thrive as a supervisor, even as a senior accountant. That’s when you start delegating work and someone is reporting to you. Now we’re talking about time management—the skill set that’s needed to be successful at the supervisory level. As a junior accountant, you’re essentially just learning how to perform tasks, but that’s a career transition for students as well. Students go from going to school, taking a couple of classes a day, three or four days a week, to working full time, 40 hours a week. There are three other things that I think any employer should engage in to retain good people:

• One is utilizing tuition reimbursement. That will help even if you don’t have the solution or the pathway. Maybe there are skills that some of your employees want to engage in, and maybe that’s what tells you what the pathway is.

• The second is paying some of the employee’s student loan. Perhaps an employer can give a smaller starting offer to an employee, but if it’s willing to pay $5,000 for the student loan, that could reduce the employee’s life cost, and the employer can get a tax credit.

• The third is providing a health-and-wellness reimbursement. It’s no longer just a reimbursement for gym memberships. I have a friend who is using it to take tennis lessons.           


MARK M. ULRICH    |  Assistant Professor of Accounting   |  Bayside

Looking at some firms’ recruitment marketing materials up until recently, you would think that nothing has changed in the past 20 years. They were geared to four-year colleges. When I started at Queensborough Community College (QCC) in 2018, there were no formal partnerships with big firms and little communication between firms and the college. Some firms were not quite aware that community colleges were already supporting the pipeline to the profession, as our students are very resilient, and many have been successful in overcoming barriers to entry.

Now the Big Four and others have more formally discovered community colleges. There are two good reasons: Community college graduates going on to four-year colleges increase the pipeline and diversify the profession. Community colleges largely serve students of color and are havens for returning students, many of whom may be older or who may have family responsibilities. If the firms really want a diversified pipeline, then they need to break out of these old recruiting models, many of which involve a full-time student at a four-year college doing an externship or leadership program after their third year, an internship after the fourth year and a full-time spot following the fifth year.  I have seen new programs that are offering internships to first-year and second-year students, but they are still more difficult to obtain for community college students.

Community college students do not always fall into the typical full-time, on-sequence model that the firms prefer, where a student starts in the fall of a new academic year and takes 15 credits per semester for 10 straight semesters to meet the 150-hour requirement. Many of our students start in the spring or summer, and have less (or sometimes more) than a full-time schedule. This makes it hard for students to fit into the firms’ rigid internship qualifications, such as requiring an associate’s degree (about 60 credits) conferral in May for a summer internship. One of my students, an excellent student from a group underrepresented in the profession, had far more than 60 credits after her second year (resulting from previous coursework), but did not fit into the rigid model because she would be receiving her degree over the summer. She did not even get interviewed.

   The firms need to stop looking at the number of credits and need to look at the students individually. They can no longer fill their ranks by going to the major four-year colleges, if they want to feed the pipeline and diversify their ranks. It’s time to expand and formalize recruiting efforts at community colleges, and break out of the old recruiting models that tend to work best for students who have the privilege of starting college in the fall and maintain a full-time schedule. Despite the challenges facing community college students to enter the profession, there are many community college alums among our ranks. If the firms and other employers could band together and remove the barriers for community college students to enter the profession, then I see a much brighter future for our profession.    

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