Here are four ways CFOs can promote the accounting profession to replenish the pipeline of talent.
By Russ Banham
It’s time to re-brand the accounting profession. That’s the advice of public accounting firms, staffing agencies, and corporate accounting chiefs in response to a shortage of accountants caused by voluntary job resignations, the retirement of Baby Boomer accountants, and perceptions among young people that it’s a boring job.
The most recent college enrollment study by the AICPA cited downward trends in the number of undergraduate and graduate accounting students and CPA exam candidates. Following a 17% decrease in the number of accountants and auditors since 2019, both companies and audit firms are having a tough time filling hiring needs.
“Our recent employment study indicates that 87% of finance and accounting managers are finding it increasingly difficult to secure the talent they need for general accounting, financial reporting, and financial planning and analysis,” said Brandi Britton, executive director for finance and accounting at talent solutions Robert Half International.
There’s always an ebb and flow in college students going into accounting, Britton added. “It’s perceived as a stable profession when times are tough; we saw that after the financial crisis,” she said. “When the economy improves, people quickly forget and go for the ‘cooler’ degrees like technology, social sciences, and communications. The challenge is how to make accounting sexy beyond its stability.”
Here are four ways CFOs can spice up the profession to replenish the pipeline of talent.
1. Emphasize the Role’s Selling Points
A generation ago, accounting was characterized as mundane work requiring sharp pencils, bulky calculators, and green eyeshades. Today’s accountant is anything but.
“We are not simply a numbers-crunching profession anymore,” said Patrick Villanova, chief accounting officer at public company BlackLine, a provider of financial management software and services. “I’m not looking for accountants to just key in journal entries. I’m looking for forward-thinking people who are tech-savvy … who come in with eyes wide open to figure out ways to build a better mousetrap.”
“This is not a boring job by any means,” said Jim Proppe, managing partner at accounting firm Plante Moran. “In my career discussions with high school students, it’s clear they have no idea how exciting the work can be unless they have parents in the profession. I tell them, ‘You get to work with really smart, high-energy people. You work with clients in different industries to build your skill set.’”
“This is an amazing career,” said Janet Malzone, national managing partner of audit services at accounting and advisory firm Grant Thornton. “These days, accountants are about technology, communications, building relationships, and being able to lead teams. We need to reimagine the profession. … It’s all about the brand, which we in the industry need to collectively change.”
Villanova concurred: “The profession should be rebranded as a technology profession because that’s what it is.”
2. Flexible and Hybrid Work is Now Table Stakes
With most manual processing automated in accounting, pencils and calculators have been tossed for computers. So have offices. During the pandemic, finance and accounting staff worked from home with few hitches: books were closed on time, financial statements were prepared, earnings forecasts were delivered, and so on.
Flexible, hybrid work is now table stakes for accountants, with firms like Plante Moran letting employees schedule where and when they work, so long as the decision prioritizes client service. Others like Grant Thornton interpret flexibility beyond traditional descriptions. “We want people here to be the captain of their careers; if they want to be an innovator tackling a business problem or want to get a certification in digital transformation, we’ll help that happen,” Malzone said.
The profession needs to do a better job promoting these new opportunities. “Universities are just beginning to catch up to the ways in which the role has changed,” said Britton, “They remain focused on the technical skills, less so the communications skills. We’ve found that many employers will overlook a lack of technical skills if the person has the right culture fit.”
3. Set Salary Expectations Early
Given the high-value tasks accountants perform, commensurate compensation is a no-brainer. Think again. According to Robert Half’s survey, starting pay in each of the 10 public accounting roles this year is rising between an average of 1.4% and 2.6%, not nearly enough to compensate for rising inflation.
“Twenty-two percent of candidates in our survey have too high a salary expectation,” said Britton. “They come out of universities expecting $100,000 since they have a couple of friends getting that in other professions. Some level-setting is needed.”
Compensation is expected to rise in 2023, but so will other professional roles. Britton said the message companies, accounting firms, and universities need to impart to college students is that income generally inclines at a reasonable rate. “Accounting has a very stair-stepped career progress plan, but not enough people are aware of this,” she said.
4. Promote the Profession’s Transferable Skills
There are far more roles an accountant can take on today, compared with their peers rooted in the back office a generation ago.
Accountants whose skills set extends beyond technical accounting have what it takes to leap into different functions at a company,” Villanova explained. “I’m an active part of our sales and services operations, for example. Assuming colleges teach accounting students the skills they need to automate and digitally transform the organization, these are transferable skills. The people who know technical accounting and run payroll and T&E can help you fix a process and make it more efficient. In turn, this increases an accountant’s perceived value.”
Malzone agreed: “Public accounting is a great launching pad for all sorts of careers, including starting your own business. You can become a CFO driving the business with the CEO. And you get to travel the world and understand the mechanics of many industry sectors.”
The imbalance in accountant supply and demand makes it an opportune time to consider the profession as a career. “Once the profession is rebranded and the perceived value of accountants guides salary increases, the current shortage will be temporary,” Villanova predicted.
New hires will step into a many-faceted job that is crucial to business success. “What does a company need to keep the lights on? The answer is people reporting the actual results, building budgets, and recalibrating the forecasts,” Villanova said. “You need real-time information to run a successful organization. As accountants worked from home during COVID and continue to do this in large part today, it highlighted just how important we are to the business. You can’t say that for every profession.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.