The profession is playing catch-up to bring new graduates into the field, and even the students who choose accounting are less likely to take the CPA exam than previous graduates. The new chair of the AICPA has taken on this conundrum as a top goal of his one-year term, along with attracting more minorities into the overwhelmingly white profession.
Attracting young people to the profession is a complicated problem, says Bill Pirolli, partner with Warwick, R.I.-based DiSanto Priest & Co. Recruiting from under-represented populations makes the problem more complicated still, considering the cultural issues and societal biases at work. “It’s a long-term play, there’s no short-term answer for it,” he said in a recent interview with INSIDE Public Accounting. “There is no one single lever we can pull to make the pipeline go up or to make CPA candidates go up. There are all kinds of issues involved with it.”
College enrollments dropped 17% during the pandemic, he notes, and it’s unclear if the numbers will improve in the fall. An Illinois CPA Society survey of more than 3,000 students, graduates and professionals under the age of 35 revealed a perception that the value of the CPA isn’t worth the effort to pass the exam. The interest in becoming a CPA drops precipitously after age 22, the survey says, and 12% of those surveyed either have no interest in doing so, stopped partway through the process or are unsure whether to undertake the challenge.
“We need to marshal the army,” says Pirolli. It’s not good enough to recruit for the firm alone when students are in their junior or senior years, he says. The effort should focus on recruiting into the profession as a whole, and it’s got to start early.
Firm leaders can urge their new hires to speak to high school students and get their passionate five- and six-year staff talking to community college students. “They need to be the storytellers, but the firms have to allow that to happen.” The profession is also facing intense competition from corporate finance. “You put all that together, and there’s your pipeline challenge.”
The AICPA is examining its recruitment resources, beefing up what works and throwing out what doesn’t. “We’re basically opening the drawers and pulling everything out that we have.” On the diversity front, the organization has hired a global head of diversity, equity and inclusion to help firms, and is increasing minority representation on committees, conferences and training events. He adds, “If we move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion, we are automatically moving the needle on pipeline.”
Opportunities have arisen from the pandemic despite the brutal stresses that affected even the most battled-tested, experienced professionals, Pirolli says. It also led to more connections through video meetings/conferences, greater work-from-home flexibility and a level of client support and guidance never before seen. “We probably did 20 years of trusted adviser consulting in a year, but that’s great for our profession,” he tells IPA.
Now it is time to build on that momentum to tell the story of the relevance of the CPA profession and take advantage of demands for client accounting services, cybersecurity, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting. Despite the challenges, Pirolli is bullish on the future. “We have an amazing profession,” he says. “It’s an awesome time to be a CPA.”
According to IPA’s 2021 National Practice Management, Firm Administration (FA) and Human Resources (HR) surveys, which canvas 525, 230 and 231 participating firms respectively:
- Eighty-four percent of participating firms have a college recruiting program and 1 in 4 consider their program to be excellent.
- Thirty-three percent of all participating firms have a diversity recruiting program.
- An average of 55.2% of staff in all participating firms have their CPA license, while 20.5% are not intending to pursue the credential.
- In the IPA 100, the average percentage of Asian staff is 10.7%, Hispanic is 5.7% and Black is 3.7%.
- The average percentage of male and female equity partners is 79.9% and 20.1%, respectively, for the IPA 100.
- The percentage of male equity partners for all firms averages 77.4%.
- The percentage of female staff in all firms is 56%.
- Fifty-one percent of all equity partners are male over age 50, and 14% are female over the age of 50.