Eight Ways to Fill the Pipeline

By Juliette Gaudemer
Senior Reporter
Accounting Today

March 2, 2023

Get accounting into STEM

STEM is an umbrella term that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but encompasses a wide range of related fields. To increase high school students' exposure to accounting, advocates such as the Texas Society of CPAs have been pushing for accounting to be included among STEM-designated disciplines.

The Barber College at the University of Houston, where Mohan Kuruvilla, Ph.D., CPA, works as a senior professor of practice, is one of the 50 colleges in the country to recognize accounting as a STEM discipline for master's degrees. According to Kuruvilla, earning the STEM designation would allow accounting to become a graduation requirement for high school students, alongside science and mathematics.

Additionally, Kuruvilla explains that the STEM designation is attractive from a pipeline perspective as it allows international students to work in the United States for a longer period of time. Working in a STEM discipline gives them three years of optional practice training after graduation instead of one, which Kuruvilla sees as critical as firms grow their international presence. He says that the designation allows companies to develop talent domestically before growing them as leaders in their home countries, as part of U.S. operations.

"We asked educators in our research what is the most appropriate age to start talking to students, and eighth grade was the most popular answer," said TXCPA president and CEO Jodi Ann Ray, CAE. "So one of the things that we're trying to do with our strategy is to work with career and technical education teachers at middle-school levels to really help them understand some of the opportunities that are available in accounting."

Reform a flawed education system

Tracey Niemotko, an accounting professor at Marist College, suggests that the lack of interest in the profession takes root in the nature of the U.S. education system. She explains that young people's academic journey often relies on short-term memory, and that most students have been taught to memorize instead of thinking for themselves. However, accounting schoolwork often relies on analytical skills and critical thinking, which can be very challenging for individuals who were used to this model.

As a result, Niemotko recommends that professors take this flaw into consideration, especially when educating first-year students. She says that students don't need to be overwhelmed by the workload if instructors support them throughout their journey and give them the tools to apply the material once they learn the skills.

For example, she says that learning to adjust journal-entries and analyzing ledger balances is generally a challenge for students in the first months but that they always end up exhibiting remarkable progress once they receive the right supervision. Niemotko says it's this notion of progression and real-world practice that keep students interested in the field.

Use social media to make an impression

Niemotko believes that outreach efforts should be conducted in a more organized fashion, with an increased collaboration with state societies. According to her, going to high schools is not enough, because firms need to make an impression. Social media have changed means of communication, and Niemotko says marketers only have a few seconds to keep students' attention, because new technologies created fast-moving environments. But in her opinion, accounting professionals have not done enough to market themselves effectively.

With the emergence of TikTok and other social networks, Niemotko believes there should be more investment in innovative marketing strategies. Firms should use those tools' appeal to highlight personalities that high school students can relate to and spark an interest in the profession. Niemotko says it doesn't take much to use fun formats such as challenges or dances to promote accounting as a dynamic field, and that students want to feel they'll be part of the future.

By using it as a platform to discuss the connection between sustainability concerns, social capital or business ethics with current accounting opportunities, Niemotko believes social media could open the floodgates and grow the pipeline.

Highlight the variety of paths available

With new employee profiles came new priorities and tough competition with other majors. Bill Dresnack, an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that students who were traditionally drawn to accounting now favor employment in the tech industry, which doesn't always require candidates to have a college degree. With the development of the private equity and entrepreneurship sectors, students see less value in taking the CPA exam and Dresnack calls for new strategies rooted in connectivity, experience and leadership to bring these students back.

Niemotko's students also said that the image of accounting is an obstacle when it comes to bringing more people into the profession, and many even said they were hesitant to join the field because of accounting's reputation as boring or tedious. While some students said that recruiters should explain how interesting and stable the discipline truly is, another shared her experience at Big Four firm PwC as a tax intern and how it changed her perspective on accounting. They said that insisting on the importance of collaboration and communication could attract people who don't feel comfortable with "just numbers" but want to develop these skills.

"I couldn't even imagine something like sustainability accounting to exist," said the student. "Furthermore, I think the importance of helping people is undervalued. I didn't see it when I began this major, but to me accounting is all about helping people doing your taxes, ensuring stricter reporting requirements for a better Earth, etc. I find that accounting is a comprehensive and useful degree that teaches math, finance, tech communication and ethics, to name a few."

Two more certifications

RIT's Dresnack also suggests that the profession might encourage more young people to study accounting and stick with it by giving students the opportunity to earn two state-sponsored certifications that could count toward one or more sections of the CPA exam. They could obtain the Associate in Public Accounting after two years of college, and the Paraprofessional in Public Accounting after four years. This way, students could have parts of the exam waived and gain recognition for their skills with much less than 150-credit hours.

The first certification, APA, would test students on entry-level skills such as bookkeeping or tax return preparation, while the PPA would focus on more complex matters. According to Dresnack, students could take advantage of that two-year benchmark to seek professional experience and gain exposure to what the profession truly entails. While these certifications wouldn't include auditing, both would cover the same undergraduate knowledge as the Financial Accounting and Reporting section of the new CPA exam.

"The idea is to just give aspiring CPAs a different pathway or shorter benchmark so that they could see that they're progressing," said Dresnack. "The 150-credit requirement scares people off, so I think the idea is to get parts of the exam waived if you've completed these certifications. I think those would be really attractive to many people who might not choose to become CPAs but want to increase their expertise."

Bridge the language barrier

The TXCPA recognized that language barrier and cultural differences could be an obstacle to diversifying the pipeline. Kuruvilla says that in a state where one-third of high school students are Hispanic, it was critical for the professional association to provide Spanish translations for the resources they offer.

Considering the family-centric culture of Hispanic households and the great number of first-generation college students in the area, Ray believes that students should be able to include their parents in the conversation about their future. According to her, family influence is also central in raising awareness about accounting professions and growing the talent pool.

Promote non-accounting skills

According to AICPA research, the number of non-accounting graduates hired in CPA firms has continued to grow these past few years, rising from 31% in 2019 to 42% in 2021. Niemotko believes it's because recruiters have put a greater emphasis on communication skills, and a KPMG partner once told her that it was easier to hire and train someone from a liberal arts background because of their critical minds. She considered the conversation a wake-up call on how educators should prepare accounting students for the workplace to prevent the profession from dissolving.

In response to that trend, Niemotko now requires her students to do a class presentation with each written assignment and gives them various resources to navigate. Their classmates then share feedback on factors such as eye contact or interactivity through a checklist, and everyone then benefits from constructive criticism that will serve them with clients and associates.

Keep those you’ve got

The pipeline problem isn't just about too few people entering the top of the pipeline — it's also about too many people leaking out of the pipeline along the course of their careers. Plugging those leaks is largely the responsibility of the firms and corporations that hire accounting grads, to make sure that they aren't driven off to other professions or other types of works.

Key strategies here involve higher pay, greater work-life balance, less grunt work, clearer and more accelerated career paths, and a focus on the difference that accountants can make in their clients' lives and their community.




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