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Why is the Accounting Profession Scaring Everyone Away?

a gentleman looking very freaked out

Saw this on our Twitter timeline, thought I’d throw it to the sharks and see if anyone has some thoughts:

Accounting industry. We all agree there numerous issues & major changes are needed. The ultimate question is even with all the issues, why are ppl not willing to overcome all of them & either enter or stay in the profession? Its about the industry as a whole. WTF am I missing?

And a follow up thought to that:

A few thoughts:
Sunk cost can sometimes make people endure situations they should have removed themselves from long ago; 13 years circling the profession like a evening news traffic copter looking for a crash has taught me that unhappy, underpaid, overworked accountants are not anything new. Go up to any current or inactive CPA over the age of 65 and mention how many hours you worked this past busy season, guarantee he (and it is most likely a he) will blow your ears out with stories of even longer hours under far more hostile conditions than we enjoy today. But it’s like some of you just end up here almost by accident and don’t ever consider walking away because change is hard or something. You accept that it sucks because you’ve been told it just does, end of story, oh well, guess this is my life now.

“guess I’ll be an accountant”

On a related subject, have any of you spoken to a CPA today? Or in the last 20 years? Of the hundreds or maybe thousands of you I have met since 2007 not a one of you exudes happiness. OK that’s not true, Tom Hood comes off as genuinely happy. Everyone else though… In other words, accountants are not very good billboards for accounting. Firms can use as many stock photos of young people paragliding across nondescript scenic landscapes as they want in recruitment brochures, we all know the “exciting world of public accounting firm travel” is hotel after hotel in such exotic destinations as Omaha and maybe upstate New York if you’re lucky, and anyone other than recruiters at Meet the Firms will tell you this. Where’s the draw? Where’s the thing that makes young people sit up and think to themselves “ooh, I wanna do THAT!”? Because we know it’s not the money.

I won’t even get into the money because it’s been done to death. OK, I’m going to get into it briefly. The accounting profession has a critical value proposition problem — it has consistently failed year after year to demonstrate that it offers enough perks to make up for the downsides. The profession asks students to commit five years of their life plus however long it takes to study for a difficult professional licensing exam oh and also you’re going to be doing 70 hour weeks in a good week while living with four roommates for the first couple years but don’t worry, one day you’ll make some good scratch. You just have to get through a very unpleasant gauntlet first. If you express any discomfort about this process, you’re labeled a punk who can’t hack it in public by people who also can’t hack it because no one can but they do it anyway and say nothing because their university professor told them if they don’t shut up and take it they’ll be marked unemployable for the remainder of their career.

The profession set up a giant sausage grinder to run accounting graduates through and then wonders why no one wants to get ground up? And then people who do decide to go through said grinder anyway get spit out and end up writing stuff like this:

To anyone thinking about joining big 4, DO NOT. I ignored warnings for years thinking if people were so unhappy they should just leave and stop complaining. Do not ignore this. They will fuck you in the ass then toss you in the dumpster with a checklist of things to complete before they haul you away to the fucking landfill.

Tldr: FUCK BIG 4. I worked myself to death, I worked through deaths in the family, I was ignored, bullied, and thrown away. If you are recruiting, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. You are nothing to them. You are a number. They will grind you up and spit you out. We’re all just another brick in the fucking wall. Fuck your [colored shape].

See that? I protected the identity of the grinder in question. Y’all know who it is anyway.

To directly answer Keith’s question: “Why isn’t the goal for the industry to tell ppl it’s worth it?” BECAUSE PEOPLE CAN SEE WITH THEIR OWN EYES IT IS NOT. Accounting is in direct competition with better paying industries (tech), more prestigious industries (medicine, law), and better work-life balanced industries (grave digging, government work, any minimum wage job that caps you at 32 hours a week so they don’t have to pay for your health insurance). As it stands, the profession has not sufficiently demonstrated to students that it is worth it both literally and figuratively. Simply telling them “no but it is” is an ineffective strategy as we can see. Making shinier brochures and forcing smiles on exhausted faces is not going to fix the problem. Fix the value proposition problem and you might get somewhere.

Anyway, just my $0.02.

Looks like Keith has been collecting some good responses so far. If you’re on Twitter go over there and give him your own. Or drop them in the comments below, whatever.

Update: r/accounting had a lively discussion about this article, you should check it out. Shout-out to this person in particular:

This is the most ignorant and poorly written pseudo-antiwork article on the accounting profession I’ve ever seen.

Just doing my best here buddy, thanks for noticing.

Also going to add a bit of related reading: What Exactly Is the Profession’s ‘Pipeline Problem’ and Why Should You Care? published here July 2021.

27 thoughts on “Why is the Accounting Profession Scaring Everyone Away?

  1. This website is a joke. You consistently try to point out all that is wrong with public accounting and Big 4. Some of the most successful people in the business world had their starts in public accounting. That is no coincidence and demonstrates part of the value proposition. You make a living off of trying to point out every negative aspect of a profession which you clearly don’t understand. You fail to mention that several professions (I.e. medicine and law) have also seen a sharp drop in enrollment instead trying to focus on accounting to advance your narrative.

    1. You caught me, I totally made it all up for page views. All the people leaving Big 4 firms in droves must not have gotten the memo about the oPpoRtUNiTiES waiting for them if they just eat shit a few years longer.

      Way to miss the point, bootlicker.

      1. you can say ‘big 4’ but you sort of generalize the accounting profession, and its just not true for the whole industry. Your points are dramatized and not helping anyone in our profession. I know this won’t be as exciting as the piece you wrote with all the cute little editorializations but why don’t you compare and contrast ‘big 4′(national firms) with the mid size local area firms… you’ll see that you can’t generalize and blend the negative stuff you claim… kinda have to agree on the website comment….

        1. You make a valid point. We’re a Big 4 centered site for the most part. The pipeline issue affects the profession as a whole, “the gauntlet” is mostly Big 4 and part of the problem is universities pushing it as the only option.

          You’re right, I may have muddied the point a bit.

    2. Law has the same issues.
      Medicine has the same issues.
      This is an accounting site, not a legal / medical one.

    3. BIG 4 has a purpose, and people that excel in Big 4 likely will bust their ass and make it big in something else. But Big 4 is not worth it for 75-90% which is what this is pointing to. Not the minority that will do the work and likely succeed in a big corporate environment, but how do you get more people to want to kill themselves in that life. Majority of people aren’t willing to sell their 20’s to have a CHANCE to make it, or to continue to burn themselves out for the $$$. I jumped as quickly as a could for balance in my life. I was lucky. Most people see low pay and lots of work for 5 years before a possible return. Thats not worth it for most people, so the profession is going to pay for it. People through the gauntlet will get better returns(hopefully), but sucks for those who see it and turn away.

      1. Right, exactly. The question isn’t “where are the future business leaders?” as those people DO see the value of a Big 4 start and they will eagerly traverse the gauntlet for it. Attracting those people is no issue. And that value has never been in question.

        The issue, and the question being posed, is why aren’t other people attracted to accounting? The pipeline problem is about quantity, there are simply not enough candidates. Which is why I — and many, many others — suggest that the profession is not demonstrating to these people that it’s worth it. Because it isn’t for a good majority of them.

        No one is saying Big 4 sucks for opportunities, only that the opportunities do not outweigh the difficulties for the many people who AREN’T future CEOs or whatever. These firms could at least pay people more to make it worth it. But they don’t, and then year after year ask why doesn’t anyone want to be a CPA anymore?

  2. For a profession that’s supposed to have a good grasp on basic economic principles this question is blindingly stupid. If the supply of accountants is insufficient for current demand then the market price for competent accounting expertise is too low.

    In other words raise wages. Or increase non-pecuniary benefits (eg. better work life balance, guaranteed 100% remote work, a supportive non-toxic environment, etc.)

    1. I cannot help but express appreciation for the effortless use of the term “non-pecuniary” . . . . thanks.

  3. Accounting faces the issue of every corporate/prestigious industry does. That is company are far more focus on stealing talent than keeping their good talent. Go to almost every corporate job the ppl whi just started will be paid more than the ppl who have been in that position for 2-5yrs. My current company offers me a 1 time bonus for getting my cpa with no pay raise. Meanwhile if I leave after getting it virtually every company will pay me 20-30% more than my current salary.

    1. I like to call that the “Loyalty Discount” that companies get on you. The longer the you stay the better the discount they get.

  4. It’s not just Big 4 – the smaller firms with work you to death even more with lower pay and more responsibilities. This profession is for no one to enjoy except those who genuinely hate people and want to sit behind a screen their whole life, not their whole career, their whole life.

  5. I can only speak from experience. I’m a partner in the 5th largest accounting firm in the US, and the profession has been pretty good to me. My standard of living is higher than most. I live at the beach, have incredible flexibility (just went surfing before coming to work), and am not at all worried about paying for my kids’ college or funding my retirement.

    Has there been sacrifice, absolutely there has. Those first five or six years were brutal at times. But I paid my dues and have been reaping the rewards ever since.

    I know six years seems like an eternity when you are 24, but my advice. If you have the aptitude for the profession, recognize it for what it is, paying your dues. And know that those first years will provide benefits for a lifetime.

    1. Appreciate the insight. I think your last point is the most poignant: IF you have the aptitude for the profession. For people who are the right fit it’s an excellent investment despite the downsides, I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise, I’m certainly not. But it feels like for more and more people it just isn’t a good fit (speaking specifically to first couple years of Big 4). Add to that the current staffing issues are making it harder for people to stick it out, even people who might have been happy to do so a couple years ago.

      What do you think it is about you that equipped you to persist where your peers did not?

      1. As someone that has made it to partner at Big 4 the answer for me was being a B+/A- worker. If you are lower than that you won’t make it to partner. If you are trying to be the A+ worker you will burn out. People treat this as a sprint. By the time you get to year 10 no one remembers what you did in year 3. The senior partner whose ass you kissed has retired. The engagement budget you blew is forgotten. In a partner promotion discussion no one has ever mentioned someone’s 3 rating as a senior or low utilization as a manager.

        Do good work and have people like working with you (ie don’t be a jerk to those above or below you). Figure out what your boss cares about and focus on doing that perfectly and let the rest slack a bit. When you get to your 4th or 5th year as a senior manager then you sprint and be the A+ worker. Those years will suck but once you make partner it will always be on your resume.

  6. Things must have changed drastically since I was an articled clerk. Yes, we worked long hours and weekends and were expected to perform exceptionally well. I was also at a Big4 firm. But I mostly remember the laughs we had at 1am in the morning, the sheer panic before a deadline followed by the fantastic relief when the work was done (and done well), the lovely parties when the audit was signed off, working mostly with people the same age as I was with similar interests, long conversations over topical events during travelling time, visiting places I never would have seen otherwise, the excitement of a special investigation into fraud, and learning so much! I got to see, which most people won’t in their lifetime, the inner workings of a bank, a retailer, an airline, a manufacturer, an arms dealer (legit), a property developer, a municipal office, a hospital. Where else would you get such fantastic exposure? I’m friends still with most of my mates from way back then. This qualification allows you to follow so many different career paths! One friend is a mergers specialist at a bank, one is a partner at an auditing company, one is a tax specialist working from home, one is a stay-at-home mom doing locum work, one is in IT (big data), one is financial accountant of a listed company. And I am a lecturer. In SA, we don’t have 3 month summer holidays or research assistants, and I’m never going to be stinking rich. But I earn enough for a nice house and good food and occasional holidays. And the money really doesn’t matter when you’re doing what you love. Lecturing is the most fulfilling, wonderful, rewarding work you’ll ever do. I would most definitely recommend accounting to those with an aptitude for maths and logical reasoning.

  7. Interesting article. I spent 10+ years as a senior manager at a large international firm (not Big 4 but close to it). One of the biggest reasons I have seen why the firms struggle to retain and keep talent isn’t even totally the pay, hours, etc. (those are reasons, but usually secondary), but rather a function of the leadership.

    Accounting firms are not full of natural born leaders, but rather accountants. Most accountants are generally type A, anal-retentive, logical, and usually not very emotionally intelligent. Accountants are taught to value the technical aspects of the career and their knowledge base over almost anything else, meaning that people (a firms most valuable resource) are looked at as means to an end (completion of a project) versus long-term investments that need to be nurtured. Those that are nurtured are done so more based on nepotism, and a couple shining stars (I was fortunate enough to be one of them) get all the attention and praise. Everyone else is just a body fulfilling a task. People are not individually valued because the people that are supposed to be valuing them do not have the required skillsets to be doing it. I have worked with many CPA’s over my career (my father is one of them) and emotional intelligence is just not a natural skill of most people in this field.

    I stayed in the profession because I started working for someone who was emotional intelligent, caring, and took time to invest in me, so I paid it forward and did the same to my employees, and was able to keep my teams a very long time (many are still there) because they knew I genuinely cared about them. You can put up with long hours, difficult clients, and even under-market pay if you work for good leaders that care. Without that, it can be miserable.

    As the next generations of accountants enter the work force and the value system shifts more towards work/life balance, having more meaning and purpose in work, etc., the firms that figure out how to meet their employees emotional needs (and not just giving them paychecks and great experience) will be the ones that ride out the changes in the workforce.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It’s one of the best articulated writing about the profession (and the inherent limitations) that I have read.

  8. Ive been in corporate accounting for over 20 years. People that know me either don’t know what I do for a living or don’t understand how I do what I do for a living and still have maintained my soul.

    All of the negatives are true. There is no reward for Accounting, nor for accounting accurately.

    You have to just not care about the non-humans you encounter and don’t let them get to you.

  9. A huge negative to being a CPA is that now you need a 5th year in college/Masters BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE AN ACCOUNTING CLASS IN THE 5TH YEAR. This costs the best and the brightest to pay for a worthless year of college AND LOSE A YEAR OF EARNINGS. Accordingly, the best and the brightest choose other majors. Hence I understand that 35,% of profession is over 65 years old. FIX THE PROBLEM! Don’t blame the big firms. They have the same problems.

  10. A lot of great points in the article and some good comments too. Also, some really stupid ones. I think the numbers really speak for themselves.

    I am in a top 20 firm and I have been watching this slow death happen for about 3 years. I have watched the high-performing staff leave in droves because why wouldn’t they? This pipe dream of, work hard for 15 years (aka, 100s of overtime hours unpaid, risking your health and well-being, etc.) and maybe you’ll make partner to make some coin? Which BTW, the reason I left public accounting was once I got to the point of being a partner, I realized most of them while making a ton of money had absolutely terrible work-life balance as well. They were working the same hours as the seniors. It hit me that the grind they sold you on to get to the top, well it never really ends. You just get paid more. Life is more than that. If you can make 250,000 a year and be happy and work 35 hours a week…. that is light years ahead of selling your soul, missing family time, working nonstop 50+ hour weeks to make 500+.

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