As I snarkily mentioned last week, the AICPA has finally released its much-anticipated 2021 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits (or Trends, for short) report [PDF here], a behemoth data dump of accounting industry stats first released in 1971 and released every two years since 2009. We’re working on a deep dive of individual stats compared to prior years for your reading pleasure but for now, we’ll share the basics to catch you up on the current state of the profession. Well, not exactly current.
This latest iteration of the report covers university data reported to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for the 2019–20 academic year in addition to abbreviated university responses regarding enrollment expectations for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years. Firms data presented in this report are a mix of statistical projections and descriptive statistics calculated from firm survey responses. I borrow the previous two sentences from AICPA Academic in Residence Jan Taylor, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D who penned the report’s introduction. As we consider this data, let’s all remember that 2020 was an extraordinary year and we are still feeling the effects today. I guess I didn’t need to remind you of that. Whatever, the pandemic screwed a lot of things up.
Ready to find out how things shook out the last couple years? Let’s go.
The late aughts and early ’10s were kind to accounting programs, strong in part due to the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting rise in accounting enrollments that came about when unemployed people on the brink of foreclosure found out that accounting was one of the few industries with a relatively low unemployment rate. By 2014 however, the benevolent overlords at the AICPA noticed a troubling statistic: despite record enrollments, this abundance of accounting students did not appear to be pursuing the CPA exam as expected. In other words, more people than ever were graduating with accounting degrees but CPA exam candidate numbers stayed the same. Said AICPA President, CEO, and cross-stitch enthusiast Barry Melancon in 2014:
We have had about six consecutive years of record numbers of people majoring in accounting. That’s a great thing. For the last three years, however, we’ve basically had a level number of people taking the CPA exam. So there is a gap that’s building.
This concern has since been added to the laundry list of complications collectively called “the pipeline problem,” a maelstrom of issues that alone wouldn’t have much impact on the profession but in the aggregate and occurring all at once are quickly leading to an accountant shortage. Some of the larger of these issues are:
- Low CPA exam candidate numbers
- A worsening accounting professor shortage
- Baby Boomers — who make up 47% of AICPA membership — are retiring en masse, accelerated by the pandemic
- Ongoing difficulty recruiting diverse candidates to the profession, thereby missing out on an entire pool of potential accountants
Additionally, the profession has been struggling with a value proposition as students weigh the demands of a career in accounting — mainly at Big 4 firms — with salary and benefits not fairly compensating for said demands. There are a few other minor pipeline issues that fall within the purview of perception problems but we’ll save the graphic details of those reputation issues for another day.
So how are we doing on filling that pipeline?
Accounting graduates trended downward in the 2019–2020 academic year, with decreases of 2.8% and 8.4% at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, respectively. Accounting programs are optimistic about enrollments for the 2021–2022 academic year — 58% of both bachelor’s and master’s programs respondents reported that they expected enrollment for that academic year to be the same or higher than the 2020–2021 academic year. (Note: IPEDS data for 2020–2021 has not yet been released at the time of this publication).
According to the chart on page 17, total accounting degree completions from 1994-2020 peaked in 2015-16:
The breakdown of the total supply of new accounting grads for 2019-20 is as follows:
- Associate’s: 11,625
- Bachelor’s: 52,481
- Master’s: 20,442
- Doctorate: 39
- Certificate: 18,298
- Total: 102,885
The 2019 Trends report revealed an interesting shift in accounting industry hiring trends: 31% of new hires at accounting firms were non-accounting graduates. Increased demand for technology skills, particularly in the audit function, was credited as the reason behind this shift. Two years later, the number of non-accounting new hires is up by more than 10%. In the 2021 report, 42.7% of new hires are non-accounting grads. It is this writer’s humble opinion that this number will only continue to rise going forward as traditionally tech-averse accounting firms continue to embrace technology, especially as firms struggle to recruit and retain talent where technology solutions exist to replace tasks and processes previously performed exclusively or predominantly by humans.
Total hiring of new accounting graduates in 2020 has decreased by 10%, however there was a 2% increase in master’s graduate new hires. New non-accounting graduates hired into accounting and finance functions have increased by 10 percentage points. The hiring mix continues to shift, with 57.3% of new graduate new hires being accounting graduates and 42.7% being non-accounting graduates. New accounting graduate new hires are increasingly being assigned to audit — a shift of 11.5 percentage points from 2018. Of firms that hired one or more accounting graduates in 2020, 74% expect to hire the same number or more in 2022 as compared with 2021. Eighty-nine percent of all U.S. CPA firms expect to have the same number or more CPAs on staff in 2022 in comparison with 2021.
We continue to hear about a worsening auditor shortage at large firms which could perhaps be part of the reason why Audit made up such a large chunk of new accounting graduate hires by service line:
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
While the profession continues to struggle with diversity — less than 1% of the 658,267 actively licensed CPAs in 53 of the 55 licensing jurisdictions are Black, a percentage that has remained mostly unchanged in 40 years — some progress has been made.
In 2020, diverse hiring of new bachelor’s and master’s of accounting graduates into accounting/finance functions of U.S. CPA firms increased by almost five percentage points (includes multiethnic hires). Asian or Pacific Islander, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino new graduate new hires in accounting have all increased by near one or more percentage points (1.9, 0.6, 1.6 percentage points, respectively). These three groups comprise their highest (or very near their highest) percentage of the whole of new graduate new hires in the history of Trends’ data collection.
We will cover the details of the AICPA’s ongoing diversity initiatives and the impact they have in a later article.
CPA Exam Numbers and The Pandemic
More than any other data point in the 2021 Trends report, CPA exam candidate numbers were most affected by the pandemic due to test center closures, government lockdown restrictions preventing in-person testing, and candidates quarantining after exposure to coronavirus or avoiding in-person testing entirely due to virus concerns. The CPA Evolution project will see the launch of a fully transformed and refined CPA exam in 2024, no doubt “artificially” inflating new candidate numbers in the next few years as we saw happen ahead of the launch of CBT-e in 2010/2011. The sweeping change will mean a flood of candidates who might otherwise have waited to take the exam if taking it at all, a thought that should be comforting to Barry Melancon as he lies awake at night trying to figure out why no one is taking the CPA exam. Should candidate numbers remain where they are or dip even lower in the next Trends report despite the massive CPA exam change in 2024 ahead we have a big, big problem. Let’s not think about that for now.
The number of new CPA Exam candidates entering the CPA pipeline decreased anomalously in 2020 due to short-term closings and the various restrictions at Prometric® test centers, with overall COVID concerns carrying forward into 2021. As such, while new CPA Examination candidates decreased less than 0.5% between 2018 and 2019, there was a 17% decrease between 2019 and 2020. A 6% increase occurred between 2020 and 2021. The number of CPA Exam candidates who passed their fourth section of the exam decreased 11% between 2019 and 2020 after a 2% decline between 2018 and 2019. The number of successful candidates decreased 5.5% between 2020 and 2021.
So that’s the gist of where we’re at. There is so much more in the report worth reading if you’re into this stuff, and we’ll be putting together some more detailed snapshots of this data in the weeks ahead. To view the full 2021 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report, just head to this link to download it from the AICPA.
Photo by Lukas