Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Letter to the Editor: Life in Public Accounting Doesn’t Add Up For Young Professionals

illustration of a stack of money with a warning over it

Ed. note: A reader sent in this thought-provoking essay on their experience as a CPA. In it the author covers their introduction to accounting, the impact the pandemic had on their goals, and the all too familiar feeling of watching your peers make buckets of money in other careers while you grind away in public. If you take nothing else from it, read this quote: “I hope that individuals can work to widen the pipeline to the point that anyone who has ever even THOUGHT about pursuing the CPA designation has the resources to do so, and I hope that they can be encouraged along the way instead of pushed down by a ‘good old boys’ club.”

When I was a junior in high school, I took my first accounting class. Admittedly, I’ve always been a little bit of a nerd and addicted to numbers, statistics, and anything of the sort. I loved the class. Looking back, there is nothing that I really learned in that class that helped me through my college years and into my first year at KPMG except for debits and credits, but it sparked my love for the profession. I made the decision to attend Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa because my dad works there, and it made tuition a lot more affordable. I was more fortunate than most. I double majored in Accounting and Finance, and I carried 6 credits into college, so I took about 144.5 credits over the next four years because everyone indicated that the CPA route was the way to go, and that was the “golden ticket” to a life that so many people desired.

Flashback to sophomore year of college, we experienced the Covid pandemic. Like most people, I had a lot of time to think about what I was doing, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go from there. I had coached baseball for 3 years at this point, umpired baseball games for 6 years, played basketball my whole life, and coached junior high football for a year. At that point, I was naturally interested in teaching and coaching because that seems to be what most people turn to when they have no idea what else they want to do with their lives. At this point, I met a local CPA, and he changed my life. I found someone who was personable, easy to talk to, and he had a purpose for what he did and why he did it that went beyond just the numbers that most accountants typically deal with. Because of him and others at the firm, I decided to stick with the accounting profession and finish out my four years at Dordt. I interned at that firm for 2 years during college, and I felt like it was a family. I watched as the CPAs/partners there coached people through their business, worked with them 1 on 1, and showed them places they could and couldn’t save money. They knew the people’s business better than what they did, and they showed that they cared with the way that they prepared for each meeting. There was only one time that I saw someone walking out of our office with a frown on their face, and that’s because one of the CPAs told them that they couldn’t commit tax fraud on their farm. Crazy how that works.

Following graduation, I took the summer off of work and umpired baseball games, golfed 18 holes, and studied for the CPA exams. I enjoyed the CPA study material, and it was helpful for me to have a structured way to study and feel as though I was tangibly working towards something and trying to achieve something that other people were unwilling to do. I truly believe the exams are a battle of attrition, and I think that anyone who studies for them and can pass them with a 75 or better (arbitrary) should be able to be a practicing CPA. 120 hours, 150 hours, associates degree, bachelors degree, high school diploma or not, I think that the exams were the truest test of what it takes to be a CPA. Not 1.5 hours of racquetball, wine tasting, basketball coaching, or the history and philosophy of education. I understand that some people want to keep 150 because they achieved it and they walked uphill into the wind through 6 inches of snow every day, but I think that the CPA pipeline is a real issue, and I think that people that want to keep 150 as an arbitrary measure of competence are extremely out of touch with the state of the profession and they will be sadly mistaken in a couple of years when they want to retire with their pension and they don’t have any capable associates, seniors, and managers left to be able to help them do so.

After (during) I worked towards the CPA exam, I began work at a Big 4. Like most public accounting experiences, it has been a mixed bag. I have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and network with some of the most intelligent people that I have ever met in my life. They know their stuff, they understand business, and (most importantly) they have a direction and a plan for where they want to go the rest of their lives. We have future CFOs, controllers, partners, professors, lawyers, and a myriad of other things in our office. That’s what makes Big 4 special, and that’s what I’ve found to be special about this office in particular.

However, I have lost my love for the work. And as much as I’ve tried to bootstrap it up and deal with it, I simply do not see the value in working my butt off for 50-60+ hours for 5-6 months out of the year for a company that does not care about my well-being, does not want me to be anything other than a number, and does not see the value in individuality and the skills that different people can bring to the table. I think that there is so much value in public accounting because of the learning, growth, and opportunity to take hold of your own career that it provides that other careers simply do not. It’s a special place.

This brings me to my next point. While I think that there is a lot of value in the accounting profession, I do not feel as though the accounting profession adequately values their people. As a CPA, we all paid for 150 credits and gave up significant areas of our lives in order to be in the situation that we are in. 150 v 120 credits aside, I think that more people are leaving the accounting profession than ever before because the compensation and benefits that we are offered do not align with the quality of work that we put in, the amount of hours that we are required to work during busy season, and ultimately the decrease in overall quality of life that people can experience when they are working in a public accounting firm. I have a few friends in different fields, and we talk a lot about our hopes and dreams and where we think that we can go in our careers. I have a friend that almost flunked out of college, took an extra year after walking across the stage to achieve his physical diploma, and he got D’s all through college. He works as a real estate agent, and he’s on track to make 2.5-3x what I made this past year. He works his butt off and so do I, but he has chosen a profession that allows him to chase his dream, live up to his potential, and utilize the skills that he spent a lifetime developing to make a career and build a life for himself that he believes is worth living.

I have another friend (Elijah Watt Sells winner) who spent a year at a Big 4 before getting into investment banking. He quadrupled his salary in a year. He works his butt off, works insane hours, but he’s compensated what he believes is fairly for the amount of work that he puts in. I have other friends in sales, financial planning, and a couple other finance-related fields that have similar stories. They have the opportunity, right out of college/university, to bet on themselves, go and make a difference, and push all the chips to middle of the table because they are holding a royal flush. Right now, I feel as though I’m holding a full house at the poker table and I’m betting the minimum every time the hand comes to me. For young, ambitious professionals with very little to lose, I do not see the value in working a stable job and getting a salary and praying for a bonus if you hit your utilization goals. We had “record setting” revenues this year, and most of the associates and seniors didn’t see a dime. Maybe expenses were up, but I think someone has a pile of cash and they will not share it.

I do not think that the quality of life that is promised by CPA firms is worthwhile for a young professional. In tax, we have approximately six months of busy season, which leaves six months to try to cram in everyone’s PTO that they have to use. If you don’t use it, you lose it. My boss was awesome about encouraging people to take PTO and trying to get them to go on vacation. However, there simply is not enough time in the year. Everyone is trying to take vacation, people have to stagger their vacations, and work is left in review for months at a time and then we are required to make review comments the minute that a manager or MD or anyone gets around to reviewing our work, and it throws added stress to a person’s life, decreases their quality of life, and drains any sort of soul or social battery that they have left in their body. It is not sustainable. I think that the people that made it as long as they have in public accounting have to be wired completely differently from me, because I don’t see how I could be 45, married with kids, and be able to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually present at the dinner table. I get that sacrifices must be made in order for someone’s career to go somewhere, but I don’t agree with the fact that people in this profession are required to put every piece of their lives on hold because a client needs a deadline met when they’ve been unresponsive for months, or we have to hit arbitrary 55+ hour requirements for the week when we got our work done more efficiently and with better quality than associates from other offices/business units. I think that public accountants are exceptional people, and I believe they should be treated that way. Other professions that do not require a rigorous education and licensure process are the rules in this situation, and they should be treated as though they are the rules. Exceptional people should be rewarded for their efforts.

I do not expect you to make it this far. I hope that individuals can work to widen the pipeline to the point that anyone who has ever even THOUGHT about pursuing the CPA designation has the resources to do so, and I hope that they can be encouraged along the way instead of pushed down by a “good old boys” club that grew up in a time where diversity and inclusion didn’t exist, and when people were satisfied working 40 years in the same cubicle so that they could maybe have enough money to retire when they were 65 and enjoy life for 2 years before they died of stress, heart attacks, or boredom from wasting their life sitting at a desk for an employer who never cared about them anyways.

I quit my job cold turkey. I passed my work to my coworkers because they know I’m chasing a greater purpose, and that purpose will not be fulfilled in a cubicle and filling out timesheets. Other people can do that, and they are very good at it, and that’s how they can serve and lead. Not me.

I’ll leave you with this, and it’s a spin-off from an Oscar Wilde quote that one of my friends sent me:

You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be a politician, doctor, nurse, farmer, pastor, or whatever you want to be. And, if that’s what you BECOME, then you have failed. Your life was not worthwhile. You have wasted your time, your talent, and most importantly, your family’s time because they didn’t get a fulfilled person. That is your PUNISHMENT. But, you can also be a dynamic person, try different things, reinvent yourself, be a person in the world, and be the hands and feet of Jesus to everyone that you meet. You can go and do, be and become, and if you do that, then you become NOTHING. Hopefully you die with nothing because you gave it all away. And, everyone’s lives that you touched will write your obituary. Because you don’t get to do that yourself, everyone else does that for you. You can’t change THE world, but you can change YOUR world. And if you do that, that is your REWARD, and that is forever. Take a risk in whatever capacity you feel called, but go out and do it. Go and Do.

Be and Become.

12 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: Life in Public Accounting Doesn’t Add Up For Young Professionals

  1. We are entering extremely late-stage capitalism when you can pick a career that is valuable, in high-demand, and you work hard at, yet you still get effed because the rulemakers/owners found their path then closed the door behind them. I’m also looking at you too, teachers, hospitals, and social workers.

    1. Hospitals are so screwed, I have several friends in healthcare who are just completely done. It’s not about patient care, it’s about ratings and arbitrary KPIs set by clueless management who’ve never worked a day in the trenches.

  2. This is a short sighted perspective. At a certain point, you achieve autonomy and flexibility that changes the dynamics. This coming from a heavy senior manager who has not made partner…

  3. I am working on a response to the author which involves more than a two sentence comment. His points are well taken, but there is a deeper issue which is not being addressed. Hopefully I will be able to adequately answer it.
    I am in my 57th year as a practicing CPA. I was part of the establishment that passed the 150 hour requirement. I also probably placed professional activities over “a balanced life”, but lived a life that fulfilled my goals at that point in time. I believe I am qualified to respond. Give me some time to do so.

    1. You are part of the problem, ” I was part of the establishment that passed the 150 hour requirement.” who will likely spout opinions which are already in the dust bin of history.

  4. Most employers can’t care less about their employees no matter the profession. I feel 90% of employees do not feel appreciated for the work they do. We must pick careers where we find joy whether that’s surgery or finger painting. Only then we will feel rewarded. Happiness is key. Do what you love. Love what you do.

  5. I agree with the points in this article. Coming from an ex-B4 executive with more than 17+ dedicated years at the expense of health and family. When you undergo a health crisis (stress related), your perspective change. I don’t recommend this profession. You can be inspired by meeting the right mentor or “right” people in the beginning. There are colleagues who experienced the worse and still chose to remain the industry. There are good mentors or role model CPA out there. I am afraid the people with influence and power have cast a dark shadow in the profession. I hope you meet the good ones.

  6. Interesting…

    The difference between this generation and the former.

    The author doesn’t address the fact that people have a variety of intrinsic skill sets and temperaments that lead to success in their chosen occupations.

    It doesn’t address the cumulative knowledge and skills that comes over time that leads the accountant to the higher paying positions.

    If I had the outgoing personality and endless energy that is needed to be successful in sales, I’d do it. I don’t. I am organized, methodical, analytical, with a love for continuous learning. I am a “born” CPA. The limits on my earning potential is based upon the value of my talents placed by CEOs, Presidents, etc… who often have those sales traits.

    If we do our job well, it is taken for granted and compensated accordingly. It is only when we are gone and not easily replaced that our contribution is recognized and value increases and is reflected in compensation.

    I would rather be the rare commodity than a watered down version to get our numbers in the profession up.

  7. Difference between perception and perspective. Did the co-worker that went into investment banking waste is time going into Big 4 or did he get the connection to investment banking by going into Big 4. Public accounting has never been worth it if you know what you want to do but if you don’t know and want optionality it gives you a network and resume enhancement, that’s generally worth more than you give up. It’s a commodity, no different than college you can learn most of it for free but the piece of paper that says you learned it has value. Do agree the 150 credit hours probably isn’t necessary though.

  8. Thank you. I am a generation above you and this is very true for us as well. I am not apart of the good boys club and for a decade they have made it obvious.

  9. Many good points made, but I’m pretty sure next to no one is making 3x money in real-estate at the moment. I was left with the overall impression that if the partners would share more of the cash then the problems with the profession would largely disappear. The same point was made in a WSJ article about a week ago. If that is the case, the solution is an easy one.

Comments are closed.