What Exactly Is the Profession’s ‘Pipeline Problem’ and Why Should You Care?

I realized the other day while halfway through a rambling sentence that barely had anything to do with accounting that I’ve written about the profession’s pipeline problem several times over the last few months but hadn’t ever really defined it. I’d reference back to things here and there but there wasn’t a single page here dedicated to explaining what the pipeline problem is and — most importantly — why anyone currently or soon-to-be in the accounting profession should care. So let’s fix that.

A 2016 Accounting Today article called the dearth of new CPAs one of the biggest issues facing the accounting profession. In other words, not enough people want to be CPAs anymore, and that’s a big, big problem.

Wrote Dan Hood:

This is a problem that seems tailor-made for buck-passing, involving, as it does, a range of factors that would seem to be beyond the scope of any individual, from the explosion of job opportunities that are adjacent to accounting (and thus draw away potential CPAs) to the differences in the way Millennials look at their careers, to the many hurdles would-be CPAs have to cross. Surely this is a job for academia, regulators and the leaders of the profession at state societies and the American Institute of CPAs, not for the average practitioner?

The article goes on to reference an August 2016 Illinois CPA Society report entitled “Pipeline Disruption” [download the report here] which cites “companies that don’t value the credential; advisory services at firms that don’t require a CPA; the 150-hour education requirement; and the complexity and format of the exam itself” as reasons why new CPA numbers are down. The Powers That Be have been concerned for years that people aren’t sitting for the CPA exam like they used to, despite accounting graduate numbers higher than they’d ever been.

The initial buzz about a pipeline problem back in the day focused mostly on a related but somewhat different issue: the profession’s very noticeable, very Caucasian nature. In other words, a lack of diversity, especially further up the ladder though new-hire diversity was also pretty abysmal.

From the August 2014 Journal of Accountancy article ‘A pipeline problem for diversity‘:

Despite decades of intensive efforts, the accounting profession has not reached its diversity goals. African-Americans and Hispanics made up 13.1% and 16.9%, respectively, of the U.S. population in 2012, according to U.S. Census data, but secured just 4% and 6% of the new hires in 2011–12 at CPA firms, AICPA data show.

As if these two issues weren’t enough, there was another threatening factor breathing down the necks of profession leaders: the Boomer problem. And no, I don’t mean the HR problem when Boomer colleagues start posting mildly inappropriate big nose cartoons in the team group chat. I mean the retirements. In 2017, Boomers made up 47% of total AICPA membership. A few years ago, the AICPA estimated that 75% of its members would be eligible for retirement by 2020. This, of course, would leave a huge vacuum the likes of which the profession had never had to plug before.

Again, maybe if this was the only major talent problem facing the profession it would be manageable. But it wasn’t.

We are also dealing with an accounting professor shortage, which falls into the Boomer problem category somewhat; however, it deserves its own mention as it is a unique problem that hurts the profession at large and not just the accounting firms that have to step up their hiring game. The AICPA has been throwing money at the problem, but as with everything else in this perfect storm, it’s an uphill battle to convince people to go down this path and cash can only go so far.

These multiple issues have contributed to the pipeline problem but ultimately it boils down to the terminal uncoolness of accounting. And I don’t mean simply a PR problem, I mean the entire thing is just not cool. When college students are considering their options, accounting just doesn’t stand out as attractive; not to students looking to get rich and not to students looking for fulfillment in their work. Money is cool. A life outside of work is cool. Working for a brag-worthy company is cool. The accounting profession struggles to deliver on any of these things individually much less as a package, hence other career tracks luring students away.

As the 2014 Journal of Accountancy diversity article explained:

Misperception about accounting as a career is one reason for the disparity. Studies suggest that young people, including underrepresented minorities, hold the profession in relatively low regard, do not understand what accountants do, and do not appreciate the career opportunities the profession offers. It turns out that this lack of esteem is widely shared by parents and educators, the two groups with the biggest influence on young people’s academic and career choices.

Now, why should you care about any of this? One could ask why should you care about anything but that kind of existentialism is above my pay grade. This matters because it can directly impact your salary, your workload, and your opportunities. Perhaps you like the pipeline problem, because you think kids these days complain too much and are weak because they can’t work 55 hours a week and sit for the CPA exam in six months like you did back in Byzantine times. That’s fine and all, just know that those of you flaunting “back in my day I worked 90-hour busy season weeks and didn’t see my family for half the year” like some twisted badge of honor are part of the reason why students take one look at the profession and nope out of there. It doesn’t make someone lazy to see that and run the other way, it makes someone sane.

If we’re lucky, the robots taking over your jobs will coincide nicely with the critical staffing shortages and we’ll be able to automate most of the work away. You better hope so anyway, otherwise you’re in for a hell of a reality check that will make you pine for the good old days when you had to work “only” 90 hours a week.

Related article:

The Accounting Profession Is Running Low on CPAs, But There’s an Obvious (and Completely Ignored) Fix For That

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for bringing attention to this issue that we don’t really talk about enough. We recently released a new Insight Special Feature, “A CPA Pipeline Report: Decoding the Decline,” that shares both CPAs’ and non-CPAs’ reasons for pursuing the credential or not. We think the findings are pretty eye-opening. It can be downloaded at http://www.icpas.org/cpapipeline. In some ways it is a follow-up to the “Pipeline Disruption” report you linked above.

    1. I think it has more to do with the availability of career insights through online forums like: Another 71, WSO, and Reddit as well as the tuition hikes compared to fields like computer science.

  2. Honestly, busy season is too long and it’s twice a year. I’ve been a CPA for 12 years and I’m leaving the profession. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

    55 hours now mean “billable hours” which we are told you need to work 10 hours to bill 9. Those don’t count the 10 hours a week of admin we have to do. So “55” hours really means 70+ now.

    And that’s for 7 months of the year. For 50,000 and 5% raises and 7% bonuses. 7 or 8 years in, you can make 100k. But even though you are basically working 2 jobs, you can’t afford to send 2 kids to daycare and make car and mortgage payments.

    I’ve worked big 6 years big 4, 5 years national firm, and 1 at a large local firm. It’s the same problem everywhere. Busy season is too long, and the money is not enough.

    My friends broke 100k 5 years into their sales and marketing careers. They are breaking 150k now. Senior tax managers make 120k in my area. Firm owners have undercut each other on fees and increased their distributions for 20 years. They also stopped making partners, have ridiculous 2 year punitive noncompetes that make building your own book or taking clients from them difficult. Did they think people were going to do this forever? It’s a dying profession. I feel bad for every staff that joins our firm. Any opportunity they get to leave I tell them to, especially if it’s outside of public accounting.

    1. That and the new CPA exams will include additional material in 2024 like blockchain. Meaning you’ll be doing more for the same pay unless things change. Quit last month to pursue a degree in CS Analytics after nearly a decade in private. It’s just not worth the pay. I easily put in 80+ hours during busy season and probably made around $18 an hour take home when calculating an hourly rate. Not going to miss this field.

  3. I tried to become a CPA. I decided to get into tax and accounting after leaving the mortgage industry after the crash in 2008. I worked on obtaining a Master’s in Accountancy. However, for some reason, NO one would give me an internship or entry-level accounting job. Absolutely no one. I applied to a couple of hundred CPA firms across the country looking for a entry-level. I knew my services would be needed down the road, but I wasn’t going to wait for the Accounting industry to recognize that.

    I’m not dumb enough to not know why either. There is a definite reason for the lack of diversity within the industry. And it not just because there are no POC pursuing accounting careers. Its pretty clear that the industry did not keep with the change in demographics that is currently occurring, and did little to nothing to make sure that it was prepared for that change. The didn’t bother to see that a lot of entry-level positions were going to be needed to replace baby-boomers retiring. The people on top maintained things as they were. So now the chickens have come to roost.

    It’s too late for me. I’ve moved on to become an Enrolled Agent. The barriers of entry are much lower, and you don’t have to worry about begging and pleading for someone to hire you so you can work under them to earn the privilege of becoming a CPA. I hope the industry wakes up before the shortage of CPAs becomes even more severe than it already has.

    1. “but I wasn’t going to wait for the Accounting industry to recognize that.” Exactly what industry hires entry-level EA’s? If several hundred CPA Firms didn’t want you then there is most likely something turning these Firms off about you. I don’t know your credentials, education or work history so I’m not going to guess. I know mine and I know I was about as non-traditional as an applicant could be and had no problem getting into the industry. Did you get a Master in Accounting? Did you do through on campus recruiting? What did you do in the “mortgage industry” that it wouldn’t lead to opportunities in the accounting world. Too many unknowns in your story to allow me to worry about a pipeline problem. Good luck

      1. This comment is indicative of the type of people who work in PA and who are generally attracted to accounting: judgmental and sanctimonious. Unless you’re a minority or a member of a marginalized community, keep the judgment and sanctimonious behavior in a place no one else can see. Sometimes people just don’t know how to “do” things, and no one is there to coach them along the way.

        On another note, accounting is a very homogenous industry and in deep trouble. There are so many other ways and industries to make money than from 20 years ago that are so much more worth it and fulfilling than spending days toiling with tax returns and capitulating to client demands for little money. Recommendation: stay away and safe yourself the trouble. Life is far from safe, as is accounting.

  4. “Experience completed through part-time work is not acceptable.”
    I am eligible to sit for the CPA and have been for at least 4 years now. I worked at a CPA firm in Advisory because of my mortgage experience and paralegal education. With the work schedule, work travel, and family obligations, it was hard to find the time to study. Eventhough I was eventually allowed to go PT after having a baby, my managers complained about my schedule and productivity. They didn’t understand that when you take a pay cut that the work output should correspond with that. I just ended up leaving to focus on my family because even after I was hit in a car accident, they still didn’t understand the pain that I was experiencing and wouldn’t allow me the time to care for myself and my newborn. I have been home with the kids ever since.
    But even if I was to pass the exam, I don’t know how I would get licensed since I can’t commit to , “Experience must be full-time and include a minimum of 2,000 hours completed within a 12 month period”, at least not until the kids get much older.

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