Where Are All the Tax Accountants?

In order to attract more people to the field of accounting, businesses have joined with colleges to create innovative programs.

Accounting is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-related field that companies of all sizes are fighting for.

There is a shortage in accountants, and there are many opportunities.

Why Accounting?

Accounting is a great career option, especially with the turmoil in other fields. Colleges, large accounting firms and national organisations are developing innovative programs to attract and develop the future generation of accountants. This will help a wider range of people become interested in this lucrative career.

Michael Decker, Vice President of the CPA Examinations at the American Institute of CPAs (the association that represents the CPA profession), says, "There's never a better moment to enter the field." Accounting professionals, CPAs and business professionals will always have jobs, despite layoffs and the volatility of technology. You can carry your CPA with you wherever you go, whether it's for audit, tax or finance. There's never been a more stable time in my career.

Accounting is a less popular field despite the high job prospects. Over the last few years, there has been a decline in students enrolled in accounting bachelor's or master's programs. KPMG is a U.S. auditing, tax, and advisory firm that recently surveyed executives at large companies. 83% of them said it was difficult to find tax talent in the past year.

Decker suggests that we could do better at selling its attractiveness. Decker says, 'We are trying to change the way we promote and talk about it because it has value.'

Accounting firms, colleges, and the AICPA all focus on attracting STEM-oriented candidates into the field. This could be done by showing high school students and college students how accounting can be more than they expected. Or, it could involve offering scholarships to a diverse group of accounting students or hybrid programs to make it easier for professionals in mid-career to earn their CPA.

Decker says, 'I believe there is a war for talent. Whether it's public accountants or businesses, they are looking for young people who are curious, intelligent and critical-thinking, with backgrounds in technology, data, business, and communications.' Decker says that if you have a background in business, technology, data and some communications you will be hired.

Attracting college kids to accounting

Many students who focus on STEM subjects in high school or college are good candidates for accounting.

Decker says that STEM has seen an increase in interest over the past few years, which began in middle and high schools. There is a great deal of support for STEM education and STEM career.

The challenge is to encourage students to pursue accounting careers rather than finance or tech careers where they may earn a higher starting salary. Accounting is a delayed reward because it can take years to become a CPA, which involves education, experience in the field and passing an exam. Waiting for the reward while paying back student loans can be a challenge. Once you've earned that credential, there are many jobs available.

Decker says that the studies we've done have shown that a strong demand for CPAs is what drives them to become one. Decker says that the number one reason for wanting to become a CPA is firm demand. We know that accounting firms work with state societies to promote the field. CPAs are more often visiting campuses in high schools and college to promote the profession. There are also a variety of initiatives that showcase what CPAs do. CPAs are no longer seen as someone who sits at a desk for the entire day. It is promoting the CPA's value and the opportunities that CPAs will have. The firms are actively promoting this in the war for talent.

The AICPA Foundation offers more than $1,000,000 in scholarships to college students who want to pursue accounting and become CPAs, as well as to practicing CPAs who wish to become professors. KPMG has recently launched a Tax Scholarship program that offers up to $40,000 in scholarships to students who are underrepresented to pursue a Master's degree. The program offers mentoring by KPMG professionals as well as internships and a job with KPMG upon graduation.

KPMG has also partnered up with the University of Northern Iowa in order to expand the Bachelor of Arts program in Accounting. This hybrid option will be available to students in the Des Moines region, offering online and evening courses to attract more students who are mid-career. KPMG will also provide some professionals from their office to teach as an adjunct faculty, and they expect to hire interns in the program. According to the Des Moines College, there's a shortage of accounting professionals throughout the metro area. The number of positions posted for recent accounting graduates was more than six-to-one in the last year.

Greg Engel, Vice Chair - Tax at KPMG, says that 'the accounting shortage is real, and it's pervasive in all markets. We're collectively making concrete progress to rectify the problem.' UNI's hybrid programs, which are for professionals with associate degree, represent an important step in attracting candidates via less traditional routes.

Accounting in Action at College

Howard University, in the District of Columbia, has been working on getting students interested in accounting from as early as highschool. 'The Howard University Center for Accounting Education deliberately designs pipeline programs to prepare high school, Community College and University students to enter into the accounting profession', says Jean T. Wells CPA, Associate Professor of Accounting at the Howard University School of Business, and Associate Director of the Howard University Center for Accounting Education.

Howard University is involved in a number of national programs that promote accounting as a profession. The Accounting Careers Awareness Program was designed to introduce high school students into the accounting field and encourage them apply to college. The Accounting Scholars Development Program targets community college students, and encourages them to transfer to four-year institutions to finish their undergraduate studies.

Wells says that both programs are one-week long summer residences where students live on campus in dormitories. They visit accounting firms and government agencies, and they participate in a project.

Howard University accounting students can gain tax experience through volunteering with the IRS Volunteer Income tax Assistance Program, where they will be trained to prepare tax returns for local residents.

The IRS Criminal Investigation Division sponsors programs such as the IRS Adrian Project that expose students to a more dynamic side of accounting. Wells says that the students are taught to sharpen their tax and forensic accounting skills, and they also learn how to conduct surveillance, interview suspects and analyze documents. The day ends once the students have solved the crime and arrested the mock offender. The Adrian Project gives students an insight into a career as an IRS Special Agent and what a criminal case entails.

Students are encouraged to attend the Frank K. Ross Leadership Institute to network with accounting professionals and to learn more about accounting careers.

Wells says that these programs are vital in equipping students and participants with the knowledge and skills they need to be able to navigate their way to a rewarding accounting career.

Accounting firms can help with the next steps

Firms are not only working to increase the number of students who choose accounting as a career, but they also provide more support for young accountants to continue their education and pursue CPA certification.

Decker states that 'the firms with the best practice have increased their starting salaries and bonuses, paid for the test preparation and exam, treated new employees as a cohort and group them together to study and prepare for the examination together. They also treat the new employees who are coming in together. Decker says that mentoring and advocacy by professionals in the accounting field helps accounting graduates stay in the profession and work towards their CPA.

Decker says that the CPA exam is now taken by only 40% of accounting graduates, down from 60% in the past. We have some initiatives that will help to demonstrate what accounting is all about. There are many initiatives in the firms around work-life, culture, and diversity initiatives. He says the goal is to "promote professionalism and provide flexibility, but without reducing rigor."

The field is also looking to attract more STEM graduates and finance professionals. Decker says that you don't need a degree in accounting to take the exam. You just need to have enough time to prepare.

Annette Nellen is a tax professor and director of San Jose State University's Master of Science in Taxation Program. She says that she has seen this happen with her graduate level classes. She says that some people may have studied something else but their jobs gravitated towards accounting. They come back to take the classes they require and then sit for the CPA examination. Our program is a mixture of people who are working professionals as well as those who just completed their degree. Sometimes, they get jobs by talking to their peers.

Accounting firms, colleges and the AICPA also spend more time on the many careers that a CPA can pursue. These include auditing international companies, providing data analytics to any company, or working for yourself and assisting local businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals in their tax preparation. Decker says that many small business owners struggle to retire due to the lack of a successor. If I had college-age kids who wanted to start a business, I would tell them to become a CPA. They can then learn from a boomer and open their own practice. What better way to invest in a business and own it, be able to grow the company and have a strong impact in your community?

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