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In the Red: Accounting Firms Respond to Industry Labor Shortage

Jan 25, 2023 12:22PM ● By Kara Schweiss
Chelsie Wieczorek

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 1.3 million people are employed as accountants and auditors, with more than 136,000 openings expected every year for the next decade or so. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Trends Report shows that the annual number of accounting graduates—around 73,000, according to the most recent statistics available—has declined by about 6,000 compared to the average of the previous five years. And annually, around 100,000 people take the certified public accountant (CPA) exam, with only about half passing it. 

You don’t have to be an accounting professional to understand what these numbers are suggesting: a shortage for the sector. 

Rob Osborne, a partner with public accounting firm Frankel Zacharia, CPA , who recruits and hires, said it “boils down to simple supply and demand.” 

“The supply of accounting students entering the profession is decreasing. Part of it was pandemic-related, but I think, just in general, there are fewer and fewer accounting students coming out of college as well,” he said. “That could be related to CPA requirements. To sit for the CPA exam, you have to have 150 credit hours. Oftentimes, that means you have to take a fifth year of school just to be eligible for CPA exam. I think that is turning people off to some extent.”

Obtaining the certified public accountant (CPA) designation requires a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance, or accounting. Candidates must also complete 150 hours of education, as Osborne pointed out, plus have two years of public accounting experience. To receive the CPA designation, a candidate also must pass the rigorous Uniform CPA exam, which is developed and graded by a nonprofit professional organization, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). CPA licenses are provided by the Board of Accountancy for each state. The CPA designation also requires annual continuing education hours. 

Only accountants with the designation can legally perform certain tasks, such as auditing public companies and preparing their audited financial statements. Some employers require the credential for certain positions. Becoming a CPA certainly opens many doors, but not all accountants are CPAs. 

“Most people think that you have to get your CPA in order to be an accountant, but you don’t have to,” said Chelsie Wieczorek, an accounting professional who’s worked in both the public and private sectors. 

Katy Doyle, a recruiter with the Omaha firm Lutz, which provides many business services including accounting, agreed that a CPA designation is not the only pathway into the diverse field. It’s possible to transfer into accounting positions from other career fields or to begin working at a company in a support position under the umbrella of accounting.

“Not all accounting roles have to be degreed,” Doyle said. “There are non-degreed accounting roles like bookkeeping, and it’s usually one that you can start up as an entry-level person in a company.” 

Payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable positions are among other roles which may be available to candidates with an associate degree or who’ve amassed related professional experience, Doyle added. “While it is really critical for you to grow within an organization to have that bachelor’s in accounting, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be in accounting at some capacity.”
The accounting profession has a reputation for being demanding and deadline-driven, which may be a deterrent to students choosing to study accounting or new graduates considering their options, Osborne said.

“Historically—particularly public accounting, CPA—they certainly work a lot of hours. We have our compression period, which is generally January through April 15. Some other firms that serve other niche industries have multiple busy seasons; the larger accounting firms that serve publicly traded companies basically have busy seasons every quarter. The client time demands on people means it’s not often a 40-hour work week.” 

Wieczorek said she’s faced burnout in the past working double a typical full-time workweek. 
“We would be working 80 hours a week for two months, and then it would kind of slow down a little bit to 60 hours a week and then 55,” she said. “That was four or five months out of the year. When you’re doing that, you don’t have any social life.”

It also doesn’t help that movies and television shows often present a nerdy, uptight stereotype of accountants, Wieczorek said. It’s an amusing portrayal, but while the profession is demanding, its practitioners aren’t uptight individuals with pocket protectors who can’t leave their calculators behind for the company picnic. In the real world, they encompass a fairly equal number of men and women and a variety of personality types.

“They’re outgoing and professional and charismatic individuals,” Doyle said. 

Osborne said that accounting firms like his are listening to their employees and others in the field and looking at ways to reduce the amount of professional time required to serve clients, including investing in technology. Accounting has come a long way from handwritten entries in paper ledgers, but better software and systems can always be introduced. 

“That allows us to provide more services in the same amount of time. We’re also trying to decrease the hourly demands on our people,” he said. “We feel that’s been one of the biggest reasons for people leaving our profession, the time demands.”

“Right now at my current job, we’re going through an accounting system implementation,” Wieczorek said, adding that her team is taking fully advantage of the opportunity to build the system “exactly how we want it.”

To help bring more people into accounting professions, Lutz maintains a robust recruitment and internship program, Doyle said. 

“We actually have two people dedicated to going out full-time to attract that internship talent. They go out there pretty often, they do the career fairs and the job fairs. And they’re keeping in touch with these people as they’re going through their accounting classes,” she said. “Those are kind of feeder roles for our staff-level people as well, as the majority of ours go through our 
internship program.”

Despite its challenges, the accounting sector has much to offer, which is important to share early on with students as they consider their future careers, Doyle said. 

“I would say accounting is one of the most stable professions out there, for sure,” she said. “Not only that, but it’s one that’s offered the most competitive salaries. I’ve been an accounting and finance recruiter for almost 13 years, and I’m seeing a huge upswing in salary trends within the last 18 months. And I think that that’s something that should be shared as well.”  

Osborne agreed that compensation is definitely competitive. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the national mean salary for accountants and auditors to be around $84,000 per year and increasing. 

“You know, we’re all vying for a smaller pool of employees,” Osborne said. “So, when supply decreases, demand increases—and what happens when demand increases?” 

Another advantage to the field is the wide range of experiences it can offer, Wieczorek said. 
“One of my clients was an ethanol company in Iowa. Another one was a book company down in Lincoln. And then I did audits on some hospitals as well,” she said. “I found a variety of things. I thought that was a lot of fun.”

Wieczorek also pointed out that in some companies, and for some clients, accounting work can be done from anywhere. 

“I think, especially now, people really want at least the hybrid option, or to be able to just work from home,” she said. “We can, with the technology that we have now.” 

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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