Many of the biggest concerns for accounting firms in the future relate to people issues, according to Illinois CPA Society president and CEO Todd Shapiro.

In his opening keynote for the 34th Annual Midwest Accounting & Finance Show, Shapiro discussed the way demographics, demand, fierce competition, the changing priorities of students and other human factors will affect accountants. He started by noting that demand for accountants is expected to rise between 16 and 20 percent by 2020, and that the number of accounting graduates is at an all-time high.

“But the number of people taking the CPA Exam is flat,” he warned, and that, combined with previous shortfalls in the number of new CPAs being created, is causing intense competition among firms for qualified employees. “Firms are resigning jobs because there’s such fierce competition for staff,” he said. “You can’t find a good manager with seven to 10 years of experience -- they left the profession. And there’s a huge gap from people who left the profession in the 1990s.”

“I know this may come as a shock, but this is an aging profession,” he continued. “If you haven’t set up a succession plan by the time you’re 50, don’t worry about it, because it’s not going to happen -- you’re going to be bought or merge.”

If shortages in qualified staff in general will make succession planning and staffing ongoing engagements more difficult, the major shortage of diverse staff and partners -- in terms of both women and minorities -- will not just exacerbate the normal staffing pressures, but will also make it harder to bring on new clients, as more and more businesses are created and run by minorities. “If we don’t diversify this profession,” Shapiro warned, “then diverse businesses will start hiring suppliers who look like them.”

 

The firm of the future

Shapiro also drew a picture of how accounting firms will work and look in the future, starting with the ongoing move away from private offices toward workstations (“That’s what people who don’t work in them call them,” he quipped. “If you work in them, you call them cubes”) and eventually towards offices with few or no divisions between workspaces.

“What makes a business successful today?,” he asked. “Collaboration. How many of you have offices where people e-mail people in the cube next to them? You’re going to see workspaces change to reflect a more social learning environment.”

He encouraged firm leaders to think about how they can make their workspace more dynamic and collaborative -- and to embrace technology wholeheartedly in the face of the commoditization of many of their traditional services. “We need to master technology,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll disappear.”