Forty-two years ago, I, a man of color, entered a profession that was virtually all white: accounting. I faced and overcame many challenges, rose through the ranks over four decades, and became a managing partner and member of the board at a Big Four firm. Upon retiring, I opened a new career chapter: I now work to help ensure that more young men and women of color enter and succeed in accounting, and that their journey will yield them the same professional satisfaction that mine did.I am concerned today because minorities, especially African-Americans, are underrepresented in the profession, particularly at the managerial and partnership levels. This is unacceptable for the health of our society and for the health and competitiveness of American business. Additionally, it saddens me to see so many talented and educated minorities miss out on a career in a profession that many of them would enjoy greatly and prosper in.
All of America's large firms initiated minority-recruitment efforts years ago. Despite the best intentions, the number of Hispanic and African-American hires remains low. African-Americans accounted for only 2 percent of professional staff and 1 percent of all accounting firm partners in 2007. Hispanics accounted for 3 percent of professional staff and 2 percent of partners.
Clearly, something is not working.
Fortunately, there are steps that the profession can take to recruit and retain more minorities. The U.S. Treasury Department's Advisory Committee on the Audit Profession has recommended several well-thought-out steps, which ought to be implemented and expanded upon. To address the challenge, here is what everyone in the profession needs to do, working together:
* Actively recruit minorities for the auditing profession from other disciplines and careers.
* Work more closely with community colleges, which are accessible gateways for many minority students into post-secondary education.
* Strengthen the profession's ties with historically black colleges and universities by expanding the use of cross-sabbaticals and internships.
If the profession does reach out to less-traditional sources of talent in these ways, recruits from these sources may need extra support once they enter the profession. More broadly, to achieve long-term goals for minority representation, we must be laser-focused on retention. A core challenge - and a very difficult one - is to change the perceptions of both firms and African-Americans about their ability to succeed in the profession.
As a group, African-Americans are not yet fully convinced that accounting wants them. Because they do not see many managers or partners who look like them, too many younger African-Americans do not aspire to reach those ranks.
This and other factors appear to discourage many African-American accountants from sitting for the CPA Exam. A young African-American who thinks they cannot make partner because of their race is much less likely to invest in the hard work needed for CPA certification. In a 2007 survey by the Howard University Center for Accounting Education, 57 percent of African-Americans conceded that their feelings about taking the CPA Exam were at least somewhat influenced by a fear of failure.
To succeed, retention efforts should build young workers' belief that they can succeed and advance. For many minority workers, confidence is fragile. They may be the first in their family to earn a college degree. Some graduates of historically black colleges and universities may be intimidated by competing against graduates of elite universities for the first time. Surveys show that large percentages of minorities believe that they have to work twice as hard as white colleagues to earn equal recognition.
Firms should build the confidence of minority hires from Day One, with retention programs that include:
* Mentoring, as in a sponsor or advocate for the individual;
* Challenging assignments;
* Supportive and nurturing networks; and,
* Visible role models.
Unless you have been blessed with a truly strong mentor, it may be hard to understand how beneficial it is. I was fortunate enough to have three individuals who at different times took me under their wing. Their mentorship went far beyond timely advice or pointers about how to get along. They became advocates on my behalf, invisible hands who made sure that I received a chance to develop and display my abilities.
Many firms now have official mentoring programs. These are worthy efforts. But having an assigned mentor is simply not the same as having a real advocate in your corner. Firms should challenge their partners and senior managers to identify promising young employees, especially minority employees, and become true advocates who actively look out for their career interest. A younger worker with such advocates will be much more likely to stay in accounting.
We must change perceptions, so that minorities can plainly see a career path with an upward trajectory. I am confident that if minorities believe that they have real opportunity, they will commit to our profession in larger numbers, put in the hard work to sit for the CPA Exam, and reach the highest levels of success.
Frank Ross, a visiting professor and director for the Howard University Center for Accounting Education, is a retired managing partner and member of the board of KPMG LLP, and was a co-founder and first president of the National Association of Black Accountants. This article was adapted from his testimony before the Treasury Department's Advisory Committee on the Audit Profession.
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