Filling the Pipeline

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IMGCAP(1)]Sometimes it’s nice when a problem is so big you can’t reasonably be expected to do anything about it. When some higher authority is really needed to solve an issue — whether it’s a boss or a court or a government — it lets you off the hook. And who doesn’t like to be let off the hook?

Take one of the biggest issues facing the accounting profession: the relative dearth of new CPAs. 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?

Well, yes — but not entirely.

As a matter of fact, the leaders of the profession are very engaged in this issue. The AICPA has been working on it for some time, and the Illinois CPA Society recently issued a white paper, “Pipeline Disruption” (available on the ICPAS Web site), that unpacks many of the root causes of what it describes as “the weakening supply of CPAs.” Demographics and regulation and all the other large-scale factors bear some blame — to say nothing of the sheer effort and expense involved in preparing for and sitting the CPA Exam — but the report also takes a hard look at what individuals in the profession are and aren’t doing to create new CPAs. As ICPAS president and CEO Todd Shapiro writes in his introduction to the white paper, “In the end, we have to look inward and challenge ourselves on how much we are supporting, pushing and requiring accounting majors to become CPAs.”

The answer, it seems, is “Not enough.” The Illinois society did a survey of the top 25 firms in the Chicago area, and found some disturbing results: 92 percent of them require staff to earn their license to progress beyond a certain level, and 76 percent will provide financial assistance for one attempt at each section of the exam — but the average exam-taker will make 6.5 attempts at different sections to pass all four, meaning they’re on the hook for those extra 2.5 tries. What’s more, 12 percent of firms only provide financial assistance for review courses, not the exam itself, and another 12 percent provide no assistance at all. Finally, a fifth of the firms don’t give employees any time off or schedule flexibility for exam prep and test-taking. And this is at top-level firms that are complaining about how hard it is to find CPAs!

“Is the white paper provocative?” Shapiro asked in an interview. “Probably, but it’s a conversation we need to have.” He noted that many of the surveyed firms said they offered minimal support because they were concerned that staff might not take the exam seriously if they thought they could just take it again. Having a son who had recently passed the exam, Shapiro was quick to explain that no one takes more sections of the exam than they absolutely have to.

Shapiro noted that state societies like his and the AICPA have work to do, working with educators and on campus to help young accountants navigate the 150-hour rule, and to explain why sitting the exam will be worthwhile over the course of their careers. But firms and managers across the profession have work, too, both in relentlessly encouraging their young employees to earn their licenses, and in making sure they’re supporting them properly along the way.

When it comes to filling the pipeline, no one’s off the hook.


A sharp-eyed reader noted that an earlier version of this article included the text twice; it has since been shortened.

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