The rising emphasis on transparency, accountability and financial reporting, coupled with the globalization of commerce, means more work is on the horizon for accounting firms. That's the good news. But one look around a firm's meeting room will tell you that the profession is graying, and conversations with human resources executives will reveal that turnover rates among young accountants are on the rise.
That combination is not so good.
The Millennial generation, those under the age of 30, is 80 million strong and will be a force in the labor pool for some time. Millennials are well-educated, sophisticated, and don't necessarily see their careers following a traditional path. The recession experience and the resulting unemployment have made Millennials wary, and this may pose additional recruitment problems for accounting firms.
A CLASH OF EXPECTATIONS
A nationwide survey of 167 laid-off Millennials conducted by SBR Consulting last year found that 55 percent of respondents answered "no" or "unsure" when asked if they would work for corporate America for the long term (defined in the survey as more than five years). Their future plans include starting a business, working in the nonprofit or government sector, or focusing on raising a family. This is a pragmatic group, however, since 44 percent saw themselves in the corporate world for the short term (within the next three years).
The implications of these attitudes for the profession as a whole are serious, because they affect the entire talent pipeline. Every firm, large and small, will be competing for workers. Equally important, the specialization model on which firms are built chafes against the Millennials' desire for career and lifestyle options.
My conversations with accountants, accounting professors and young accountants who have left the profession confirm that Millennials worry that selecting a specialty will "pigeonhole" them, locking them into an inflexible career track. I was surprised by how many people I spoke to who used the expression "pigeonhole," an indication of how widespread this perception is.
HOW TO COMPETE BETTER
Accountants and auditors are valued precisely because of their deep knowledge and expertise, so radically altering the business model is unrealistic. Yet the looming demand for accounting services and the shrinking talent pool give urgency to finding ways to accommodate the expectations of young workers.
It's likely that your firm, like many others, has focused on short-term development of Millennials but possibly not yet on their long-range career track. But you're not too late to begin the conversation, and the sooner you start, the stronger your succession plan and competitive market position will be. Here are some steps you can take:
Gather information. Examine the firm's voluntary turnover for the past several years to identify exactly who is leaving. For example, are they primarily people who have been with the firm fewer than three-to-five years? Interviewing Millennials currently on staff may yield invaluable insight into their views on career paths and on how well their job experience thus far has met expectations.
Look at your competitors. Do they have any Millennial-oriented programs in place? Look outside of your industry, too. Perhaps clients will share with you their strategies for developing younger workers.
Create new opportunities. Millennials crave challenge. To tap into this desire for challenge, firms might consider ways in which younger employees can be cross-trained. A broader skill set may make these workers more marketable, but, counter-intuitive though it may seem, it will make them more loyal, since they tend to see loyalty as a two-way street.
For example, a young auditor may be assigned to work temporarily with the consulting side of the business. This experience will stretch that individual's skills and will enhance their ability to cross-sell in the future, a true win-win for all parties.
Redefine success. Unlike prior generations, Millennials are more prone to measure career success in terms of quality of life and personal fulfillment, not executive ranking. So firms would do well to shift the career path conversation from "titles" (e.g., manager to partner) to "new experiences."
TIME TO START THE DIALOGUE
The coming talent drain and worker shortage are undeniable. The most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook issued by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of accountants and auditors to grow by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.
In the meantime, unofficial estimates are that as much as 75 percent of the American Institute of CPAs' current membership is expected to retire in the coming years, in keeping with the aging Baby Boomer trend. Combine this with increasing turnover among young accountants, and it's clear that organizations that want to thrive must begin discussing ways to accommodate the newest entrants into the workforce. These are uncharted waters, but it's essential to begin the journey.
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