I saw a friend of mine over the weekend who's been copyediting a new edition of a math textbook for elementary students. In the middle of a conversation debating the merits of movie remakes, she interrupted to ask if I knew how much the average accountant makes.
After some hemming and hawing -- the CPA credential comes with a salary hike, an auditor will probably be making double a first-year associate's salary, partners are making six figures easy -- I said that a fair estimate for an accountant a few years into their career is around $65,000. The figure checks out on Salary.com and CareerBank.com.
The math textbook had rounded a bit up, saying accountants make $100,000.
"I didn't believe that," she said, before adding with a laugh, "$100,000 a year is almost enough to make me want to be an accountant."
I hear comments like this all the time, and CPAs I've talked to have shared similar anecdotes. It's ironic that as the profession is enduring some of the worst scandals it has ever seen, and as the parade of white-collar criminals and Securities and Exchange Commission inquiries sometimes seems endless, I keep running into the same two trend stories in the mainstream media.
The first one is about how the demand for accountants is rising, due in equal parts to factors like Sarbanes-Oxley and that the number of college graduates entering the profession has dropped over the past decade. Every one of those stories includes this statistic from the American Institute of CPAs, that since the Enron and WorldCom scandals broke in 2001 and 2002, accounting graduation rates have climbed. In 2004, there were 19 percent more accounting graduates than in 2000, although the graduation rate was still below its 1994 peak.
But lately, I keep seeing a new breed of stories cropping up on business pages everywhere, talking about how the scandals have helped the profession shed its nebbishy image and begun to bring some street cred to the work of CPAs.
I couldn't resist rolling my eyes before clicking on a CNNMoney link earlier this week, where a lead story ran with the headline, "I'm too sexy for my ledger?" The article started off discussing how last year the Australian Broadcasting Corp. made a for-television movie starring a former pop star. Called "Loot," the drama followed a suave forensic accountant "who chases paper trails and millions of missing dollars around the globe," while leaving room for a romantic side plot.
But just as easily as the article makes its point, I feel the need to point out a film that perhaps made a bigger impact on the American psyche over the last year, the Will Smith vehicle, "Hitch." Smith played a romance consultant who takes on the case of a tubby, asthmatic, romantically inept accountant who falls for a rich, beautiful heiress. There's no hint of that rugged, globetrotting accountant character anywhere in this movie.
Granted, the "Ledger" headline prompted some attention from me, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm a sucker for Michael Keaton's newsroom drama "The Paper," but hitching its star to pop culture and relying on the news media to burnish a sexy image isn't going to secure the future of the accounting profession. And I don't think there's anyone who seriously believes that sort of tactic is going to sell high school seniors and college undergrads on the profession.
I remember watching a standup comic on cable years ago (I remember it being Gilda Radner, though Google keeps returning Paula Poundstone). At any rate, one of the comedienne's bits revolved around how adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up. Her punch line was that the reason behind the standard line of questioning is adults are always looking for a good idea.
The accountants I know enjoy their work and recognize the impact it has on the business world. They've stopped looking for a good career path because they've already found it. It's time to stop laughing along with jokes made at their profession's expense and start spreading word about how the work they do is more important than just making a column of figures add up. It's not a sexier image and a jet-setting lifestyle that will eventually fill those slots at top accounting firms. CPAs need to proudly speak up about the role their work has in protecting the public -- whether it's a company's investors and employees, or a single family's financial future -- that's the pitch that will inspire the next generation.
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