It’s a great time to be a young student entering the profession. According to the 2015 AICPA Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report, “Enrollment in accounting programs reached an all-time high” in the 2013-14 academic year, and hiring has reached record levels with a 7 percent overall growth in new hires.

Yet there’s one category in the accounting field where the numbers are a bit underwhelming: diversity. The same AICPA report claims that 62 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s graduates in the 2013-14 academic year were white, with only 11 percent Asian, 5 percent African-American, and 6 percent Latino, with “Other” rounding out the rest of the graduates at 16 percent.

A diverse profession is not a recent goal, but it’s one that still requires work. In response, a number of organizations and societies are tackling the challenge of introducing the necessity of diverse professionals to the industry, understanding that building a workforce more reflective of the general population will ensure the profession’s future and reach.

 

WHERE PROBLEMS ARISE

Over the last 10 years, minority enrollment into bachelor’s and master’s accounting programs has remained mostly stagnant. Per the AICPA’s 2015 Trends report: “As a percentage of bachelor’s and master’s enrollments, students categorized in the White race/ethnicity category decreased 10 percentage points … Nonwhite students increased 1 percentage point, while those reported in the Other race/ethnicity category increased 9 percent points.”

That means that even though the accounting profession’s conversation has grown significantly in the last decade, it has produced underwhelming results.

Jina Etienne, president and CEO of the National Association of Black Accountants, believes that diversity scarcity has its roots early on in the education system.

“I think there’s a broader issue of financial literacy and understanding of accounting among some groups of minorities,” she said. “Some of that’s cultural, but as long as K-12 education doesn’t reinforce math and key elements of financial literacy, some minority communities will continue to struggle.”

Kim Drumgo, director of diversity and inclusion at the AICPA and vice chair of its National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, echoed the need for an earlier introduction to the accounting profession and the key skills needed therein. “Recent focus groups that the AICPA has administered regarding the awareness of the accounting profession in diversity communities indicate that a career as a CPAs isn’t as widely known or discussed as an aspiration in a majority of African-American or Latino homes as compared to other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professions,” Drumgo said. “The depth and breadth of the accounting profession and the vast opportunities that exist are simply not as well-known as other prestigious professions like doctors and lawyers by either these students or their influencers.”

To counter this, Drumgo said that the AICPA’s support of the National Academy Foundation and the PhD Project aims to give minority students knowledge of the profession earlier in their academic careers by introducing a more STEM-based curriculum, as well as providing diverse role models in the accounting profession. The ultimate goal, she said, is that “greater awareness of the profession [leads] to more diverse candidates.”

 

TAKING ACTION

While the origin of gaining more diverse students starts in the school system, there are still steps firms can presently take to help diversify themselves and the profession.

Etienne draws the comparison between the profession’s current obsession with attracting and retaining Millennials with attracting diverse students, suggesting that there’s little, if any, difference between focusing on the two groups. “Shift the term ‘Millennial’ to ‘diverse,’” she advised. “When you go into a firm that doesn’t reflect your culture — [be it] age, culture, gender — the idea that the minority must conform or ignore that differentiator is becoming less and less true. If you feel like you belong to a culture, then you’ll stay. Your firm needs to reflect your customer base. There’s a core business imperative that you need people in your firm who understand the demographics of the clients you’ll be serving in your future.”

Drumgo said that the AICPA has been working with the National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion to “explore new and innovative ways we can work with our partners and key stakeholders on making a difference.” She advised firms and professionals to sign up for the AICPA’s monthly briefing, Inclusion Solutions, to “better understand how other organizations are leveraging diversity and inclusion.” The AICPA’s Recruitment and Retention Toolkit, she added, is another source for professionals to read up on attracting, recruiting and retaining an outstanding diverse workforce.

Richard Caturano, national leader of culture, diversity, and inclusion at Top 5 Firm RSM and a past chairman of the AICPA, sees collaborations with diverse associations as an instant way to boost outreach.

“At RSM, we have had tremendous success in expanding the pool of diverse candidates through our active participation in and support of the three major diverse professional organizations: NABA, the Association of Latino Professionals for America and ASCEND [a group for pan-Asian leaders in finance and accounting],” he said. “We have also expanded our campus recruiting to include organizations which support the LGBT and veterans’ communities. In addition, we have established strong Employee Network Groups which help us not only retain and advance, but also attract more diverse talent.”

 

WORKING FOR THE FUTURE

While the majority of firms and leaders of the accounting profession remain aware of the lack of diversity and recognize the overall problem in the profession, by and large the issue is currently being treated as a voluntary initiative to solve. However, those focused on diversity in accounting are of the opinion that it is indeed a business issue — as important as any other factor discussed in safeguarding the accounting profession’s success moving forward.

“We’ve moved beyond the idea that this is all about doing the right thing or being politically correct to an understanding that this is a business imperative that can impact a firm’s bottom line,” said Drumgo. “I think that the firms who are forward-looking and want to put themselves in the best position for the future are working hard to get this right. They understand that creating an inclusive work environment where professionals from various backgrounds can succeed is critical to success. “

“To remain relevant, we must be a profession which is representative of our overall population,” said Caturano. “Second, by including more bright, young minority students in the candidate pool, we will be able to expand the pool and thus ‘raise the bar’ for candidates coming into the profession. Third, it has been proven that diverse groups are better at problem-solving and providing more relevant solutions than non-diverse groups.”

“It starts with authenticity of language and modernized tones,” said Etienne. “It’s important we recognize what the challenges are and embrace it. I think we have to start having authentic conversations and not make it about numbers, but about understanding. You can put all the pics you want in a brochure, but you can’t talk about something you don’t have experience in. Firms need to ask for input and help. The first step is to have a more authentic outlook and say, ‘I don’t have all the answers, but I’m looking for them.’”

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