African American accountants should not give up quickly on career advancement at major accounting firms, according to Frank K. Ross of Howard University, and they should be sure to take the CPA Exam as soon as possible.
Ross is the director of the Center for Accounting Education at Howard University’s School of Business. He formerly ran KPMG’s office in Washington, D.C., and sat on KPMG’s board, making him one of the first African Americans to hold a senior position at a major accounting firm.
The CAE regularly conducts studies of how minority accountants are faring at the major firms.
“Our emphasis is on trying to work with college students who are a year or two years away from the profession, juniors and seniors, about what to expect, especially as an African American or black, and how to handle some of the situations that they will be facing,” he told me.
The CAE also runs a three- to four-day program for those who are already in the accounting profession who have spent at least a year as an accountant to help them learn soft skills, stand out at their firms and deal with unconscious bias. The center also has a program to help minorities pass the CPA Exam.
Ross believes it is crucial for minorities to do the same as many other young people at public firms and begin studying for the CPA Exam soon after they start their job. Passing the exam can help in their careers and discourage them from leaving the profession so soon. He noted that the AICPA has found that less than 1 percent of partners in CPA firms are African Americans, and it has been that way for a long time. The center has done studies on the reasons for the relative scarceness.
“We’ve done research on why so many minorities leave public accounting,” he said. “As a general rule I would say the accounting profession is hiring. They have not been hit as bad as a lot of other industries. As a result they are looking for minorities to hire. But there is still high turnover. Once you’re in the profession, it doesn’t mean you’re set. The profession does have a high turnover rate, and it’s a higher turnover rate for minorities.”
One reason why so many leave the profession is that they don’t try to take the CPA Exam right away. The exam is geared more toward recent college graduates, but if there are work/life balance issues, a new accountant may put off taking the exam, if, for example, the accounting grad is a single mother trying to survive on a low starting salary.
“Minorities tend to have a lot more single mothers,” said Ross. “As a result, job demands have a significant impact on their needs.”
He noted that there is often a cultural problem for many minorities fitting into the culture of an accounting firm, especially with the long hours in the workday. As a result, many minority accountants take the first job offer that comes along after they arrive at a public firm, often landing at staff accounting jobs in various industries.
However, Ross pointed out that the major firms have done studies that show that the longer you stay in a major public accounting firm, the more job satisfaction you will have and the more money you will make.
“Minority accountants who leave sooner and don’t get into management will not be as successful and may not achieve as much job satisfaction,” Ross pointed out. “They will leave for staff accounting jobs, or they will begin their own practice, which is a good thing. But if they stay with the major firms a few years longer, they will be able to make more money.”
In all of the CAE's programs, the two key messages, according to Ross, are to pass the CPA Exam as soon as possible and stick it out at the public firms.
“Pass the CPA Exam as early as you possibly can,” he said. “Don’t delay, don’t wait, make it priority to pass it. The second message is stay with the firms. If you go into public accounting, stay with the firm as long as you possibly can. Become a member of the management group. Don’t take the first offer you get. You will make more money in the long run and will get a lot more job satisfaction.”