Frank Ross, director of Howard University’s Center for Accounting Education, has been a longtime proponent of increasing diversity in the accounting profession, as the industry once again tries to make headway on the problem.

The CAE runs an annual “We’re About Success” symposium every June near Washington, D.C., to enable promising young African-American accountants to acquire skills and strategies to help them succeed in the profession. But the CAE has also been broadening its efforts and forging alliances with accounting organizations that share similar goals of increasing diversity in the profession. Ross is also a member of the American Institute of CPAs’ recently formed National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.

“We are in the process of spearheading the development of a proposal around a profession-wide solution to the accounting pipeline issue,” he said. “It starts with the proposition that the results of increasing the number of minorities in the profession are very poor. It’s dismal. When you look at the AICPA statistics, it shows it’s not moving the bar that much. The AICPA has started their commission on diversity retention, but while we need to deal with retention, and while retention is important and critical, you’ve got to have more minorities selecting the accounting profession, than we have had in the past. We’ve got to make the profession a lot more attractive to minorities than we have, and we’ve got to let them learn more about the profession.”

He acknowledged that all the Big Four firms, along with groups like the National Association of Black Accountants, the Association of Latino Professionals and Finance and Accounting, and the Pan-Asian organization Ascend are exerting their own efforts to increase diversity. “You have everyone in the profession doing something, but what’s missing is that we’re not approaching it as an industry,” said Ross.

He would like to see the kind of overarching approach used to attract more students to the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “That is being approached pretty much as an industry-wide issue, even to the point where the President mentions the need for more science and math teachers,” said Ross. “There is more emphasis on science and math courses, and that sort of thing. Yet we have a serious problem that we don’t have industry-wide efforts. The idea is let’s start taking all these one-offs and let’s try to roll them out to the profession in such a way that the whole profession can start doing these successful programs. E&Y does a program in several cities where they adopt a high school. If a program is successful for one firm, why don’t we start a program industry-wide of adopting high schools or middle school, not just limited to E&Y or KPMG, but go to all the firms?”

He noted that a group of Midwest firms have begun providing internships to students who are still in the first few years of college. “They’re starting to come together and say, ‘How can we attract younger college students to the profession?’ You take that concept and why doesn’t the industry adopt something like that and roll it out industry-wide? That’s one of the activities we are trying to work on while developing a paper,” said Ross. “We’ve been meeting with the chief diversity officers of the major global seven firms. We’ve had two meetings so far and we have a third one scheduled for sometime this spring. One of the things the Center has charged us with is why don’t you take your paper and develop it into a much more robust proposal, something that we can all take to our firms and start to really find a way to do things more as an industry, versus one-offs.”

They have established a working group made up of about 20 individuals from the major firms, along with the AICPA and other diversity-minded organizations like NABA, Ascend and ALPFA. “They will help me develop this paper that hopefully will get some traction among the firms,” said Ross.

He is also serving on the AICPA’s diversity commission. “Their charge is to develop programs around retention of minorities in the accounting profession, but we can’t give up on the pipeline,” Ross pointed out. “The accounting profession has a very high turnover rate, and although the firms can do something about that and reduce it by a couple of percentage points a little bit, it’s still a high turnover rate, and if you bring in a small number of any of the minority groups, that turnover rate would mean there will be so few left to go all the way within the firms. You’ve got to increase the numbers of minorities coming into the accounting profession if you hope to really have an impact on the number of partners you will have down the road and the number of managers and senior-level professionals. That’s what we’re built on.”