[IMGCAP(1)] Think you know what young CPAs want from their firms? Think again. In November 2008, a group of 15 young staff from Chicago area firms got together for the Fourth Annual Rosenberg Associates Staff Forum to get candid about what it’s really like to be young and just starting out in an accounting firm. Here are some of the key realizations from that meeting:

1.    Although many participants groused over the tax season, the group conceded that the tax season occurred during the “right” time of the year. As one staffer put it, “April 15th is like the first day of summer.”

2.    Participants saw lack of job titles at some firms as a negative. They felt that job titles added clarity to their status in the firm, helping them better understand how to move up. Also, the absence of job titles impairs their ability to transfer their skills to another firm.

3.    When we asked, “Do you know what it takes to become partner?” the room went silent – we got lots of stares. The vast majority of the group had no idea. Most had never seen a staff person be promoted to partner, so they simply hadn’t given it a thought.

4.    Five of the 15 participants said they wanted to be partner some day; all five were male. They were committed to their careers and felt a partnership was desirable. Two others did not want to be partner (one male and one female), and eight were not sure (five males and three females). The "not sures" were uncertain about their future with their firms, primarily due to questions in their minds about the compatibility of raising a family and working as a partner, but also due to reluctance to commit to a career in public accounting at such an early age.  Some staff also expressed concern about whether becoming a partner was worth the "price" in terms of long hours and stress.

5.    The most important things about their jobs are flexibility, advancement opportunities and compensation, in that order.

6.    We were surprised that work-life balance was ranked as low as fifth (tied with benefits).  It was ranked No. 1 last year. CPA firm partners commonly believe that work-life balance is as important as anything to the staff. When we probed this issue, the staff shared with us that, due to the recession, they weren't as concerned about work-life balance as much as in the past. At this point, the staff were glad they had good jobs; many of their friends are unemployed.

7.    The staff indicated these disappointments at their firms:

•    Lack of effective performance feedback on their jobs. They point out that the only way to get better is to promptly find out what they did wrong on their last assignment so they don't repeat the same mistakes.
•    Inconsistency among the partners on following the firm's rules, policies and procedures.

8.    The group liked the idea of doing upward evaluations or “360s” on their partners and managers. One noticed that the results of a 360 review positively affected a change in a supervisor’s behavior.

9.    They would like more mentoring and more guidance on how to progress faster.

10.    The forum participants significantly underestimated the amount of money partners earn.  They guessed an average of $280,000 compared to the Rosenberg Survey average of $361,000.

11.    When asked how many total hours their partners work, the average response was 2,708 vs. actual work hours of 2,492. They think partners work "all of the time."

12.    The two most important things their partners can do to overcome the age gap:

•    “Ask for our input; respect our input.”
•    Don't play "Cool College Dad" and try to socialize with us.  Going out for drinks with the partners is like doing this “with our parents.”

13.    Online networking:
•    Good news: It's very popular with the group and has tremendous potential to be useful in business. Currently, the best use appears to be in recruiting, according to the staff.
•    Bad news: The group uses it almost entirely for social and personal use, not for business. They said that there are a lot of unprofessional things on people's Facebook pages.

Marc Rosenberg, CPA, is a management consultant to CPA firms nationwide. He works with firms in partner compensation, retirement and succession planning, mergers, facilitating retreats, strategic planning and practice management reviews.  His firm, The Rosenberg Associates, is based in Wilmette, Ill.  Reach him at (847) 251-7100 or marc@rosenbergassoc.com.