Gina Singleton

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that features insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

Accounting majors at universities and colleges don’t want to be accountants. Furthermore, the number of students majoring in accounting is declining. This trend is causing some hysteria for accounting firms and the industry as a whole. According to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) 2021 Trends Report, accounting graduates at the bachelor’s level decreased 2.8% in the 2019-20 academic year. Accounting graduates at the master’s level decreased 8.4%. Accountants and CPAs in the field are also quitting their current roles.

What is happening? Many say the pay is not as high as it used to be. Many say it’s the demanding hours.  Those already in the field are experiencing significant burnout. Another may be the perception of accounting as a boring and monotonous field. I argue that most of these complaints have always been around. CPAs have always had strenuous busy seasons. Accountants have always been deemed as monotonous “number crunchers.”

There are probably many factors at play, but one significant reason might be the increasing number of opportunities out there for new hires. There are so many new roles in the tech, banking, finance and other industries in which new hires are receiving higher entry-level pay than they would at a CPA firm. Another factor might involve the view that some think automation is going to make accountants obsolete, thus students believe that accountants now have less job security. Yes, technology is doing a lot of things for us now, but I think this is a benefit! Accountants are no longer doing those boring, monotonous tasks we are always perceived as doing. Automation is changing an accountant’s career by allowing an accountant to be more creative and innovative. Accountants can now use technology and data to help clients make sound decisions. I also suspect the pandemic had some impact on the decline. It will be interesting to see the trends post-pandemic.

As a professor who works with accounting students at Columbia College on a daily basis, I see this trend first hand. Students have certainly been more interested in obtaining roles outside the traditional tax or audit route. I have had only one or two students interested in working for a CPA firm the last couple of years. Although that is common at a school this size, it did seem that I had more students interested in those traditional roles in prior years. I even had a senior accounting student tell me he doesn’t want to do anything in accounting at all!

Yet, I am optimistic. This year, I have slightly more accounting majors, and it seems more of these students are interested in obtaining a master’s and CPA licensure. Accounting professors (myself included) are incorporating more data analysis and value-added decision-making activities in our courses to not only keep up with what employers need but to appeal to students’ interests. There is even accounting humor all over social media. I am always looking for new ways to gauge the interest of this TikTok generation!

There is some good news to share. According to the Trends Report, there was a substantial increase in diversity hires at CPA firms. This was the largest increase in hiring Asian or Pacific Islander, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino new graduates since the AICPA started collecting data for the annual Trends Report. Another interesting piece of data that came from this report included gender analysis. Slightly more women are majoring in the field than men.

It is important for employers to take these factors into consideration and take steps to address them in order to retain their best employees and build a strong workforce. Many CPA firms are already addressing this by giving pay increases and considering ways to reduce the significant number of hours worked during busy seasons. Firms are going into high schools and even middle schools to expose kids to the topic at an early age. Even the CPA exam content is shifting. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and the AICPA created the CPA Evolution, which is “an initiative that aims to transform the CPA licensure model to recognize the rapidly changing skills and competencies the practice of accounting requires today and will require in the future.” The model will begin in 2024. I suspect all of these changes that are on the horizon for the accounting industry will have large impacts for generations of “number crunchers” to come.

Gina Singleton is an assistant professor of Accounting at Columbia College teaching a variety of accounting courses. In addition, she works part-time as an accountant in property management with her husband. She received her master’s in accounting (2012) from the University of Missouri. She is a licensed CPA in the state of Missouri and has worked as both a senior auditor for a “big four” public accounting firm and as an accountant in the construction industry. As an auditor, she worked in a variety of industries including software, construction, telecommunications and oil & energy.