Accounting industry works to diversify talent pipeline
Royce Burnett remembers how challenging it felt in 1981 as a freshly graduated audit associate starting work at a Big Eight accounting firm in Texas.
Of about 250 new employees hired at the time, Burnett, who’s now an associate professor and chair of Old Dominion University’s School of Accountancy, believes he was the only African American. “It was unbelievably stressful,” recalls Burnett, “because there wasn’t anybody that looked like you. There wasn’t anybody you could talk to.”
In a field that has long been dominated by white men, Burnett says he found assistance from a group that formed “the first wave of diversity” in the accounting industry: white female partners. They helped him develop the tools he needed to thrive, he says.
“The [female] partners [instructed] me regarding how to participate on an audit team, how to respond to client queries, how to write and, more important, how to assess and interact with the political environment dominated by white males,” Burnett says. “Most of this interaction took place as part of conversations or interactions outside of the work environment.”
More than 40 years later, the accounting industry is still struggling with diversity. Black accounting graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees accounted for just 5% of workers hired into accounting or finance jobs at CPA firms in 2020, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ 2021 Trends report. And only 2% of the nation’s CPAs and accounting firm partners that year were Black, according to the report. By comparison, 65% of those new hires were white, and white people accounted for 77% of CPAs and 82% of firm partners.
Some of the problem may begin with the talent pipeline in schools. Black students comprised just 7% of people graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting during 2020, while 59% were white.
“The world has changed, and no longer can you afford to have this Black/white/man/woman microcosm because it just doesn’t exist,” Burnett says. “And if you do that, you’re going to mark yourself out of this business case. … At the end of the day this is about securing sustainability.”
The challenge, professionals within the industry say, is twofold.
Accounting has seen a decline in college graduates in recent years. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, enrollment in four-year bachelor’s degree accounting programs in the state dropped from 4,332 students in fall 2018 to 3,293 in fall 2021. During that time, Black student enrollment dropped from 517 to 435; Asian enrollment from 505 to 283; Hispanics from 353 to 279; and multiracial students from 138 to 121. Enrollment among white students dropped from 2,148 to 1,722.
Not only does the industry need to attract new talent, but it also needs to diversify the pipeline. To do that, professionals in the field say raising awareness about accounting as an occupation and breaking down educational barriers are key.
“What we’re hearing and seeing across the industry is that a lot of students in more diverse groups, or underrepresented areas, don’t know anything about accounting,” says Krystal McCants, principal in the Falls Church office of Winchester-based Yount, Hyde & Barbour. “It’s not something they’re hearing about and they don’t see representation, so they’re not interested.”
McCants, who also chairs the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants’ diversity, equity and inclusion advisory council, says the association is working on plans to build relationships with more professors, including at historically Black colleges and universities in the state.
“Our plan is to go and talk to them — ‘How do we recruit here?’ — and it’s not all one-sided, right?” McCants says. “So some of it too is, ‘How do we give back?’”
Virginia Tech and ODU are holding programs this summer aimed at diversifying the pipeline.
In July, Virginia Tech will launch its Pamplin Inspiring Possibilities (PIP) Academy, targeted at rising high school seniors from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds who are interested in business careers. While it’s open to students from across the country, Janice Branch Hall, Pamplin’s assistant dean for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, says the school is focusing its efforts on reaching students in areas of Virginia from which it doesn’t traditionally receive applications. Pamplin is also reaching out to rising seniors who recently attended university outreach programs and to Virginia-based high school counselors, as well as through other campus programs that help encourage high school students to continue their education.
Prepping the pipeline
Also in July, ODU will host the state’s first National Association of Black Accountants’ Accounting Career Awareness Program (ACAP). A one-week residency program for minority high school students, it provides exposure to business and accounting careers.
Increasing diversity in accounting is a goal of groups like the Virginia Society of CPAs, a professional organization with 13,000 members that advocates on behalf of the profession in the commonwealth, as well as NABA, a nonprofit organization that represents more than 200,000 Black professionals within the field.
ACAP, which NABA started in 1980, will bring between 20 and 30 high school students to ODU, where they will attend business, accounting and college preparation classes and meet accounting professionals. NABA Richmond chapter President Andrea Barnett says the program costs about $50,000 to put on and is free for students. VSCPA has joined as a corporate sponsor and Barnett says work is underway to confirm corporate partners for financial support and other help, including reviewing content and volunteering to meet with students.
Firms often seek NABA Richmond’s help to advertise openings, says Barnett, a senior accountant at Richmond-based pharmaceutical company Kaléo Inc. who also serves on VSCPA’s DEI council. While NABA Richmond has long focused on the student pipeline, it is also adding efforts to boost professional development through social gatherings, trainings and volunteer events.
“We want to make sure that we’re differentiated in that way and that we’re addressing leadership gaps in development that we can talk through with our partners,” Barnett says. “That’s another area that we’ve been really trying to lean in on, especially when we have students coming into the profession, is identifying what types of skills and resources are students often missing that may make them unsuccessful in their first couple years and in the field, and how can we provide support for those resources?”
Arthur Wharton, associate professor of accounting and finance at Virginia State University and VSU’s NABA faculty adviser, encourages his students to get involved in NABA early for the resources it can provide, including networking with firms. NABA’s annual regional conferences also offer professional development opportunities, workshops and career fairs.
“For smaller schools such as VSU, it provides our students exposure to firms that do not recruit on VSU’s campus,” Wharton says.
Recruitment and representation
Given the industry’s need to appeal to not only a future workforce, but a more diverse one, VSCPA President and CEO Stephanie Peters says her organization reaches out to colleges and universities throughout the state to make sure VSCPA members, including small firms that might have more difficulty recruiting, can connect with students and vice versa. “We help ensure that the students see a broad array” of places they could work, she says.
VSCPA also engages middle and high school students through its CPAs in the Classroom program, which has accountants visiting classrooms and career days throughout the state to talk with students about the accounting profession.
Firms also say they are expanding their recruiting and other efforts to reach students, including through actions that can help ease the pathway to an accounting career. That includes earning the CPA license, which requires 150 college credits — 30 more than a traditional four-year degree — and passage of a rigorous four-part exam and a year of job experience.
Glen Allen-based Keiter, which employs 85 CPAs in Virginia, is considering hiring earlier in a student’s career trajectory, like once they have reached 120 credits, and helping them by providing flexible or reduced hours and tuition reimbursement, says Director of Human Resources Mandy Nevius. The firm also has offered to cover a portion of tuition for returning interns and to interns who are eligible for entry-level positions who accept a job offer from the firm.
Keiter already offers externships to first- and second-year college students and brings them along on client visits. “If we’re talking to people when they’re a junior in college about becoming an accounting major, it’s too late,” Managing Partner Gary Wallace says.
Keiter is expanding its recruitment efforts among HBCUs. It has also reviewed its interview processes to eliminate unconscious biases in questions asked during the candidate screening process, says Nevius.
Brown Edwards & Co. LLP, a Roanoke- based multistate accounting firm with 145 CPAs in Virginia, will roll out inclusivity training for about 35 job and campus recruiters this summer, says Leslie Roberts, a partner in the firm’s Newport News office who also heads its DEI task force. The firm has “doubled down” on its recruitment efforts, adding HBCUs including VSU and Norfolk State and Virginia Union universities, as well as ODU and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The firm also applied for and was chosen by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants as one of 10 firms across the country to offer a $10,000 Private Companies Practice Section George Willie Ethnically Diverse Student Scholarship and Internship — named for a Black accounting leader who has advocated for minority students. The scholarship is paid for by the AICPA and will support an intern during the 2023 tax season.
“This pipeline thing is a really big deal,” Roberts says.
Representation matters. Before he joined ODU, Burnett, whose research centers on accounting’s role in public policy, worked for a variety of organizations, including two public accounting firms and two Fortune 500 firms. “I had to constantly reinvent myself to constantly prove to people that I’m here because I deserve to be here,” he says.
He and others say many students expect DEI to be part of the culture at accounting firms, a trend they expect will continue. Not only do students ask about DEI initiatives, but some interns want to get involved with them, Nevius says.
McCants, who once had a client refuse to work with her after learning she is Black, has worried about what having her photo on YHB’s website and a transition to more meetings over video could mean for her career. Alternatively, though, some clients have also sought to work with her, telling her they chose her “because you look like me.”
“The times are changing,” McCants says. “When you’re doing new client meetings, they want to see you on video. They want to know who you are and who’s your firm and what is your firm doing. And I think the people we’re trying to recruit are asking those same questions.”