Ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you that accounting has all the elements of being a great career.

“Accounting is intellectually challenging and offers great earning potential,” says Michelle Flynn, CPA , tax partner at Wallace Plese + Dreher.

Or, as TGG-Accounting’s Matt Garrett says in the title of his book: “The Numbers Aren’t The Most Important Thing For A Business, They Are The Only Thing.”

What more could a young person embarking on their professional journey ask for, right? You get to use your brain AND get to make some bank? It seems like a no-brainer.

Yet more than 300,000 accountants and auditors have left their jobs in the United States in the past two years. That accounts for 17% of the workforce. The “great resignation” in the accounting industry isn’t just Baby Boomers who bailed early during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, young accounting professionals in the 25- to 34-year-old range and mid-career professionals between the ages of 45 and 54 also left the profession in high numbers starting in 2019.

Attracting new generation to accounting career

The bigger problem now is there is no one on the pipeline to fill the gap because colleges are also seeing a decreasing number of students studying accounting.

So, how is all this impacting the accounting profession?

“The most immediate impacts of the shortage is increases in compensation, which has resulted in increased costs to clients,” says Chuck McLane, senior managing director at CBIZ & MHM. “Firms have employed an array of compensation techniques to keep people in the industry. This has translated into increases in the rates that we bill clients for the services that they need. However, this is not sustainable. The focus needs to be on making the profession more attractive to students.”

While McLane says recent market adjustments to compensation are making a career in accounting more competitive with other professions, lost in the numbers is the broad breadth of experience that accounting provides. Accounting today is more than crunching numbers. It is about sharing information and helping business owners build a foundation that helps sustain and grow their companies.

“A career in accounting offers a great diversity of experiences and opportunities that an individual can obtain throughout their entire career,” says Jim McHugh, CPA, principal at CLA. “Personally, my career has been both challenging and exciting at the same time, which has kept me engaged in the profession.”

McHugh says individuals who join the accounting profession also develop elevated technical and interpersonal skills that help build marketplace value. And that increased use of technology makes accounting more attractive to generations who grew up with smartphones and advanced gaming consoles. Technology has also eliminated some of the mundane tasks that once helped define the profession.

Randy G. Brammer, CPA, managing partner at Wallace Plese + Dreher.

Impact of technology

“Technology is automating the repetitive and mundane tasks that have made accounting less attractive for young people,” says Randy G. Brammer, CPA, managing partner at Wallace Plese + Dreher. “This trend has partially risen out of necessity as resources decline, but also out of the need to drive efficiency and innovation in the industry.”

Brammer says the demand for accounting-related professional services, combined with technological innovations, is providing significant career opportunities for young professionals. 

“They can quickly advance beyond boring, repetitive tasks early in their career, and begin engaging in work that is impactful to clients and helps build their marketplace value at a faster pace,” he says. 

But while technology has enhanced the profession, experts say it will never reduce the need for skilled players in the profession. 

“Technology has come a long way, but most software cannot replace the need for human judgement,” says Scott Hitchler, owner of Saguaro Wealth Management. “There will always be a need for skilled workers.”

Now, facing a shortage of skilled workers, the accounting industry is adjusting the make room for those employees who want to make an impact on the dynamic profession. 

“Accounting firms have become more flexible with hiring and retention decisions,” Brammer says. “There is no longer a one-size-fits-all, up-or-out atmosphere. We are embracing part-time, remote and return-to-work candidates to strengthen our capabilities.”

The industry is also embracing those without advanced degrees.

“Accounting is the language of business,” says Michael T. Allen, CPA, principal at REDW. “If you can understand the language, you can be a great resource to whatever organizations you’re associated with.”

Allen says training can come from a simple high school degree supported by years of experience up to — and including — obtaining your CPA license. 

“Plus, accounting careers are available in all sectors, including public accounting, governmental, not-for-profit, and the private sector,” Allen says. “While the nuances are different in every area, the basic skills of critical thinking, ability to understand financial information, and application of core economic and business principles are always relevant and considered highly valuable.”

Changes in industry

Flynn says accounting firms are recognizing that they cannot continue doing the same thing they did several years ago. That approach is attracting a new generation of accounting professionals to firms that are reimagining themselves. 

“Techniques for growing and sustaining a firm have changed,” Flynn says. “To continue the public accounting profession, firms will continue to embrace more technology and tools to decrease required hours that built past firms. We want to spearhead this change and be the leaders in this approach.”

Flynn’s company has been an innovator when it comes to building an accounting firm that values work-life balance as much as it values crunching numbers.

“Technology has expanded my ability to have dinner with my family, take my daughter to dance classes, or sons to baseball,” Flynn says. “At night, I catch up on emails or complete a consulting engagement. I schedule client meetings while still reserving time to attend my children’s activities.”

While it will always be challenging to balance career responsibilities and family commitments, accounting has evolved into a profession that makes that challenge very attainable, all while building a lucrative long-term career.

“Accounting is both the foundation to understanding business and the language of business,” McLane says. “Helping others to understand the inflows and outflows of their business model and the future impact of their decisions is very fulfilling. Being part of the accounting and finance function allows you to be part of the decision-making process for all businesses. With accounting as your foundation, you can work in any industry.”

And, experts say, the sky is the limit in today’s accounting sector.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in public accounting,” Flynn says. “You really can jump in. As much as you want to learn, you can learn. And as fast as you want to move up, you can move up. That’s exciting. That’s why people come to work at Wallace Plese + Dreher.”