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September 18, 2023

Numbers Crunch: Accounting firms turn to recruiters, high schoolers, apprenticeships in urgent search for new talent

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Bonnie Stewart (shown in center), CEO of the Connecticut Society of CPAs, is urging accounting firms to think outside the box when it comes to recruiting, including using apprenticeships.

Accounting firms continue to grapple with significant labor shortages, as veteran employees retire in droves and fewer young graduates enter the field.

More than 300,000 U.S. accountants and auditors left their jobs in the past few years, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, leading to a 17% decline in employed accountants compared to 2019.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the U.S. accounting shortage has gotten so severe that some publicly traded companies are struggling to file quarterly reports and financial statements in a timely manner.

Industry experts in Connecticut hope ramped-up recruiting efforts, competitive salaries, new apprentice programs, expanded internships and a reinvented image of the profession will help attract sorely needed talent.

Hartford-based accounting and consulting firm Whittlesey has roughly 160 employees, and earlier this year hired its first ever full-time recruiter whose main focus is to help bring in new talent, said Managing Partner and CEO Drew Andrews.

Drew Andrews

The firm continues to use part-time human resources help and outside recruiting agencies, but the new recruiter will take a dual approach, starting on college campuses and “getting the younger folks when they’re early in their college careers,” while also seeking out seasoned, experienced talent, Andrews said.

Like Whittlesey, Glastonbury-based accounting firm Fiondella, Milone and LaSaracina LLP (FML), which has 125 employees, recently added an experienced recruiter to its HR team.

Bonnie Stewart, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Society of CPAs, said a growing trend is firms recruiting younger prospects, not just college students but also high schoolers, to show there’s value in an accounting degree and career path.

There are numerous scholarships for an accounting education, and many firms are offering paid internships for high school students, “who get great exposure to the profession, and the hope is that they’ll stick with the firm while they’re going through college. That’s something we never saw in the past,” Stewart said.

Additionally, recruiters traditionally looked for students who took accounting classes, but now they are “looking at majors that we would have never thought of in the past, such as English and history majors, to encourage them to take a couple of classes, or do an internship and see if it’s something that they might be interested in,” Stewart said.

Accounting firms are also considering apprenticeships — a workforce development tool traditionally used by blue-collar trades.

The American Institute of CPAs has created a federally approved apprenticeship program — called the Registered Apprenticeship for Finance Business Partners — that Stewart said she hopes will catch on in Connecticut.

Middletown-based Liberty Bank announced last year it was piloting the apprenticeship program to help find finance talent.

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A key focus for the accounting industry is trying to change the sector’s perception, experts said.

Accountants are often seen as putting in endless hours crunching numbers, carrying heavy workloads, and working in drab spaces.

Many students gifted in math or numbers are often attracted to careers in computer science, data analytics or high finance such as investment banking.

Brian Kelleher

Brian Kelleher, a partner at FML, said the image of the accounting profession has taken a hit over the years, and the talent shortage is a nationwide problem.

Many students hired out of college go to work for one of the Big Four firms — Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PwC — where they will most likely have to put in long hours on tight deadlines during the busy tax season.

Many young people, Kelleher believes, “don’t see the value of putting in all that time and effort upfront and are choosing to do other things.”

George Plesko

George Plesko, professor and head of the accounting department at the UConn School of Business, is on the front lines preparing the industry’s future workforce.

He said enrollment in UConn’s accounting program has been dwindling, from about 160 undergraduates at the peak in 2017, down to around 90 this past year.

His sales pitch is that an accounting career offers rapid career growth potential, while also opening doors to other areas of finance, technology or corporate leadership.

Accounting students can expect to see a return on their educational investment quickly, along with nearly unmatched job-placement prospects, Plesko said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings for accountants and auditors are projected to grow by 4% from 2022 to 2032 — with about 126,500 openings each year due to retirements, or someone leaving the industry.

This means new graduates should have little problem securing a job right out of college.

Kelleher, of FML, said upwards of 90% of UConn accounting students have jobs lined up before they begin their senior year.

Connecticut employed 15,960 accountants and auditors as of May 2022, according to BLS data.

“In accounting, the job placement is fantastic,” he said. “If you choose accounting, you’ll get a job in accounting.”

Starting salaries for accountants had been the lowest for graduates of UConn’s School of Business, but they have started to rise and become more competitive, Plesko said.

A young accountant can anticipate earning at least $70,000 annually out of the gate, with rapid growth potential. Stewart, of the CPA Society, said there have been efforts to continually raise that starting rate.

FML implements an employee referral bonus and regularly conducts market analysis to adjust salaries, “ensuring we are competitive in attracting the best talent that’s out there,” said Chief Operating Officer Heather Lavallee.

After a few years, a young accountant could be a manager and the compensation goes up as they learn and grow in the field, Kelleher added.

The annual mean wage for a Connecticut accountant or auditor is $87,620, according to BLS data.

Work-life balance

Meantime, recruiters are circling back to those who may have left the profession, especially during the pandemic, to show them the industry has embraced more flexible work schedules.

Andrews, of Whittlesey, said accounting allows for hybrid and remote work options, offering a work-life balance that many employees now seek out. Some accountants during the pandemic relocated to different states, but were able to stay with their firms.

Whittlesey now employs accountants who work fully remote from outside Connecticut.

Young accountants, added FML’s Kelleher, will have to put in some long hours during tax season, but industry leaders are emphasizing the importance of maintaining a sustainable work-life balance.

Most of FML’s staff have chosen a hybrid work arrangement.

“There are times when accountants are busy, and putting in 60, 70, 80 hours a week is necessary, but that’s not every week of the year,” Kelleher said. “There are other times when the workload flattens out, and we’re able to give our people the flexibility to come and go and not miss the life events that they want to be involved with.”

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