The State of Accounting Recruitment and Talent Shortages in 2017

By | May 5, 2017

The bloody battle over top accounting talent is nothing new. Firms have been dedicating countless hours in meetings over store-bought crudités on the subject of attracting and retaining top talent for years. But a recent Wall Street Journal article about the difficulty private companies are having filling positions for experienced hires got us wondering: just how bad is it out there, anyway? In attempting to answer that question, we learned a few things: a large number of people are staying in public accounting for longer terms, and accounting degrees are more in demand in the workforce than ever.

Get your accounting majors! Get your accounting majors here!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11% growth in the accounting and auditing sector between 2014 and 2024, with 142,400 projected new jobs over the same period. And the most recent data available from the AICPA in their 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report tells us that enrollments in undergrad and graduate accounting programs increased in the 2013-14 academic year. Additionally, accounting firms hired a record number of accounting graduates in 2014, representing a seven percent increase from the previous survey. 91% of firms responding to the survey said they plan to hire at the same or higher rate for the following year. Meaning business is booming, you guys, and they need bodies to fill those chairs.

Master’s enrollment is particularly strong. Enrollments in the 2013-14 academic year saw a nearly four-fold increase over enrollments in such programs 20 years ago. Seems that 150-hour rule is working out great for purveyors of fine accounting education.


The CPA exam gap

Despite this explosive growth, concerns abound. A big one that keeps AICPA CEO, President, and hobby herpetologist Barry Melancon up at night is the CPA exam gap: the difference between those who graduated with accounting degrees and those who go on to sit for and pass the CPA exam. The leading accounting biker gang in the world is concerned they aren’t recruiting enough junior spreadsheet gangbangers to support the demand for CPAs. “We’ve been looking into this issue in great detail and are considering a number of profession-wide initiatives to complement our existing programs and ensure that qualified accounting graduates are earning their CPA license,” he said in 2015 when the most recent Trends report was released.

We find ourselves on the precipice of a potentially apocalyptic fan-meet-feces situation here: Too many jobs, not enough accountants to do them. Add in a mass retirement of Baby Boomers who stuck around far past their prime and a shortage of PhDs to teach accounting at the university level and what do you get? Popcorn. Popcorn is what you get. Just sit back and watch firms start handing out iPads and vacation days to new hires like Oprah gifting cars to her audience.

“If employers continue to struggle to find qualified accountants in the coming years, it will have real impacts on the health of the American economy,” said Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU) in 2016. Ya think? Accountants are the invisible machine keeping America’s economy afloat, kind of like how flowers just sit around being pretty and make bees do all the pollinating work. You guys are the bees, there are no pretty flowers without your hard work.

What say you?

Because the Going Concern faithful are such a reliable source on the pulse of the accounting profession, we surveyed them a few weeks back to get an idea whether or not things really are changing. If firms and private industry are that desperate for top talent, it means you guys are the ones holding all the chips. And, consequently, firms are going to have to step up their game past foosball tables and jeans every day if they want to keep you around.

We asked our survey respondents which year they received their most recent accounting degree and I don’t know about you but I was a bit surprised that we have readers who graduated way before I was even born. So while they go all the way back to 1973, the majority of survey respondents graduated this century.

99.07% of survey respondents have worked for an accounting firm, and of those, only 3.6% stayed in public accounting for 16 years or longer. The majority — nearly 40% — spent 1-3 years in public and 31% put in 4-6 years. The number one reason for leaving public accounting won’t surprise any of you: Those who jumped ship did so in search of better quality of life. The second most popular reason for leaving: higher salary.

Anyone interested in filling open accounting positions would be wise to offer A) money and B) a quality of life superior to that in public accounting. This isn’t hard, people.

Perks abound

If accounting firms would like to retain talent, it is our humble opinion that they would be wise to listen to what their loyal little bees are trying to tell them here: accounting professionals aren’t satisfied with the personal toll the job takes on their lives, though they may be willing to accept it if more money is involved.

From offering unlimited vacations their associates will never be able to take, to flex time under that same category to generous parental leave policies, firms are stepping up their game to recruit and keep top talent, we all know that. We know it because firms spend an awful lot of time talking about it, because in this if a tree falls in the forest… scenario, unlimited vacations no one actually takes are only as valuable as the sound they make when a recruiter talks them up.

Of the numerous Big 4 perks, paid maternity — or rather, parental — leave is also a big one. EY just upped theirs from 12 to 16 weeks last year, while KPMG offers 18 weeks to primary caregivers. Both firms also support adoption and surrogacy, with KPMG, in particular, reimbursing those expenses up to $10,000. Not quite ready to have kids? No worries, EY will cover up to $25,000 to put your gametes on ice until you’re in a better place to start popping out kiddos. “These new benefits will not only continue to attract and retain the best talent, but help us to deliver exceptional client service, while also encouraging our people to live fulfilling lives,” said Carolyn Slaski, EY Americas Vice Chair of Talent. That’s easily the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard from an accounting firm.

Senior accountants and managers at the three-to-five-year mark are particularly in demand, PwC Diversity Strategy Leader Jennifer Allyn told Monster because “that’s when you become marketable, because we’ve given you training.” In fact, PwC has seen turnover in audit and compliance drop to 20% from 26% in 2014 for staff at the three-to-five-year mark. What this means is fewer accountants are seeking greener grass in industry, non-profit, or government after they’ve put in their time in public. Also notable, PwC brought on nearly as many experienced hires in FY 2016 (26,430) as they did graduates (26,780). So not only is the firm trying hard to retain talent they’ve put time and effort into, they’re snatching experienced hires trained on someone else’s dime.

Whether it’s foosball tables or a special program that ships milk back home for breastfeeding mothers on work trips, whatever the firms are doing seems to be working to keep talent past the two year mark.

We’re working on it

Not everyone is overly concerned with the potential shortage of qualified talent being felt by corporate accounting departments. “Top talent in accounting and auditing is always at a premium. We know this, and remain focused on both retaining our super talented pool of inspectors, and searching for those who would be a good fit for our mission-oriented, driven team,” said David DeBardelaben, Senior Manager, PCAOB Strategic Recruitment.

Gordon Krater, Managing Partner at Plante Moran, tells us that his firm is so hungry for top talent they, like other firms, are going into high schools to encourage students to consider the accounting track. It seems the big push for STEM has had an unintended consequence — steering candidates away from business and accounting fields into science and tech. Which again means better bargaining chips for those who can potentially fill in-demand positions.

The WSJ article on desperate corporate accounting departments quoted Ralph Lauren’s controller as saying his company is paying out an annual salary of up to $250,000 to technical accountants on their small team, so if it’s more money that experienced hires want, it’s certainly out there. Don’t get too excited; nationally, senior accountants in corporate positions are pulling in an average of $65,000. We imagine if firms can throw money at the problem and put salaries over foosball, they should be able to continue to keep attrition rates down-ish.

So what do we make of all this? A recent survey by recruiting software company iCIMS Inc. says a whopping 81.3% of employers are looking to hire graduates with business/accounting degrees. That means competition for accounting grads remains fierce, despite record numbers of them graduating year-over-year. Additionally, more and more professionals are choosing to stay in public up to and even beyond the three-to-five-year mark, putting extra pressure on industry accounting departments, which up until now relied on their unhappiness to serve as a pipeline straight into corporate’s loving embrace. Perhaps some of these industry types are overreacting when they run to the

Perhaps some of these industry types are overreacting when they run to the Wall Street Journal to cry that it took them six months to fill an open position, but it’s clear supply is not meeting demand at all levels. If I were a high school student right now with a deep desire to feel needed and never run out of job prospects, I’d be seriously considering a career in accounting right now.


  • IndenturedServant

    “It seems the big push for STEM has had an unintended consequence — steering candidates away from business and accounting fields into science and tech.”

    Good. STEM fields typically pay better than accounting and offer better work life balance. Why should a highschooler go into accounting and make 65 a year as a senior accountant when they can make 80 straight out of undergrad with with a computer science degree.

    Not only that, but these jobs create more value for society. Kids would be much better served going into these fields than locking themselves into accounting.

    • Big4Veteran

      These are good points.

      Whenever I hear about brilliant kids who graduate from college and go into investment banking, I think of all the potential that could be used to make the world a better place, but is instead going to be used just to get rich, bang hot chicks, and snort a lot of cocaine. The kids who go into accounting are basically the same, except they aren’t as smart, they can’t get the top chicks, and alcohol is the drug of choice.

      As I have often said on GC, our job is basically to help rich motherfuckers get even richer. Not very inspiring.

      • Non_chargeable

        I think working in IB can be a bit over-rated; the life of an IB is portrayed as someone who party’s to death and bangs expensive hookers (although I won’t say they don’t make lots of money, we all know they do). What they don’t mention is that IB work 100 hour weeks and don’t have enough hours in the week to enjoy their “lavish” lifestyle.

        • Big4Veteran

          I don’t think IB is over-rated. It is a lifestyle choice.

          I bet most people in IB wouldn’t trade their lifestyle with that of an accountant, or most other professions either.

        • FifotryFISI

          As someone who has gone to IB from B4 Audit, I can 100% say that its not over-rated (though I do less partying then I did in accounting for sure). I work about 25% more then I did in Audit and make 100% more. Sure I have many more crunch time nights but the work is twice as interesting and the exit ops are amazing in comparison. It is a life style choice though, Big 4 have way better work life balance in comparison.

          • Bostonpwc

            How did you get to IB from Audit?

          • ChicagoPhan

            Really? Only 2x? Were you killing it in accounting or was I just vastly underpaid?

      • As much as I admire people who go out into the world hoping to make it a better place, let’s be honest: there is a significant need for people who simply help the world chug along as is. Perhaps it’s a waste of intelligence and drive to stick them in finance, business, and accounting but you can’t force people to have a vision.

        What I find funny is how the firms go all in on convincing these kids that they *are* changing the world. I find that pretty condescending. Most of them aren’t dumb enough to actually believe that.

        • Adam Hill

          So the firms are condescending, but the colleges aren’t mentioned? Who do you think pumped the idea to these kids that every person is special, specifically them?

          • Not_theAccountant

            Agreed, as a soon to be grad I’ll say the colleges are at LEAST as responsible for luring students to accounting as the actual firms are.

          • Big4Veteran

            I have a lot of problem with colleges, and much moreso with our corrupt financial aid system, but I don’t necessarily see a problem with colleges luring kids into accounting. Accounting is one of the few majors these days were a graduate is likely to actually get a decent paying job (with benefits) after graduation. I don’t understand all the liberal arts majors who pay $40k per year for four years to get a degree that barely qualifies them to work at Starbucks.

          • Not_theAccountant

            My undergrad major was Philosophy, and I 100% agree with that last sentence, although my undergrad tab was only a couple thousand $. That said, I don’t blame the colleges for convincing kids to do accounting. It’s certainly better than most other options (esp. those “accelerated MBA” programs I see advertised for fresh grads with 0 work experience). I was just pointing out it’s not just the firm recruiters.

          • Non_chargeable

            Agreed. Accounting offers job stability. To be fair, a career in IB sounds much more “sexy” and looks great on your resume, but most people who study finance will never work in IB. There’s not enough jobs on Wall Street for all those finance majors that colleges are spitting out. Most of them end up working in commercial banking.

          • Nah you’re right, colleges and profs are the #1 distributors of Big 4 Kool-aid worldwide.

        • Big4Veteran

          I agree with almost all your points, JDA. I don’t know that I agree with your last sentence. I think I lot of kids still enjoy Kool-Aid these days. Some things never change.

        • keepin_it_real

          “As much as I admire people who go out into the world hoping to make it a better place, let’s be honest: there is a significant need for people who simply help the world chug along as is.”

          Just as true as the world needs followers also. All the firms and jobs go on and on about how they want leaders which we all know is bullshit. What most companies really want are workers who are smart enough to do their job and not stir up shit for their company.

    • FoonTheElder

      STEM jobs aren’t as available as popularly advertised. Most of the crying about “not being able to find workers” is more about the cheapness of the company doing the hiring and not the availability of workers. This is also the case in accounting as well.

      STEM consists of a large number of areas. Many of which have far more workers than jobs available.

      “Unemployment rates within STEM fields…are often higher than they’ve been in years—a sign that there is a shortage of jobs, not workers.—Michael Anft2”

      • Biff Tannen

        The STEM push strikes me as being driven by liberal utopian marketing and not by actual companies.

        • FoonTheElder

          The STEM “shortage” is to justify paying low wages to foreign workers through various employment programs. Not to mention trying to get more people to graduate in those areas for a larger labor supply to enable big corporations to depress wages even further.

  • Big4Veteran

    Thanks Obama!

  • Biff Tannen

    My question: will the B4 ever change in terms of work/life balance?

    • keepin_it_real

      No. As long as there are 1,000’s of grads willing to work 80 hours a week for months on end and senior managers buying into the partnership carrot, it’s not going to change.

    • IndenturedServant

      “but I often wonder if staying would’ve helped me grow.”


      “I was in Tax due to stupidly believing recruiter pitches/bad information and thinking I would like it.”

      Yeah. I always tell young B4 bound accountants to not do tax. The whole Big4 exit options pitch applies much more to audit than tax.

      • Biff Tannen

        My case is telling indeed. I feel like I learned nothing in Tax. It was merely a data processing gig with bad hours and awkward people (at least in the case of my team).