Ralph Albert Thomas can remember back to the late 1970s when CPAs seemed to an endangered species.
There just weren’t enough to go around, recalled Thomas, the CEO and executive director of the Roseland-based New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants. Part of the challenge was the fact that not enough college students were choosing to major in accounting: In 1976-77, some 50,000 accounting undergraduate and graduate degrees were awarded in the U.S., according to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants; compared to about 136,000 education degrees earned just by undergraduates.
Also, high-flying Wall Street jobs were siphoning grads away from CPA firms, which were often seen as stodgy. Finally, the so-called 150-hour requirement — in effect in New Jersey for more than a decade — required the many aspiring CPA candidates to take an extra 30 college credits (besides passing the tough CPA exam) before they could secure certification, further dampening the desire to get in the business.
But today, supply — nearly 80,000 undergraduate and graduate accounting degrees were awarded in 2016, according to the latest data from the AICPA — and demand are more in synch, according to the NJCPA’s Thomas. There are a few reasons, including the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and resulting recession.
“Accounting jobs tend to stay around during good time or bad times,” he said, as well as a new environment at accounting firms.
“They’ve become a bit more relaxed, without compromising their standards,” Thomas noted. “They had to in order to attract Generation Z and the millennials, who want a culture and environment that works for them.”
Working spaces are being designed or redesigned with more light and roomier work spaces, he said.
“Work hours are also more flexible,” Thomas said. Instead of being told to come in at a certain time and stay till a certain time, they’re advised ‘here’s your deadline, you need to finish this project by then. Go and do it on your own schedule.’”
To some degree, technology has helped with the change, since CPAs can easily connect with clients remotely.
“No more need for the ‘red ropes,’ or bulging files, that accountants used to drag from assignment to assignment,” Thomas quipped. “But it can sometimes be a challenge for older managers who may not be used to getting work-related emails at midnight, or who see a staffer with earbuds and wonder if they’re really working.”
Firms like Marks Paneth LLP, which has a Parsippany office, have worked hard to make employees feel welcome, according to Director of Human Resources Steven Sacks.
“We are always looking for new ways to maintain our reputation as a preferred employer and employee-friendly company,” he explained. “We offer customized work schedules, the flexibility to work from home when needed, Summer Fridays, Jeans days, massages, yoga, meditation and other perks that promote employee wellness and work-life balance.”
The company also recently enhanced its employee benefits with a paid parental leave policy that allows for up to six weeks for both moms and dads.
“Our ability to attract higher-level job candidates is enhanced by our willingness to consider a candidate’s experience, even if they don’t have the 150 credits,” Sacks added. “Through our tuition reimbursement program, we ease the financial burden of getting the additional credits they need to sit for the CPA exam. We also allow for leaves of absences when needed to study and prepare for the exam.”
A business casual dress code and Friday jeans days also distances the firm from the era of suits and ties.
“We also try to mix in fun with the daily routine,” Sacks says. “We have quality firm giveaways, free raffle prizes, ice cream socials and lunches during tax season; annual service awards to recognize employee tenure; and, for the first time last year, “Dress for Your Day” December that allowed employees to choose their dress code based on their work activities on any given day that month.”
The international accounting, tax and advisory services firm Mazars USA, which has an Edison office, digs deep to attract and retain accountants, related Chris Roberts, director of talent management.
“Our entry-level activities begin with college sophomores and juniors who are invited on an ‘externship,’ where they visit the firm for a day to learn about Mazars and the life of a CPA.”
They interact with accountants, including partners who talk about their experiences, added Roberts. To help retain employees, he said, “we’ve busted the myth of boring CPA firms.”
One way was with a “dress for your day policy” that lets employees wear jeans to the office, at least as long as they’re not meeting with clients who don’t have a dress-down policy.
“Also, our accountants can work from home as needed, and they can request a formal alternative work, say four days a week on a long-term basis,” he said. “But that kind of request is less common since we offer so much flexibility.”
During the busy tax season, “we do not mandate Saturday office hours for everyone,” he added. “People do what’s most efficient for them. An increasing number of people will put in the time from home, for example.”
The firm also tries to relive the tension of tax season with snacks and with events like office parties and ice cream socials. Right after tax season there’s a “party to show our appreciation,” and during the slower summer months, Mazars sponsors picnics and other local getaways.
“We also focus on fitness,” Roberts noted. “We encourage people to take part in sports with company branded basketball, softball and soccer team. It promotes camaraderie, fun and health through friendly rivalries.”