Accounting leaders, faced with personnel shortfall, are turning to everyone from traditional students to outside sectors

Phil Goldstein was astounded to see reports of upwards of 350,000 accountants nationally fleeing from the profession during the pandemic years.

At a time when accountants are well aware that their profession’s overall program enrollments are already down dramatically — that was just icing on the cake.

“I’m looking at publications listing out the top colleges and universities of New Jersey and what their accounting graduation rates are, and there were only several thousand there,” he said. “That’s nowhere close to making up the shortfall of more than 300,000 that left.”

Goldstein, CEO of Mahwah-based Goldstein Lieberman & Co. LLC, like other accounting leaders in the state, believes the profession has a lot to offer the next generation. But, it has a long way to go toward convincing them of that.

What some accounting leaders suppose could be an allure in years to come is a wider awareness that there’s more going on in accounting … than accounting.

Alan Sobel. (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP)

Alan Sobel, managing principal in the New Jersey offices of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, said that, as firms branch out into different service lines, there’s a growing share of new employees not trained in the bread-and-butter accounting services.

“With the growing diversity of non-tax, non-audit services offered by accounting firms, there’s a lot more recruiting at firms for other services, especially those that fall at the feet of technology experts,” he said.

Diane Wasser of EisnerAmper said firms are corralling talent from engineering, energy and data analytics sectors for various sustainability- and technology-related roles. With teams at accounting firms consulting with family-owned businesses, sometimes psychology-related expertise is needed.

Diane Wasser. (File photo)

Both inside and outside the four walls of accounting firms, graduates today just have more options, said Wasser, partner-in-charge of New Jersey and managing partner of regions at Eisner Advisory Group.

“Over time, the landscape has changed in terms of the choices available to them,” she said.

Wasser and Sobel both added that, despite the different disciplines being invited into accounting, there’s still a strong need for graduates ready to handle tax, financial reporting and disclosures. And, although larger firms in the area are reporting some success in finding those individuals, the numbers of them are clearly on the decline.

Overcoming limitations

Hiring and retention is where Alan Sobel started when explaining why his 66-year-old boutique Livingston firm Sobel & Co. saw value in operating under the CliftonLarsonAllen LLP banner.

The national firm acquired the accounting business in February. Sobel is now a managing principal in the New Jersey offices of the firm, which does business as CLA.

“We’re in the world of competition for talent,” Sobel said of the deal. “This firm, which is the eighth-largest in the country, has in-house recruiting and is always looking for people to join the organization.”

Technology investments and the potential of more resources for clients made the list as well. But the talent piece was a convincing reason to join a larger partner in today’s market, Sobel said.

“We now have the ability to offer a more robust pathway for individuals who might choose different ways they want to work in this profession,” he added. “Having much larger scale allows them to work in different industries, service lines and geographies. As a midsize firm, we were more limited in that regard.”

It doesn’t help that the college degrees required for entry into the profession create a tremendous amount of debt for people, Goldstein said. Even as the profession broadens its service offerings — and potentially draws new interest as a result — there’s still an economic calculus would-be accountants have to start with.

“I remember being at a meeting of accountants one time and it was asked how many people were the first person in their family to have a college education, and just about everyone raised their hand,” Goldstein said. “This was once an introduction to professional services. If you wanted to work hard, you could grow your career. And it wasn’t as expensive to get into as being a lawyer or doctor.”

Local firms are finding ways to adapt.

“What we’re trying to do is take people with associate degrees that have an inkling that they want to be accountants, we train them, see if they like it — and, if so, we invest in them by sending them on to complete their education in accounting,” Goldstein said. “That’s the path forward for us: Training these people, helping educate them and, ultimately, have them build loyalty to the firm.”

Jeff Agranoff, chief human resources officer and a HR consulting principal at Grassi, said the New York-based accounting firm — which has a major presence in New Jersey — has always looked for opportunities to bring in graduates from nontraditional educational backgrounds and put them on a path toward professional accounting.

“But we’ve ramped it up a lot during this downtrend of people majoring in accounting, and as we’ve grown our firm,” he said. “There’s select master’s programs in the state that can give individuals an accounting education quickly with our sponsorship.”

The way Agranoff sees it, an accounting education provides students with a bridge to many different careers in business. That’s part of the message his firm and others are bringing to college campuses in the region, as firms band together in hopes of reversing the flight from accounting.

And we’ve been encouraged to see an uptick in students entering accounting programs at local colleges and universities over the past year,” he said.

In the meantime, firms are in a fierce competition for the accounting graduates out there already.

“So, we’re talking with (would-be) employees about culture, growth, fit and flexibility and educating them on how we offer something better than what competitors do,” he said. “When these top accounting students have seven to 10 offers, you have to stand out as a preferred employer. You can’t just figure these students should feel lucky to even have a job, because you’re not going to attract the best and brightest that way.”