‘Curious minds can excel’: Don’t have accounting background? Doesn’t mean you can’t be an accountant

Tifphani White-King

Engineers. Technologists. Well-read English majors. Trained ballet dancers.

Accounting firms are open to hiring all sorts. That’s the message from Tifphani White-King, a national tax practice leader at Mazars USA (who can claim that dance background as her own).

As the story goes: Firms once journeyed to the country’s top accounting programs and battled for the Top 10% of students as their recruits. But, times have changed.

“Given that the pipeline for the accounting profession is not growing — and the declines we’ve seen every year in the amount of people graduating from accounting programs and entering the profession — we have to ask, ‘What can we do differently?’” White-King said.

To start with, they’re knocking on the doors of the literature department instead.

Because, as White-King explained, firms are learning that they don’t need recruits to check the same boxes. They want accountants who can navigate heady concepts and break them down into layman’s terms. And, White-King might add, who says an English major can’t do that?

“Clients aren’t paying you to regurgitate tax law,” she said. “They’re paying you to decode it and apply it to their facts and apply it, to come in with solutions for them that work within those laws. … We believe there’s a wide range of individuals that can do that.”
The truth is, accounting firms don’t have the liberty to do anything but cast a wider net.

Aiysha “A.J.” Johnson.

Aiysha “A.J.” Johnson, like the New Jersey Society of CPAs CEO and executive director before her, Ralph Thomas, can’t say enough about the need to support the talent pipeline in the accounting profession.

“It’s still the No. 1 issue for everyone in the profession today — for firms of all sizes and even governmental entities, local municipalities and businesses,” she said. “CPAs are direly needed. We need a strong pipeline.”

Demand picked up for accounting services during the pandemic. But, as Johnson points out, the sector’s utility as a driver of business activities is rarely out of favor. That makes it a strong argument for a solid career option, she adds.

But, as she and others in the industry all insist, the hum-drum perception that exists of accountants and the work they do — “professional bean counting,” as one accountant put it — isn’t doing the profession many favors, particularly with young students.

Accountants are rolling up their sleeves and making a collective effort to reform the image of their professionals across educational institutions. White-King confronts those misconceptions regularly.

“In my experience as a tax leader walking onto college campuses, students there — either consciously or unconsciously — come to expect that you’re there to talk about tax return work,” she said. “But I love talking about what we really do in the profession, and the plethora of opportunities available to you.”

Dispelling the purely number-crunching picture students have of accountants, for White-King, usually begins with describing her daily routine. For her, that might entail plan-making calls to high-profile business clients, internal discussions about strategy and growth as well as touring universities to pitch accounting careers.

Accountants want to convince coming generations that the work is more interesting than they realized; they also have to convince them that it’s not as stressful as they’ve come to believe.

Daniel Fiorentino.

Daniel Fiorentino, a managing partner at East Brunswick-based WilkinGuttenplan, said those considering careers in accounting can be scared off by tax season “war stories” they’ve heard. It’s well known that the profession’s deadline-driven work has major peaks and valleys. He believes that has a significant effect on the talent pipeline.

“But, for us, we let staff decide how much they want to work, and it doesn’t have to be full time,” Fiorentino said. “Even during the busy season, they don’t have to take on a large stack of work, working 80 hours a week, if they didn’t commit to that. As long as they can get the work they need done for clients, we want them to work at the level they’re comfortable with.”

Don’t assume Fiorentino has something to say about a generational divide in work ethic. He has seen this arrangement appeal to individuals in different stages of their lives.

“You have younger people entering the workforce that want to ease into it; the middle-aged workers who have kids and busy lives; or those getting into the later years of their work lives who want to just slow down on work,” he said. “We’re working to accommodate each individual’s lifestyle.”

Fiorentino also boasted of the appeal of WilkinGuttenplan’s regular firm outings, events it even offers to fly in out-of-state employees for.

Out-of-state hiring, global outsourcing and tech-enabled automation of work have all combined to help accounting firms fill gaps caused by the industry’s diminished talent pool. None of it is seen as wholly sufficient to replace the labor needs in the profession.

What it does do, in White-King’s view, is allow those entering the profession more opportunity to skip over the more rote, commoditized tax return and audit functions they might have wanted to avoid in the first place.

And that’s where skill-sets from nontraditional backgrounds, such as expertise in literature (or ballet, for that matter), can shine.

“A lot of what’s going on (in accounting) is just taking the jobs of current professionals to another level and allowing them to make introductions to something new and different areas of practice,” White-King said. “This is a profession where recruits with curious minds can excel.”

Trust across the board

Accountants might be mired in the dilemma of how to solve their war for talent. That doesn’t stop them from making a business of answering questions about other industries’ talent wars.

As firms have moved toward offering advisory services across all facets of business, one area has emerged as particularly in-demand in recent years: Compensation, benefits and other human resources-related consulting services.

Diane Wasser.

“Our specialists are extremely busy in that area,” said Diane Wasser, EisnerAmper‘s partner-in-charge for New Jersey.

Citing organizational and human capital trends, EisnerAmper in 2020 announced it acquired Compensation Resources Inc. That partnership added compensation and human resource consulting specialists to the firm’s suite of advisory professionals.

Among the other consulting services accounting firms offer today, Wasser added that cybersecurity and financial reporting are experiencing heightened demand.

The goal is to be trusted advisers far beyond tax season.

“And one thing we’re hearing from clients is that their level of trust in us is unwavering,” Wasser said. “We’re a profession of trusted advisers, and that trust is there and that’s a testament to our profession, our firm and what we do to sustain that trust.”