- | Spanish
How do you explain professional accounting to a five-year-old? How about a high school student? Unfortunately, the internet is beating you to it – and the results are somewhat mixed. The internet’s explanation tends towards an outdated image of professional accountants, focusing less on what we are capable of doing and where those capabilities can lead you.
Inevitably, when professional accountants from IFAC’s member organizations congregate to discuss the attractiveness of the profession, people begin to share stories. At February’s Accountancy Education Directors Forum, one of our topics was the careers children in our lives have expressed interest in, be they fifteen or five. Naturally, parents and other family members with connections to accounting want to know how their field is perceived by young people. And with attracting and retaining talent in the accounting profession an increasingly pressing issue, young people’s thoughts about their professional futures are valuable data. For Directors Forum attendees, youth and young adults are often good gauges of interest in and understanding of professional accounting.
Attendees who have had conversations with young people were quick to point out that a problem exists besides the dearth of interest in accounting. For many youth, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an accountant does. As Mandi Olivier, Learning and Development Executive and member of SAICA, noted, “When you use the word accountant, people think of a bookkeeper. Maybe someone who prepares financial statements. There needs to be a big sell on changing public perception of what accountants do.”
Correcting the public image of what an accountant does, especially in the minds of young people, was one of the central topics of the Directors Forum. Such forums are especially valuable to professional accountancy organizations as they offer a space to share what has and has not worked when tackling challenges related to the attractiveness of the profession. As the conversation turned to personal experiences, one attendee explained that her teenage son had recently been given homework to research future careers, and many of the professional accounting websites he visited were unattractive and outdated.
For young people, a research journey often begins with a quick Google search. When I did this in the US, the first thing that came up was:
“What is Accounting? Accounting is the process of recording financial transactions pertaining to a business. The accounting process includes summarizing, analyzing, and reporting these transactions to oversight agencies, regulators, and tax collection agencies.” (source: Investopedia)
Asking “What does an accountant do?” results in:
“An accountant helps businesses make critical financial decisions by collecting, tracking and correcting the company’s finances. They are responsible for financial audits, reconciling bank statements, and ensuring financial records are accurate throughout the year” (source: resources.workable.com)
While “critical financial decisions” sounds better, I would argue that an accountant’s involvement should be broader than just financial decisions, for a start. A first step in increasing the attractiveness of the profession may be updating websites that students visit to learn more about hiring, culture, and news having to do with the accountancy profession.
Improving accountancy’s digital first impression is the project undertaken by Liz Barentzen from the Center for Audit Quality. Accounting+ (“Accounting plus”) is an awareness campaign targeting students, particularly students in secondary schools and universities, with the goal of better educating them about what professional accountants do. The Accounting+ campaign discusses not only why a career in professional accountancy can be rewarding to individuals, but also how it can benefit entire communities, a value known to be especially important to today’s students. Liz points out that, yes, public perception of professional accountancy is not always totally accurate, but underlying educational factors may contribute to or compound wariness about accountancy as a career. For example, many students may come from schools that don’t offer higher-level math classes like calculus, which contributes to students’ insecurities regarding having the correct skill set for accountancy.
This, too, is a problem of perception. A background in high-level math starting in secondary school is not integral to a career in professional accountancy. Anxiety over lack of technical skill is an example of how the benefits of an accountancy career may be overshadowed by students perceived or existing barriers related to education, debt, and work-life balance.
With a colorful and dynamic website and social channels, Accounting+ is tackling both the problem of the digital first impression, and the broader issue of better educating young people about the skills needed to enter the accountancy profession, and equally important, the rewards of it. With a presence on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, Accounting+ is attempting to clarify what is and is not necessary for a career in accounting, and its rewards. Resources on the Accounting+ website include templates for resumes, scholarship essays, and recommendation letters, lists of scholarships, and articles with advice for presenting interviewees in-person and online.
Accounting+ provides one example of how to change the branding and narrative of professional accountancy. With Directors Forum attendees from across the world sharing their challenges and victories, other action items for attracting and retaining talent included:
- Strengthening ties between accounting organizations and universities to increase dialogue between educations and practitioners.
- Assessing students based on their ability to find a solution rather than assessing them simply on the solution.
- Taking advantage of the accountancy profession's vast network, and continuing to share experiences in making the profession more attractive.
- Targeting students in secondary school with information about accountancy, if not younger.
Speaking of secondary school, here’s a little bit of homework for readers who have made it this far in the article. If you have a kid in your life, ask them to explain to you what an accountant does, and report back to us at email@example.com. Alternatively (or additionally), write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how you would explain professional accountancy to a school-age youth.
 The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be around 136,400 openings for accountants and auditors each year from 2021 to 2031. For reference, they estimate there will be 9,600 openings for computer programmers and 48,700 openings for lawyers each year over the same period.