By Blake Oliver, CPA, and Chris Vanover, CPA.
CPAs have always been passionate about numbers, using various metrics such as revenue, profit, headcount and realization to measure success. However, this focus on numerical indicators is contributing to the decline of the CPA profession itself.
A talent shortage is affecting accounting firms across the demographic spectrum. Each year fewer accountants enter the profession while more CPAs near retirement.
According to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, the number of U.S. students completing bachelor’s degrees in accounting declined from 57,500 in 2012 to 52,500 in 2020, a decrease of nearly 9%. On the other end of the talent pipeline, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has stated that approximately 75% of its members are eligible to retire.
Has the CPA license entered a death spiral? We don’t think so because something can still be done about it. But to reverse this trend, we’ll need to reevaluate our profession’s obsession with a specific metric that is harming it: hours. Specifically, educational hours and billable hours.
Educational Hours Obsession
The discussion around the 150-hour education requirement for CPA licensure highlights how we are overemphasizing hours. Many young accountants will tell you that the additional educational hours are a waste of time and money. But the individuals responsible for enacting this requirement often do not need to adhere to it themselves or cover the significant costs associated with additional education.
Many courses taken to fulfill the requirement do not directly pertain to accounting or auditing. Students unwilling to pay the high cost to obtain a master’s in accounting sign up for courses in areas such as sports or personal development to achieve the extra 30 semester hours required to become a CPA. This may explain why there is little evidence to suggest that completing 150 hours of education translates to improved professional quality.
The emphasis on the 150-hour education requirement typically precedes students’ transition into public accounting. Once they enter the workforce, their CPA firms introduce another metric: billable hours.
Billable Hour Oppression
Sadly, most firms still manage staff with time sheets. Employees below partner level often work long hours, focusing on the quantity of time spent on projects rather than the quality of their work. In the pursuit of billable hour targets, the incentive to provide value and efficiency may be lost.
This approach leads to overworked staff, increased overtime and discouragement when employees exceed budgeted hours. Worse, staff learn to value their inputs rather than their outputs and to lie about how much time a project really took to avoid being penalized for going over budget. They may even deliberately do shoddy work because identifying issues only leads to more hours they cannot bill for and longer nights and weekends ahead.
PwC’s 2022 Audit Quality Report reveals significant overtime numbers for various roles within the industry: Audit associates work 220 hours of overtime during the year. Senior associates work 256. Audit directors and managers work 295. Audit partners and managing directors clock a staggering 349 hours of overtime per year. EY reported similar data with 203 hours of overtime for audit seniors and staff, 287 for audit senior managers and staff, and a jaw-dropping 373 for partners and managing directors.
Considering the prevalence of underreporting hours, these numbers may be underestimates. Regardless, many potential future partners are being deterred from pursuing this career path due to the sacrifices required.
Rethinking Metrics for the CPA Profession
To address these challenges and revitalize the profession, it is crucial to reassess the metrics used to evaluate success. Aspiring auditors and experienced professionals alike are recognizing the shortcomings of the educational and billable hour metrics. By emphasizing experience and continuing professional education instead of additional college credits and incentivizing problem-solving over billable hours, the profession can begin to recover and attract new talent. By refocusing on meaningful indicators, the profession can ensure its longevity and continued relevance.