Exploring the issues that shape today's business world.

The Diversity Challenge

CPAs must embrace the changing face of business. By Derrick Lilly | Digital Exclusive

Diversity

An excerpt from the 2016 INSIGHT Special Feature, "Pipeline Disruption: The search for solutions to the weakening supply of CPAs."

Mending and growing the CPA pipeline is essential to securing a sustainable, adaptable and talented flow of professionals to carry on the legacy of the CPA—the legacy of being a trusted business advisor. But the face of our population—and the face of business—is changing, and that means the face of tomorrow’s CPA must change as well.

Minorities of African, Asian, Latin, Middle-Eastern and mixed-race decent are driving our country’s population growth. Combined, these groups will soon exceed the White/Caucasian population, beginning a new “minority-majority” phase according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Consider this: In 2014, more than 20 million children under the age of five (a smidgen over 50%) living in the US were minorities. By 2020, projections show that over half of the nation’s population aged 18 and younger will be of a minority race or ethnic group. By 2044, the US population as a whole will become majority-minority. And by 2060, minorities will rise to 56% of our projected 417-million-person population. "No group will have a majority share of the total and the United States will become a 'plurality' of racial and ethnic groups," the U.S. Census Bureau states.

The Bureau also highlights another milestone we’ll soon hit:  By 2029, all Baby Boomers will be age 65 or older.

But Lester H. McKeever Jr., CPA, JD, managing principal at Washington, Pittman & McKeever LLC and a founding member of the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois, is astute to point out that “you can’t measure diversity just by counting numbers.”

Indeed, as diverse as our country’s population is, and continues to become, that diversity still hasn’t transcended the CPA profession. The AICPA’s 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report illustrates the issue well. In 2014, 85% of all professional staff at CPA firms was White. Narrowed to just CPAs, that number rises to 88%. Focused on partners, it jumps to 93%. As for female partners, they total just 24%. Now consider 2007’s measures of these same groups, which equaled 80%, 87%, 91% and approximately 20%, respectively. So despite diversity being a hot-button issue, despite the increasing talk about the need for diversity in the profession, we’ve actually moved backwards in some respects.

“The numbers can’t hide the truth. At many of our elite institutions and organizations, diversity has not arrived. Management ranks still don’t reflect market demographics,” says McKeever. “We have to be smarter. We’ve got to open doors wider.”

“Our profession is at a crossroads,” says Scott D. Steffens, CPA, chairperson of the Illinois CPA Society’s board of directors and a partner with Grant Thornton LLP in Chicago. “If we’re going to meet marketplace demands and stay at the top of our game, we need to attract and retain talent that reflects the growing diversity of the clients and communities we serve. This goes for all of us in both public accounting and corporate roles.”

As it stands now, White accounting graduate recruits still dominate the profession at 69% of new hires according to the 2015 Trends report, while only 15% are Asian/Pacific Islanders, 8% are Hispanic/Latinos, a mere 3% are Black/African-American, and a miniscule 2% are multi-ethnic.

In recent years we’ve seen CPA firms, universities, and professional associations like the Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS), National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), National Council of Philippine American Canadian Accountants (NCPACA), and others making moves to try to bolster diversity and the CPA pipeline by providing grants and scholarships to high achievers from low-income and underrepresented ethnic groups in the profession.

Here at the Society, growing and championing diversity has become a primary initiative. “An enhanced focus on diversity is one of the mission-critical initiatives I support as the Society’s Board Chair, but there is still so much to do,” Steffens states.

Consider, for example, the success of the donor-driven Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program. Having just wrapped up its fourth year, this program administered by the Society and CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois has impacted 100 students and is nationally renowned for driving diversity in the profession.

“Our program prepares deserving African-American and other underrepresented minority college students, whom we’ve identified through our relationships with NABA, ALPFA and accounting faculty across Illinois, to be placed into an internship and guided down a career path,” explains Kari Natale, director of the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois. “In addition to financial assistance, the Program delivers three days of intensive training and direct exposure to people in the profession that provide these students with the resume development and interviewing and career coaching that they so desperately need. The profession needs these students to succeed.”

What’s more, Natale continues, “Once these scholars complete the Program, they become ambassadors of the Program and the profession. They go back to their campuses and communities to speak with their peers, friends and families about the opportunities this program and the accounting profession offer, which only furthers our reach and impact.”

Pushing the envelope further, the Society launched its inaugural Diversity Summit on June 15, 2016 in Chicago. The Summit brought together CPA firms, educators, minority association leaders, diversity officers and others to actively discuss diversity trends, challenges, initiatives and ways to further collaborate on making an impact on their peers and the profession. “We need to ensure that we’re all working together to move the needle on the important issue of diversity in the CPA profession,” Steffens says.

Attracting more diverse students to accounting programs and preparing them to be CPAs is just the beginning, however. To see real change, there has to be a culture shift, and that’s where coming together as a profession will pay the most dividends for the future of the CPA and the future of our business.

“Walk the talk,” says McKeever. “To the leadership here and across the country, our ‘C-suite’ executives should more consistently demonstrate that diversity is both a strategic business imperative and a moral issue.”

“There are imbalances in representation between firm and business leaders and their staff, between them and their customers, and between the profession and today’s population that we need to address,” says Steffens. “Because having diversity—whether it’s in gender, race, ethnicity, lifestyle choice, and more—strengthens our organizations, drives better decision-making, creates new opportunities, and grows our competitive advantage.”

“Our profession, and businesses in general, and each of us, must address this issue,” McKeever says in closing. “The problem is not someone else’s problem, but it is all of our problem. It is not just limited to one community or another, but affects us all.”