Career Paths in Accounting Don’t Have to Fit a Mold
College students considering careers in accounting need to be shown that the CPA credential can take them anywhere they want to go.
It's an interesting time for college students considering the accounting profession and what the certified public accountant (CPA) credential has to offer. Pop open popular trade publications, like Accounting Today and Going Concern, and countless headlines stress the lack of talent entering the profession, increased regulatory pressure, and how artificial intelligence (AI) will ultimately beat humans at the CPA exam and alter the profession. Seeing all of this is feeding a growing perception that anyone who chooses to become a CPA will just get worked to the bone until they ultimately get replaced by a robot. No wonder the CPA profession has a bad rep among today’s accounting students and prospective CPAs!
The reality is CPAs aren’t going to be replaced by robots (although, I firmly believe professionals who embrace technology will replace those who don’t). So, how do we solve the profession’s talent shortage problem and inspire the next generation of CPAs to forge ahead and inspire change? There’s no magic solution, but one thing we can do is change the narrative. Rather than emphasizing the challenges our profession is facing, it’s in our best interest to help aspiring CPAs realize the exciting opportunities and career paths they can enjoy.
Reflecting on my own perspective in college, I viewed the path of a CPA as you might expect: start at a Big Four firm, gain varied client experience, target an industry of interest, and then head down the industry route. I didn’t appreciate that there were a multitude of spurs, switchbacks, bridges, and tunnels that could be taken to create my own unique career path in accounting until I was several years into it. Today, I find that I’ve taken a very different career path than the “mold” I had constructed in my head as a college student.
Anyone who’s worked with me throughout my career knows I have a passion for recruiting. Over the years, I’ve shared my career journey hundreds of times to inspire, motivate, and recruit students into the profession. The fact that I’ve taken a unique career path isn’t special in and of itself—many CPAs can share similar stories—but I share it to illustrate the potential every accounting professional has to create their own incredible story.
My first inclination to pursue a career in accounting began in high school. My dad was a CPA, and I enjoyed my high school accounting class, so it felt like a natural fit. That was about the extent of my deep thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Once I got into college, I stuck to this plan while taking on various internships in industry, government, and eventually at a Big Four firm where I later accepted a full-time offer in the audit group. This was the height of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, so I was feeling pretty good about having a job offer in hand while still having my master’s year of school to complete before the real world would smack me in the face. My perspective at the time was that joining a Big Four firm would be a great steppingstone for a few years before I’d surely jump ship for industry.
After joining the firm full-time, I was given incredible opportunities to learn from some great mentors, serve some great clients, and even work abroad in Italy for a period. So, I blew right past the three-year public accounting phase I’d anticipated and was genuinely enjoying the experience, learning a ton, and seeing opportunities for continued growth.
When I was promoted to manager, I was still fighting the mold I thought I should conform to and thought I would give industry (and my original plan) a try by accepting an opportunity as a controller at a private equity portfolio company. This experience gave me new perspectives, expanded my business acumen, matured me as a professional, and sparked my entrepreneurial spirit as I was actively helping to drive a business forward. These years also awarded me the self-confidence to truly own my career. This enhanced mindset—and the wise words of a mentor—led me to my next career pivot.
Although the experience I gained in industry was critical to my development, it made me realize that what really gave me fire was being a problem-solver for my clients, building lasting relationships, and mentoring the next generation of professionals. I also figured my freshly minted industry experience could be leveraged to help drive the business of a public accounting firm. So, I added “boomerang” to my resume and re-joined the Big Four firm where I started at out of college. My second trip through the firm was a richer experience, as I was able to serve my clients with a renewed perspective—I was able to put myself in their shoes and participate in business development and other initiatives. As I worked up through my early senior manager years, I was laser-focused on partnership as my next career goal but, admittedly, didn’t think that deeply about what it meant to be a partner in the firm beyond the title and earnings potential.
The closer I got to the partnership doorstep, the more I revisited my “why” for pursuing it. I knew I wanted to serve clients and build teams (and of course, the earning potential became clearer to me), but I also wanted to be a decision maker and double down on my entrepreneurial spirit that was sparked during my years in industry. As I defined my perfect job description, I came to the realization that although I loved the firm and people I was working with, it was time to pursue something different.
I began exploring all sorts of opportunities in the professional services space, including fractional service providers, other public accounting firms (of all sizes), and even the prospect of starting my own advisory firm. During this exploratory time, I was fortunate to be introduced to Vrakas CPAs + Advisors. I was energized by the alignment I had with the firm’s philosophy around quality, client service, a people-first culture, and bold future growth. The firm offered me a unique opportunity to help lead the buildout of a brand-new practice in Chicago. It was the perfect mix of what I wanted to have from a career in public accounting, while also itching my entrepreneurial desires.
The best part about my career path is it’s not over! My story continues to be written, and I’m motivated by now having a platform to create positive career paths and opportunities for the next generation of CPAs. I’m passionate about this profession and finding ways to think outside the box to keep it relevant and desirable for young professionals.
I think those of us who’ve found fulfillment and success in this profession need to be more proactive about showing prospective CPAs that there’s no such thing as a mold that must be followed. Rather, your career is whatever you choose to make of it.
While the CPAs of tomorrow will have very different experiences than the CPAs of today, it’s my hope learning how dynamic and rewarding this profession can be will inspire the next generation of talent to pursue this fulfilling field. I believe the CPA credential will continue to open unique doors to a wealth of experiences, perspectives, and rewards—but only if we show the next generation what our profession truly has to offer.
Andy Kamphuis, CPA, is a shareholder at Vrakas CPAs + Advisors and a member of the Illinois CPA Society’s Audit & Assurance Services Committee.