Exploring the issues that shape today's business world.

A White White-Collar Profession?

Filling the pipeline with talented young accounting professionals is the problem; boosting minority representation could be the solution. By Jacqueline Babb | July 2010

Homeowners know the story with pipes. There’s always a beginning. There’s always an end. There’s usually a leak somewhere in the middle. And so it goes with the pipeline of diverse students who become CPAs.

Specifically, the pipeline begins with the CPA Exam and ends with partner or senior executive status. But statistics show that, when it comes to African-American and Latino professionals, making it all the way from beginning to end is far from certain.

While the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) reports that 11.5 percent of accounting undergraduates are African-American and 6 percent are Hispanic/Latino, the actual demographics within accounting firms are closer to 4 percent at the junior level, and they decline from there. The percentage of minority CPA partners within accounting firms hovers around 1 percent. These numbers have remained unchanged over the past several years.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the Asian and Pacific Islander demographic. Ascend, a Pan Asian organization dedicated to enhancing the voice of Pan Asian and Pacific Islander businesspeople, reports that their stakeholders make up 28 percent of the business school population, and that the percentage of Asians and Pacific Islanders to hold a business degree is 85 percent higher than that of the average in the United States.

So why the low numbers for some groups more than others? Money is one of the biggest barriers. University and college tuition is simply too high, which often makes community colleges more attractive to minority students. In fact, the American Association of Community Colleges reports that African-Americans and Latinos represent 13 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of all community college students.

Community colleges, however, may lack the name recognition employers traditionally look for when scouring for soon-to-be-grads to recruit into their ranks, and campus recruiting efforts may not extend as far as local community colleges—even though they may well be the most logical choice.

What’s more, a survey conducted for The CPA Journal noted that minority students perceive more hurdles to becoming a CPA than do their Caucasian counterparts, most notably due to a lack of minority role models and mentors in senior ranks of the accounting profession.

In the face of these challenges, expanding opportunities for minority students to enter the profession is imperative.

Rick Cerda, CPA, senior manager of Crowe Horwath and president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), explains that, “Based on my experience, a significant amount of the young minority professionals currently entering accounting are first-generation college graduates who have worked extremely hard to lift themselves out of challenging environments. Firms that can give these young, talented professionals the opportunity to excel will be rewarded with a high level of engagement and loyalty. In a profession that often finds itself losing talent after a few years, the value of engaging professionals who love what they're doing and are loyal to the firm they work for results in tremendous returns for the firm, its clients and the individual.”

What’s more, a talented multi-cultural team is a significant business asset in today’s global economy. Some of the savviest organizations in the world, in fact, recognize that an increasingly global economy demands diversity of experience and an unwavering commitment to innovation. Clients today want service teams that reflect the same level of diversity that exists within their own organizations. “Accounting firms are getting the message that future buying decisions may be impacted by the ability to field a more diverse team,” notes Scott Steffens, CPA, a partner at Grant Thornton.

Key to encouraging minorities to enter the profession is understanding their cultural context. Studies show that minorities are often first-generation college students living in urban areas. They tend to come from tight-knit communities in which it is customary to choose one of a handful of “acceptable” professions. Making a choice of major outside of the social norm is difficult. Also, looking to white-collar professions, such as accounting and finance, medicine and law, may well be perceived as simply unattainable.

And yet, the Diversity Pipeline Alliance’s research confirms that younger students of color are motivated and ambitious, and that they value stability and challenge in a supportive work environment. Furthermore, they perceive careers in business as aligned with their priorities. In other words, they are a perfect fit for the accounting profession.

Accounting, however, isn’t alone in its struggle to attract top diverse talent. Leaders in professions as far-ranging as medicine and engineering also are taking a fresh look at inclusion strategies.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), for example, launched a marketing campaign in 2006 to encourage minority students to choose medicine. The campaign includes a website, advertisements for the website and pilot outreach initiatives on four college campuses. According to the AAMC, the website received more than 100,000 hits within its first year, and of those registering for the site, 55 percent were students from minority backgrounds.

The National Academy of Engineers (NAE) reached far back in its pipeline to attract and prepare talent. Its challenge is that minority students may have an interest in engineering, but don’t necessarily have access to advanced math and science courses in high school. The NAE has therefore invested in K-12 education, higher education and government initiatives to remove systematic barriers to degree completion. As of August 2008, the NAE had leveraged relationships with 50 partner institutions to establish mentorship-based academies with after-school programs in urban areas.

Accounting firms have been amongst the most proactive of employers in terms of inclusion efforts. Many firms have established internal resource groups to serve the needs of its minority professionals. These communities host professional development programs and roundtables, and foster much-needed and much sought-after mentoring relationships. Accounting firms also have been diligent in partnering with organizations that represent groups influencing and impacting the talent pipeline, including Ascend, ALPFA and the National Association of Black Accountants, Inc. (NABA).

To a certain extent, though, every CPA is part of the solution. No matter your role within an organization, you can help to fix the leak in the talent pipeline. It begins with an understanding of cultural competence and an appreciation of the talent that surrounds you. Incremental efforts in this regard yield large returns.

Young minority professionals already within your ranks can impact the pipeline by reaching back to students at their alma maters to share their insights and their experiences of the profession. At the same time, they can reach up to professionals in senior ranks to share their experiences of working within multi-cultural teams.

Also, says Sammy Delgado, a CPA with Abbott, “Getting parents involved can be a great way to increase family support. In my experience, I have seen some great events hosted by accounting firms and DePaul's MAHA organization where parents are invited to have a dinner, listen to their children’s success stories and interact with other families who have similar struggles that threaten prioritization of education and work experience. Having someone else they can relate with provide examples of their own career paths can increase family buy-in and promote further encouragement.”

Seasoned professionals can affect change by influencing infrastructure enhancements and taking the time to learn about diverse professionals within their organizations—their heritage and culture, and the barriers they may have overcome to become CPAs. The strongest statement about diversity should come from the top. Empower employees to create inclusion oriented initiatives, and to establish minority specific mentoring programs and workplace communities. Set a roadmap with clear goals and key success measures, unequivocally communicating the fact that you are committed to a diverse workforce, and all the benefits that come with it. Word of mouth is a powerful tool—make your commitment known to a wider audience, therefore boosting your attractiveness to successive generations of talented minority grads.

Opportunities also exist outside of the workplace. Support programs that create opportunities for diverse students. Organizations, such as NABA, ALPFA and Ascend, for example, offer mentorship and volunteer opportunities. What’s more, the Illinois CPA Society is launching its Mary T. Washington Wylie Scholars and Fellows Program, with the goal of increasing the number of African- American and other underrepresented minorities in the accounting profession.

The opportunities to motivate a generation of ethnically diverse accounting professionals are at your fingertips. You simply have to look for them—and act.

Mary T. Washington Wylie Scholars & Fellows Program