insight magazine

Changing the Face of the CPA Profession

Even as CPA candidate numbers dwindle, these vibrant new CPAs are making the profession their own. By Del Wright | Winter 2021

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Much has been made of the projected scarcity of certified public accountants (CPAs), and for good reason. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy reported that 95,654 candidates took the Uniform CPA Examination in 2017. By 2019, that number was down to barely 83,000, with 2018 reflecting a 10-year low in new CPA candidates. The Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS) devoted this year’s Insight Special Feature, “A CPA Pipeline Report: Decoding the Decline,” to an in-depth analysis of this trend, as well as potential strategies for helping future accountants recognize the benefits of earning their CPA.

But with all this talk of who isn’t pursuing the credential, what about those who are becoming CPAs? What has led them down a path so many of their peers are forgoing? Five young CPAs share their unique journeys to the credential—and beyond.

The Power of Integrity

For one emerging CPA, it started with a television show. Jalaj Haryani was a junior in high school when she came across the immensely popular Korean drama “Chief Kim.” The show’s central character is a CPA who solves financial crimes. During one episode, a snippet of dialogue caught Haryani’s attention: “Numbers don’t lie, people do.”

“It was a simple line, but it made me think a lot about the power of the people behind the numbers,” she recalls. “I thought that if we had more honest people in the profession, the world could rid itself of a lot of corruption.”

Because of “Chief Kim,” Haryani came to see CPAs as agents of integrity and trust—though she wasn’t always interested in the actual credential. “Throughout undergrad, I remember telling my friends that there was no way I was taking the exam,” she recollects. “However, at my first internship they spoke so highly of the credential and how much trust comes with it.”

Haryani, an ICPAS member and now an associate consultant with HKA, says that even when she studied abroad, professors would encourage their students to pursue the CPA credential. By her senior year, the credential she thought she’d never pursue had come to symbolize the very traits that attracted her to the profession in the first place.

“This credential is vital in gaining the trust of your colleagues and it helps attest to the reliability of your work. My whole goal was to join the profession, to be an honest member, and to have people trust my work,” she says. “So, I went for it.”

Haryani also found value in another aspect of the CPA credential: versatility. When she landed her CPA in late 2021, she didn’t just earn the confidence of the U.S. public accounting industry, but of financial professionals across the globe. It remains to be seen whether she’ll remain in consulting or transition to another industry, but she’s ready to join the next generation of CPAs who’ll transform the profession. “I think the profession is ever-changing,” she says. “Accountants are no longer just recordkeepers, they’re analysts and translators. Accounting is the language of business and accountants are the most fluent in it.”

The Promise of a Growing Field

In 2017, the AICPA reported that CPAs with less than a year of experience earned an average of $66,000 per year. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of accountants and auditors will grow 7 percent from 2020 to 2030. All research points toward today’s emerging CPAs having fertile ground in which to grow their careers and establish a solid financial future for themselves.

ICPAS works tirelessly to ensure that motivated students have access to the resources that allow them to catch the attention of future employers. These efforts include the CPA Exam Award, a scholarship for individuals who have achieved their required 150 credit hours and applied to sit for the exam in Illinois. The scholarship reimburses recipients for up to $900 in testing fees. Recipients are typically either students or recent graduates, so this much-needed financial assistance allows them to focus on test prep, college coursework, or finding their footing at their first post-collegiate job.

The prestigious Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program is another way in which ICPAS works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in the accounting profession. Named for the Chicago native who became the country’s first Black female CPA in 1943, the program provides a $500 scholarship, resume and interview coaching, access to a network of mentors, and the opportunity to interview for paid internships.

Landing both a CPA Exam Award and a spot in the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program, Starletta Keene epitomizes the next generation of hard-working CPAs. A college advisor recommended accounting as a potential major during her freshman year “because it combined my strengths of math and attention to detail with my desire to work in the corporate world,” she recounts. “From there, the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program did a great job of introducing me to the CPA credential and what it would take to achieve it.”

Keene’s last semester of college was especially grueling. “It was pretty difficult for a span of about five months, trying to accumulate course hours, making sure that I was ready to take the exams, along with staying on track to graduate,” she says. Once she graduated and was approved to sit for the exam, Keene had to balance test preparation with the responsibilities of her new job. “Finding time to study takes a lot of discipline and focus, especially if you’re working all day,” she says.

Currently working as a tax consultant with Deloitte and planning to submit her application for licensure any day now, Keene is excited about the opportunities that the CPA credential will unlock for her. The credential is a requirement for promotion within her current division, and she knows it will advance her professionally in the long run. “I saw how much money I would be leaving on the table throughout my entire career if I didn’t pursue the CPA,” she says.

Perseverance Through a Pandemic

But what happens when you work hard to achieve the certification, only for a pandemic to bring your professional momentum to a screeching halt? That was the case for ICPAS member Kiara Schuh, who finally received her CPA license in September 2020 after months of delays. She applied for licensure in January 2020, submitted some requested additional documents soon after, then waited nine months for her file to be processed. “Between March and August there wasn’t a lot of movement with my application,” she remembers.

Perseverance was nothing new to Schuh: She’d been embodying it her whole college career, balancing the responsibilities of being a self-supporting student with her demanding course load. “I worked in various capacities around campus and over the summer to be able to support myself through college,” she says. “During my fourth year at the University of Illinois, I was earning my master’s in accounting, serving as a teaching assistant for an undergrad accounting class, and working as a resident assistant in one of the dorms. On top of that, I was studying for the CPA exam.” A senior consultant in Deloitte’s risk and financial advisory practice, Schuh is now using her can-do attitude, accounting acumen, and hard-won CPA credential to help her clients.

The Nontraditional Path

But young CPAs aren’t just making their mark in the public accounting and corporate finance worlds: Two women within ICPAS have forged their own paths toward management in the nonprofit sector.

While in college, Alisa Caruso, ICPAS’ accounting manager, realized that as a young, single mother, she’d need to have a stable career. Caruso’s sister suggested accounting, and her professors and advisors at North Central College were instrumental in providing excellent content knowledge, as well as helping her stay on track with both coursework and the certification process. After college, Caruso took a Becker CPA review course, passed her certification exam, and was licensed within a year of joining ICPAS as a staff accountant in 2015.

Prior experience working for a hedge fund helped Caruso realize that she didn’t want to work in a traditional, corporate environment. “The nonprofit world aligned with my personal and professional goals,” she says.

Heather Lindquist, ICPAS’ assistant director of peer review and professional standards, has similar praise for her alma mater. She credits Illinois Wesleyan University’s accounting department staff, as well as the anecdotal student-to-student knowledge of her peers, with demystifying the CPA certification process. Upon earning her CPA, Lindquist recalls feeling “armed with the level of confidence symbolized by the credential” as she launched her career. She joined ICPAS’ peer review department in 2016, excited by the unique opportunity to merge accounting with education. She savors the teaching aspects of her position as well as encouraging the firms within the program to learn from each other.

The future of the CPA credential lies in expanding the idea of what a CPA is. In the corporate realm, the nonprofit world, and beyond, the new generation is doing just that—blazing new trails and inspiring peers who may have never thought of themselves as CPAs. As we look for ways to attract more people to the credential and ensure a strong pipeline of future talent for the profession, it’s worth noting what is already working. The trust and versatility that accompanies those three letters has remained constant, and young professionals like these women are taking the certification and running with it.

Del Wright is an Insight contributor and ICPAS’ customer service and corporate outreach coordinator.

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