Preparing Accounting Graduates for a Complex Profession


The accounting profession is ever-changing and rapidly evolving. Advances in accounting technology have increased the rate of innovation, providing immense digital implications on traditional accounting processes.  How will these changes affect the accounting profession and, more specifically, how do we prepare our next generation of CPAs to embrace and successfully navigate this changing landscape?

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), to touch upon some of these issues and get her take on what skills accounting graduates will need to be successful in their careers and how the profession can nurture that success.  

Roger CPA Review: As I was researching your academic and professional career, I started to wonder: What inspired you to major in accounting as an undergraduate student?

Dr. Yvonne Hinson: My father was very influential in my decision to go into accounting. He was an accounting professor in both Finance and Managerial/Cost Accounting. I remember sitting in a classroom at around the age of 5 years old, so the academic setting is a comfort zone for me.

Dr. Howard Godfrey, Professor of Accounting at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, had the greatest influence on my decision to go into Tax Accounting. He is such a passionate and energetic professor and made tax incredibly interesting.

Going the academic route is a very appealing lifestyle if you enjoy teaching and research. Plus, you have a great deal of flexibility with your schedule. If you want to prepare for a class or research at night rather than the middle of the day you can do that.

RCPAR: After graduating from college, you went to work for Arthur Andersen. Did you obtain your CPA credential while working there and did you leave Arthur Andersen to pursue your PhD in Accounting?

YH: I was very upfront with the accounting recruiters about my desire to obtain a PhD in Accounting, so the recruiters for Arthur Anderson knew my intent when hiring me. I wanted to have practical experience, but my long-term goal was always to get a PhD. However, I wish I would have taken the CPA Exam earlier in my career. Instead I took it a couple years after graduation. I’ve always encouraged my students to sit for the Exam right after graduation or as soon as possible. There is an inherent advantage to taking the exam when you’re still accustomed to studying and because your knowledge from school is still fresh, you’ll still be very clear on topics that are tested. So, why not take it right away?

RCPAR: What is your opinion about introducing CPA Exam review materials into the classroom to further facilitate the transition from student to CPA professional?

YH: Accounting textbooks typically have CPA Exam questions and materials included, so you’re already introducing Exam concepts into the classroom through the textbooks your students are reading. Also, if you’re in tune with what’s going on in the accounting profession, you’ll know what you need to include in your curriculum to bring real world applications into the classroom. As an accounting professor, it’s important to continually work towards your own professional development by attending accounting conferences, staying in touch with your department’s accounting advisory board, and remaining on top of the news of the day within the accounting profession and bringing those topics into the classroom for your students to discuss.

RCPAR: You are currently the Academic in Residence with the AICPA. How does this position help foster closer relationships with universities and faculty?

YH: We are evolving the position to ensure it’s a position that is all encompassing when it comes to university and faculty relationships. I came into the AICPA position from a tenured faculty position with many strong relationships in the academic world. I’ve always been active in the academic community through the American Accounting Association (AAA), the Federation of Schools of Accountancy (FSA), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the AICPA.

In this newly created position, I’m translating my experience, network and understanding of the academic community into projects and actions that recognize and promote accounting faculty as influencers, provide more resources and create a closer link between practice and academe. I use my previous work experience with students to inform our programs. I know firsthand how accounting students and faculty think, and I’m able to translate that into programs and projects that make a difference.

As an accounting professor, I obviously worked closely with the accounting student population and aimed to inspire them to continue in the field of accounting. When I was the accounting department chair at Wake Forrest University, one of my focuses in the position was to inspire students to continue accounting at the graduate level by showing them the value add of obtaining a graduate level degree. Having a graduate degree in accounting makes it easier for a student to start working towards the CPA credential and adds value over your entire career.

In 2017, I began working with teams at the Association across what we call our CPA Pipeline initiatives. These are the projects that work with high school programs, teachers, faculty and students to engage them in the accounting profession and inspire them to consider accounting at the university level. Our team is very passionate about growing the CPA Pipeline and the overall accounting profession.

Our team is very passionate about growing the CPA Pipeline and the overall accounting profession.

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When we scan the current academic environment, we see advocates for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) out there with very strong messaging to students. The profession needs to ensure that talented and motivated students are also hearing the value proposition of the accounting profession and all the benefits that a CPA license can provide them in their careers.

RCPAR: I’d like to talk about your recent presentation, “AICPA Trend Discussion: Hiring/ Number of Accounting Majors,” you presented at the 2018 Accounting Programs Leadership Group & the Federation of Schools of Accountancy Annual Joint Seminar in San Antonio. You mentioned the top 10 Skills Needed for Accountants in 2020. What are your thoughts on those top skills?

Yes, that came from the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report. In my opinion, I don’t see anything new on this top 10 skills list that we haven’t been talking about in the accounting profession.  We know that students need technical accounting knowledge, soft skills and the understanding of the higher order skills that are now tested on the CPA Exam. It’s not about just memorizing information; it’s about thinking more critically and creative problem solving.

Students also need communication and people skills. As a professor I always tried to balance what the accounting market is saying students need to be successful as CPAs with what students need to know to pass the CPA Exam. CPA Candidates need to understand both, and I tried to integrate that knowledge into my classroom because firms hire based on those needs.

At Wake Forrest University, virtually 100% of our accounting students took the CPA Exam and 75-85% of them went to work at a Big 4 firm when I was on faculty there. Our school was highly aligned with the accounting profession’s needs of graduating accounting students and I think that’s important to not only continue to grow the CPA Pipeline, but to help students be successful when they start their careers as CPAs.

We are living in a world that is more and more complex and very gray when it comes to defining answers to complex problems. There are a range of correct answers that a CPA will come across in their career. So much problem solving is based on assumptions and I think there is an increased awareness in the profession that critical thinkers have a leg up at providing solutions. Firms don’t want someone who has memorized and answered mathematical questions. Instead, they want someone who can think on their feet and solve complex problems.

Future CPAs need to know the right questions to ask and have an agile and adaptive learning mindset. They need cognitive flexibility to consider alternative solutions and ways to get to those solutions. What’s exciting about an accounting career is that you can have multiple careers within a firm and the profession. The profession is changing rapidly and the opportunities for CPAs are so vast, that the only limitation is the person themselves. It’s not scary, it’s called opportunity, and it’s ready to be grabbed by those who want it!

Future CPAs need to know the right questions to ask and have an agile and adaptive learning mindset.

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An accounting graduate can leave college and, depending on how much they open their minds to learning new things in their first couple of years at a firm and on their own, they can easily put themselves in a position to be a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in a room full of firm partners. CPAs can really shine by continuing to learn and educate themselves and becoming an expert within their team or firm.

RCPAR: Do you think most accounting graduates have these skills coming out of the universities and going to work in firms? If not, is there a way for universities to help accounting students obtain these skills before they launch their careers?

YH: The accounting profession is changing so rapidly. Academia is trying their best to keep up with the pace of change. Thankfully, firms are great in providing resources to universities. The AICPA and the American Accounting Association foster relationships in accounting education, research and practice. So, accounting graduates are coming out of college with a good set of skills going into the CPA profession. But, firms are saying that stronger skills in technology and data analytics are needed. It’s about how to use data and analytics to answer the right questions and to aid in understanding the overall accounting context and analysis of a problem.

The question is, what do we need to put on the CPA Exam in the future to test the ever-evolving skill sets of the future accountant? What are the core competencies needed when such rapid change is a constant in the profession? As an academic I think about what my students need to know to be successful practitioners. As educators, we need to teach them skills that firms are looking for, while simultaneously preparing them for the CPA Exam. It’s a true balancing act.

RCPAR: In your APLG Presentation, you discussed that there was a 19% downturn of U.S. public accounting firms hiring new accounting graduates from 2014 to 2016. Why do you think this is happening and do you foresee an uptick in firms hiring in the future?

YH: When I was at Wake Forest University we saw this same trend in the early 2000s due to tough economic times. In addition, in the 2006 /2007 timeframe firms were just starting to ramp up consulting arms again, from what we have heard in the market, so firm hiring increased due to this expansion as well as a strong economy. Then in late 2007 and 2008, the economic recession began, and consulting hiring was one of the first service lines that firms cut and so once again, we saw a decline in firm hiring. During this same time and up until about 2014, we saw an increase of accounting students going into graduate programs. It’s not surprising to see an increase in graduate enrollments when you’re in, or have been in, an economic downturn as accounting is a “safe” profession with low unemployment. In 2010, 2012 and 2014 we also saw a spike in firm hiring after the decline in 2008.

Traditionally, there has always been a bit of an ebb and flow in hiring, depending on the state of the economy and the firm environment. It’s important to note that the recent dip was from a record high in the previous report. And despite the slowdown, the report still found firm hiring of new accounting graduates at one of the highest levels on record. While our Trends data does not tell us the reasons for the decline, we are hearing anecdotally that overall firm hiring has not declined and that there has been a shift to recruiting more experienced employees in the technology and advisory areas. This led to a decline in hiring of new accounting graduates from 2014 to 2016 but keep in mind, 2016 is still the highest hiring year we have on record for new accounting graduates in our Trends report since we began the Trends projections in 1971.

While it is too soon to make many concrete statements about firm hiring, Trends data projections show that 59 percent of all firms that hired one or more accounting graduate in 2016 planned to hire the same number of graduates or more in 2017. And it’s important to note that there are many opportunities for accounting graduates in business and industry – which are not captured in the Trends data projections.

RCPAR: Finally, regarding the CPA Pipeline issue, what steps are being taken by the AICPA to help continually grow the pipeline?

YH: The AICPA works closely with state societies to promote the CPA profession with a data-driven strategy and touchpoints all along the pipeline from high school to CPA candidates. We are currently increasing our focus on the high school area. We acquired the Accounting Pilot and Bridge Project (APBP)  and renamed it the AICPA Accounting Program for Building the Profession (AICPA APBP). This is a program that trains high school teachers to teach a college level accounting principles course in high schools.  Several universities are already accepting credit for the students who pass a qualifying exam after taking an APBP course. We are also working to increase the number of universities accepting this for credit.

It’s important to remember that school faculty and career advisors are tremendous influencers to students, so we continue to work with them to help facilitate the best messaging to students about the accounting profession

It’s an extraordinary time in the world right now and a great time to go into accounting. At the AICPA, we’re always looking for new ways to promote the profession and ensure the messaging is getting to our students in a way that resonates with them.

In closing, I’d like to share this AICPA-produced video that showcases what will be required for businesses to thrive with all the new complexities and challenges in the world today and what new accountants can expect on the horizon. The challenge of the AICPA is to reimagine the profession and ensure we continue to empower opportunity, prosperity and trust.  We actually see this as an opportunity for our members and are working with them to seize these opportunities.

Thank you to Dr. Hinson for this incredibly insightful interview. 

About Dr. Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA

Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D. is currently the Academic in Residence with the AICPA; a newly created position to foster closer relationships with universities and faculty.  She began her accounting career with Arthur Andersen in Charlotte, NC.  After returning to the University of Tennessee to pursue her Ph.D., Yvonne accepted a position with Wake Forest University.  During her 18.5-year career at WFU she served as a faculty member, Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Accountancy and Dean of Charlotte Programs.   Yvonne has served on numerous academic and community committees and nonprofit Boards and is a past President of the Federation of Schools of Accountancy and past Chair of the AAA Membership Advisory Committee. She currently serves on the AACSB Accounting Accreditation Committee and the federal Cost Accounting Standards Board. Her research has been published in both academic and practitioner journals.  She earned her undergraduate degree in accounting and MBA from UNC Charlotte.

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