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Reversing trend of declining accounting grads tops agenda

Accountants tackle business and industry issues

JACKSON – Finding, hiring and retaining quality accounting professionals tops this year’s agenda of the Mississippi Society of Certified Public Accountants.

“We’ve had declining numbers coming in the profession for several years now, and we must collectively work to reverse the trend,” said Jerry Levens, president of the MSCPA, a 2,620-member statewide volunteer association established in 1920, and a partner at Alexander, Van Loon, Sloan, Levens and Favre, PLLC, a Gulfport-based accounting firm, with offices on the Gulf Coast and in Wiggins.

Downturn in accounting grads

In 1990, 4% of all college students were accounting majors, and 4% of all high school students were planning on accounting careers. Last year, those numbers dropped to 2% for college students and 1% for high school students, according to a study conducted by The Taylor Research & Consulting Group Inc. for the American Institute of CPAs in July 2000.

“The study showed a primary factor in the downward trend of interest in accounting majors and CPAs is the students’ perceptions and systemic barriers,” Levens said.

According to the study, the main challenges the accounting profession faces includes overcoming ignorance, misinformation and negative perceptions of accounting careers. For example, more than a third of high school and college students do not know exactly what a CPA does. The study showed that students often view accountants as professionals who “handle money and prepare taxes (and) do boring, tedious and monotonous number-crunching by themselves.”

“Not only do we need to reinvigorate what our profession is all about, the academic community will have challenges to reengineer their curriculum to make students more interested in studying it,” Levens said.

Systemic barriers include the availability of high school and college accounting courses. For example, accounting is not offered in many high schools. Other high schools offer it only as a remedial bookkeeping course.

“Most people make career plans at a very early age, often as early as ninth grade,” Levens said. “They want careers that can be lucrative, rewarding, limitless, creative, multi-disciplinary and include travel and group work.”

To better educate young people about the dynamically changing accounting profession, Levens has traveled around the state, talking to students at high schools and colleges. He recently trekked to Delta State University, Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi, Jackson State University and the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Our biggest challenge right now is getting more young people into accounting,” said Tony Chance, president of Tony Chance and Co. in Forest, who will take over as MSCPA president on July 1. “From 1996 to 1999, the nation had a 20% decline in accounting degrees awarded. With competition from exciting and challenging new careers, we must make our profession more attractive to young students.”

Other priorities

Other key issues on MSCPA’s agenda include keeping up with technology; fee pressures and pricing of services; succession planning; identifying and developing future owners; funding partner retirement; and marketing and growing accounting practices. Firms with more than 50 professionals pegged identifying and developing new services as a primary concern.

“The accounting profession is changing, expanding and becoming more complex,” said Chance. “Although the traditional skills of CPAs are still essential and are keeping most Mississippi CPAs very busy, technology and globalization, as with other professions, is having a substantial impact. It’s an exciting, yet apprehensive time, for CPAs.”

Industry trends

Until recently, accounting has been a male-dominated profession, Levens said.

“Based on the increase in the number of females in our profession, combined with a declining number of accounting graduates, employers have had to be more flexible in accommodating the needs of employees,” he said. “Moms may want to work around school schedules, for example, and we’ve had to be more responsive with flex-scheduling. Some firms allow employees to telecommute. Our firm has 40 employees, so we’ve experience in a little bit of all of this. So far, we’re very pleased with the results.”

Multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs) are garnering attention throughout the country as accounting firms cross disciplines, such as engineering and law, Levens said.

“The American Bar Association made a decision last summer not to endorse or allow MDPs,” he said. “But it is our understanding that the governing of the bar association is dealt with at the state, not national, level. There’s some belief that we’ll see accounting and law firms combine practices since national CPA firms are some of the largest employers of lawyers.”

Levens, a former member of the governor-appointed Mississippi State Board of Public Accountancy, said he hasn’t noticed much change since the U.S. instigated a newly created Internal Revenue Service Oversight Committee.

“There may be some things in the pipeline, but I can’t say that we’ve seen any sweeping changes on Main Street, Mississippi,” he said.

The MSCPA has bucked one national trend. While other business associations have reported declining numbers of members, MSCPA continues to grow its membership. About half of MSCPA’s members are employed in government, education and industry. The other half consists of private practitioners.

“There’s a trend in the business society as a whole: more people are less interested in joining professional associations,” Levens said. “People are guarding their time commitments more closely. Those who are involved want to make a difference. Because of this, we’re revisiting our bylaw process, which we thought would take one year, but is taking two. For example, we’re looking at forming task forces for specific purposes, accomplishing those goals, and disbanding so that there’s an end to the process rather than a perpetual committee.”

Legislative agenda

Jack Coppenbarger, executive director of MSCPA, said its legislative committee has not yet approved the association’s legislative agenda.

“We’re still working on it,” he said. “A couple of bills are sitting on my desk that have been sent to us for a position. Because they haven’t gone through our committee process yet, we can’t comment on those yet.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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