Where Have All the Accountants Gone?

In a season one episode of the HBO show “Our Flag Means Death”, Blackbeard attends a formal party in disguise as an accountant named Jeff. It’s played for laughs, to show that he is so out-of-touch with high society that he thinks an accountant would be an interesting or, in his words, “fancy”, guest.

It’s hard to think of many positive depictions of accountants in popular media. Not only is a career in accounting entertainment shorthand for “dork”, but they are not frequently portrayed as the kind of quirky, happy nerd cast as a programmer or scientist. Accountants in television and movies aren’t just uncool; they’re miserable.

The accounting shortage has done little to disprove this stereotype. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting a simultaneous 6% decline in employment for accounting clerk jobs alongside a 184,000 increase in new job openings. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics) And there are not new accounting professionals “in the pipeline”, so to speak. According to Financial Executives International, colleges and universities are reporting a 17% decrease in students enrolling into finance and accounting degree programs. (Why Are Students Leaving Accounting?)

I was curious as to my colleagues’ opinions on why this is happening, so I conducted an informal survey of a local accountants Facebook group. The responses were consistent; most reported feeling overworked and underpaid, with the additional knowledge and requirement of the various COVID-era initiatives (PPP, ERC, etc.) paying a toll. Others discussed the stigma and misinformation around accounting, that it was boring and that it was only used for paying taxes. (This has been a soapbox of mine for a long time.) Many discussed the barriers to entry, particularly the 5 years of college required for a CPA.

One long-term friend and colleague made an especially salient point about accounting professionals leaving for other industries. She wrote about how many accountants have discovered they have skills transferable to professions with better pay and better work/life balance.

These are all thoughts I have had myself, but there is one perspective which I feel like does not get mentioned often enough. So many whom I have seen burn out quickly are those who, in my opinion, got into accounting for the wrong reasons. There is a perception that accounting is a safe career that can result in easy pay in the long-run. While I think it certainly has a great deal of job security and can be very financially rewarding, I think that, in order to reach those benefits, you have to stick it out for a love of the work. The harsh deadlines, busy seasons, and inevitable headaches will not be bearable if you don’t love what you do. My first accounting job was 22 years ago and, if I didn’t love this work, there is no chance I would still be doing it today. I don’t anticipate leaving this industry for a long time, but I’m just one employee.

As for the accounting shortage overall, I do think there are solutions, but I think a radical perspective shift of the industry itself is necessary. There are undoubtedly young people who would make great accountants someday, and would love their jobs, but the image they have of accounting is endless forms and number-crunching. Our next article will be on what, as accounting professionals, we actually do.