Perception and Reality
Potential entrants to the accounting profession get their perceptions of accounting from a variety of sources. Popular culture frequently portrays accounting in a negative light, reinforcing the “bean counter” stereotype. High school accounting and introductory college accounting classes often focus mainly on bookkeeping, leaving students with the impression that this is all accounting entails. High school guidance counselors and college career advisors do not always fully understand the accounting field and may advise talented students to choose alternative careers. In addition, many students research their career choices using online career platforms, such as MyACT, that are based on the long-standing occupational models of John Holland and Dale Prediger. Current accounting work, however, has evolved a great deal since the inception of these models, potentially signifying a mismatch between the perception of accounting work and the true nature of the profession.
Although accounting is recognized as a trusted and respected profession, it is understood within the field that others primarily view it as a path that those with social or creative preferences should avoid. The AICPA, along with state CPA societies and accounting educators, has long fought to achieve a more accurate perception to help the profession successfully compete with other professional areas—including law, medicine, and engineering—in recruiting qualified entrants. The AICPA website, http://startheregoplaces.com, provides information for high school students to explore accounting as a potential profession. This site lists four skills students might not realize are needed for success as a CPA: strong leadership, communication skills, tech know-how, and creative problem-solving skills. In addition, the AICPA Pre-certification Core Competency Framework defines competencies that are needed by future CPAs; these include decision-making, communication, and collaboration. Considering that the goal is for new entrants into accounting to possess these skills, yet the stereotype held by many is the polar opposite, where does the profession stand among its competitors? How large is the gap between the perception of accounting and the reality, and what can be done to decrease it?
Using real-world data from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration-sponsored Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a recent academic study published by the authors examined these questions (Clement C. Chen, Sarah A. Garven, Keith T. Jones, and Audrey N. Scarlata, 2021, “Is Career Guidance Sending the Right Message about Accounting Work? Comparing Accounting with Competing Professions,” Accounting Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/09639284.2021.1913615). The study makes predictions about accounting as compared to law, engineering, and medicine based on career models used at many universities to guide students in their career choices. The areas examined are communicating and interacting, analytical thinking, information processing, involvement in nonpersonal tasks, adaptability, social orientation, interpersonal conflict, and helping people. The O*NET, which offers current practitioner-based data on a large number of professions, provided a way to test those predictions. The results revealed that less than one-half of the predictions hold true, suggesting that challenges still lie ahead as the profession endeavors to bring perceptions more in line with reality. An analysis of where some of the leading models line up may assist those involved in recruitment efforts in targeting their approaches more effectively.
Alignments and Misalignments
In one of the accounting profession’s most often misunderstood areas—communicating and interacting with others—the models perform worse than elsewhere. Specifically, the models predict accounting will involve less communicating and interacting than medicine and law but more than engineering. The results reveal no significant differences in this area across the four professions of interest; therefore, none of the three specific predictions hold up against “real world” data. These results suggest that accounting fits in well with the benchmark professions in terms of the extent to which practitioners will have to interact and communicate effectively with others. The models also predict that accounting practitioners are less adept at analytical thinking than those in the other three professions. The results, however, show that only engineering outranks accounting in this area and that accounting once again does not differ significantly from law and medicine.
The models are also misaligned with practice when considering involvement in information processing and nonpersonal tasks. The models predict accounting involves more information processing than any of the other three professions. The results show that accounting outranks only medicine and is statistically equivalent to engineering and law. In terms of involvement in nonpersonal tasks, the prediction was that only engineering would involve more of these types of tasks than accounting, which would involve significantly more than either law or medicine. The results show that, while only engineering outranked accounting, accounting did not differ significantly from law or medicine.
These outdated career models might be leading to a mismatch between the student’s skill set and goals, and the competencies required to be successful in accounting.
The predictions were better supported in the areas of adaptability, interpersonal conflict, knowledge related to helping people, and social orientation. None were completely supported, however, with each of the four having only two of three predictions supported. In each area, the results indicated that legal and medical practitioners ranked higher than accounting and engineering practitioners, who did not differ significantly from each other. The authors note that adaptability in particular is a characteristic that will likely increase in demand, however, as technologies continue to change the way organizations and accounting firms conduct business.
Implications and Suggestions
Overall, the authors’ research indicates that those currently practicing accounting use more communication and analytical thinking skills and are involved in less information processing and non-personal tasks than predicted by the models. Although much of accounting work used to involve data input and information processing, technological innovations allow efficiencies in processing data; thus, accountants are spending more time analyzing data and communicating results. The face of accounting has changed, but career models have not necessarily evolved as quickly. When comparing accounting to some of its key competitors, the models appear to still be heavily influenced by outdated views of accounting.
The danger of potential entrants to accounting relying on career counseling models is twofold. On the one hand, the profession may end up with students to whom the outdated stereotype appeals. This may result in job dissatisfaction and high turnover, leaving both entrants and employers unhappy. On the other hand, students who want a career that allows them to use their communication or analytical thinking skills might be directed toward engineering, law, or medicine rather than accounting. This study, however, finds that law and medicine do not show significant differences compared to accounting in these areas. In addition, engineering is the only profession that involves more analytical thinking than accounting.
Thus, these outdated career models might be leading to a mismatch between the student’s skill set and goals, and the competencies required to be successful in accounting.
How should the profession best communicate this message about accounting to potential entrants? The authors believe that efforts need to start at the high school level, as students’ experiences and perceptions of accounting at that time shape their choices in college. Educators and others are encouraged to direct students to the AICPA website (http://startheregoplaces.com), which provides information targeted to high school students related to exploring accounting as a career. This website also has an educator edition that offers a wealth of resources for high school teachers.
In addition, the AICPA Accounting Program for Building the Profession (APBP) provides training for high school accounting and business teachers to teach an accounting course that goes beyond bookkeeping and provides a clearer picture of what a career in accounting involves. Its curriculum incorporates technology and critical thinking skills. Such training may also benefit instructors of entry-level college accounting courses, potentially attracting business students who previously may not have considered accounting as a career. Due to the commonalities between accounting, law, medicine, and engineering, it may make sense to recruit from these other student populations, which are frequently required to take an introductory accounting course.
Practitioners can play an active role in communicating the desired competencies crucial for success in the profession. Many companies and firms offer internships, but these are often only available to a select group of students who have already demonstrated an aptitude for accounting and selected it as a profession. Practitioners might consider high-impact, lower time commitment outreach activities such as mentorships or job shadowing for students considering accounting. In addition, universities often hire practitioners as adjunct instructors to teach introductory-level accounting. Many of the students in these classes are freshmen and sophomores who are still undecided about which major to declare. This is an excellent opportunity for practitioners to share their enthusiasm for the profession, emphasize the skills needed for success, and influence students. Practitioners could also volunteer as guest lecturers for a college or high school class or speak at career days at elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. Lastly, faculty value the input of those working in the profession. Providing information to accounting faculty about specific competencies expected of future graduates helps promote a student’s smooth and successful transition into the workforce.
Current and accurate information about career alternatives should aid potential entrants’ career selections and contribute to their subsequent success and satisfaction with their chosen careers. The authors’ research indicates that leading career models poorly translate the skills needed by today’s accountants when comparing accounting with competing professions. The AICPA’s continued efforts to educate students about the changing role of accounting—coupled with input and cooperation from state CPA societies, accounting educators, and accounting practitioners—will help close the gap between the perception and reality of contemporary accounting.