Accountants today aren’t doing the same work they did 10 years ago.
“The bookkeeping aspect of accounting has been pushed back a little bit. Now, it’s more on making judgements for clients and the use of technology,” Vivek Mande, director of the School of Accountancy at California State University, Fullerton, told the Business Journal.
“Data-driven approaches to auditing have really transformed the profession over the past decade, and this will only continue to grow in the coming years,” Jon Smith, CSUF alum and partner at accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY), said in an email.
“As a result, we have seen a greater emphasis on data analytics skills, as well as other nontraditional backgrounds entering the workforce.”
To keep up, programs that train accountants are making changes to their courses as well.
“We introduced a lot of technology and analytics into the CSUF accountancy curriculum,” Mande said.
The CSUF accounting department, one of 170 accounting programs in the nation accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, officially became a School of Accountancy last fall. The initiative has taken three years of preparation, including raising $1 million in two weeks to prove to CSUF there was demand for the school.
“Once you’re accredited, the next step is to aspire to become a school,” Mande said. “We have been accredited for over 20 years, so becoming a school was the next logical step for us.”
Before it became a school, the CSUF accounting department has been the largest provider of accountants in Orange County, according to Mande.
“80% of our grads stay in Orange County,” he said.
The school is also one of the largest accounting programs in the country, with about 1,400 students enrolled.
CSUF accountancy students are “heavily” recruited by the “Big Four” accounting firms: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers (PwC) and KPMG, Mande said.
Recruiting begins as early as sophomore year. Typically, second-year students land an internship at a firm, which then leads to a job after graduation.
Firms have a “vested interest,” in CSUF’s accounting program, Mande said.
“EY has long been invested in CSUF’s accounting department as a significant source of talented professionals for our practice in Southern California, predominantly here in Orange County,” Smith said.
“That was the whole point in creating this school—to be a resource for Orange County accounting firms firms,” Mande noted.
To further distinguish itself from other accounting schools and programs, the CSUF school of accountancy has been modernizing its courses with technology and analytics elements.
In preparation for becoming a school, the department signed an agreement with New York City-based software company UiPath in 2019, which makes robotics process automation (RPA) software.
The agreement, the first between UiPath and a higher education entity, created a course that explores how RPA—which seeks to streamline corporate workflows—can drive efficiency in accounting.
“With UiPath, our students can write (the script for) bots that perform tasks that take hours to do in seconds,” Mande said.
Irvine-based data analytics software company Alteryx Inc. (NYSE: AYX) also signed an agreement with the CSUF accounting department in 2019.
The free software licenses provided by Alteryx help accounting students learn predictive, statistical and spatial analytics.
“Any good accounting program in the country has components of technology and analytics in it. We have really, really invested in that. We want to be the leaders” of implementing tech and analytics into accounting curricula, Mande said.
The new tech has led firms to hire STEM graduates, with the intent to teach them accounting.
However, “that experiment didn’t work out too well,” Mande said.
“It’s easier to teach accountants technology than to teach STEM guys accounting.”
Still, “it always helps to know a little bit of technology.”
Combatting Staffing Shortages
The advances in tech, and greater access to data, are changing the accounting profession from “compliance” to advisory work.
New efficiencies enabled by tech “leave time for people to focus on areas where judgement is needed,” Mande said.
“Clients want to make business decisions on things like margins for products and sales. They could get consultants or outside people, but accountants have a unique advantage because they are the custodians of their clients’ data.”
That’s why the consulting arms of accounting firms are starting to grow, Mande notes, adding “clients now not only want advice on the traditional accounting fields like taxation and auditing, but also advice on various business decisions that are data-driven.”
New tech tools require new skills—some that many in the profession lack.
“If you talk to any accounting firm, they just can’t find enough people.
“They want people who are not just well-trained in technology and analytics in accounting, but also people who are able to write and communicate well, especially in this virtual environment,” Mande said.
“The ongoing effects of COVID have disrupted traditional workforce dynamics and have contributed toward some demand-supply imbalances for talent throughout the industry—both in the public and private sectors,” Smith said. “At EY, we have increased our hiring in recent years, both directly from local universities as well as for experienced positions.
“From what I’m seeing, top accounting talent at all levels is in high demand right now, perhaps more than ever before.”
As part of its accreditation requirements, CSUF implemented writing classes that aim to foster soft skills in students to its accountancy curriculum about five years ago.
“Soft skills are perhaps even more important than the technical skills because the technical knowledge keeps changing—a taxation law can change. But soft skills are more permanent—you either have them or you don’t.”
Bucking the Trend
Graduates who notice the growing emphasis on soft skills and the merging fields of accounting, consulting, tech and analytics see less of a need to take the CPA exam.
“Nationwide, the number of people taking the CPA exam has decreased,” Mande said.
However, “we’re trying to buck that trend.”
Those in accounting firms without a CPA certification can’t make partner or audit, Mande says.
“Without a CPA license, an employee cannot advance too far in an accounting firm.
“Some firms won’t even promote you to a manager position.” Many firms also give CPA-licensed accountants a bonus, Mande added.
The average CPA exam passing rate has typically run around 50%, according to national reports. CSUF’s passing rate lags that, and Mande said it’s an area of focus.
“It’s a little bit on the low side, but we want to improve it,” he said.
To raise its pass rate, the school made an agreement with Becker, one of the largest providers of the CPA Exam review.
The agreement, signed two years ago, created a semester-long program that prepares students for the CPA Exam.
CSUF subsidizes the cost of the program—about $2,400 for students—and offers a scholarship to the top 50 students who enroll.
“By subsidizing their costs, we think that most students would be incentivized to join the program, take the exam and do well.”