- Along with a current talent shortage, the industry lacks a pipeline of accountants to fill the shoes of retiring baby boomers.
- A gap exists between what young people think accounting is and what accountants actually do.
- Attracting more people to the profession includes highlighting the diversity of opportunities it presents as well as its pathway to following your passion.
Stereotypes of brown cardigans and bean counting may be a thing of the past for the accounting profession, but it still struggles with an image problem. A mismatch between perception and reality presents a challenge that the industry must shake off to secure a sustainable future, but how can we attract more young people to the profession?
The accounting industry is already experiencing a talent shortage and, with baby boomers retiring, a strong pipeline of aspiring accountants is required just to fill existing shoes. However, enrolments in university degrees that typically lead to careers in the accounting profession in Australia and New Zealand are in decline.
“I think a lot needs to happen to shift the perceptions of high school students in relation to the accounting profession because this is typically the age when people still make their career choices,” says Professor Anil Narayan CA, head of the accounting department at Auckland University of Technology.
“There’s still a strong association with dull number crunching and we need to communicate the diversity of roles that accountants actually have.”
Perception versus reality
Megan Alexander CA, managing director of Robert Half New Zealand, says that a career in accounting offers benefits such as job security, an attractive salary and global career options.
“It’s a fantastic career, especially if you’re young and you want to earn good money while you travel,” says Alexander, who worked as an accountant for 10 years before moving into recruitment.
“That’s what I did. When I lived in London not long after graduating, my mates were earning money through getting shifts at a pub and I was advancing my career.”
However, Rachael Rankin, general manager, brand, at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, says there’s a disconnect between what young people think accounting is and what accountants actually do.
“I was talking to a girl at a careers fair recently and she said she wanted to be a CFO, but that she was going to study business because she thought that finance and accounting were different things.”
Rankin, who is leading a campaign to boost the attractiveness of the profession, says perceptions of the accounting profession do not align with what generation Z (aged between 11 and 26 in 2023) and future generations are looking for in a career.
“Another challenge is that a lot of those perceptions are actually very outdated or incorrect,” she says. “There seems to be a lack of understanding around the fact that accounting provides you with a broader skill set than just doing a P&L, and that’s a myth we’re trying to dispel.”
Generation Z, defined as the group of individuals born between 1997 and 2012, will make up a third of the Australian workforce in 2030. Research from McCrindle shows their career choices are largely driven by a desire to follow their passion.
Just over 70% consider having purpose and meaning in their work as very important to their career choices and 64% want the work they do to have a positive impact on the world.
“What we are seeing is that younger generations are going to have a number of different careers and a number of different jobs, and they want to have a foundation that allows them to have that flexibility,” says Rankin. “Unfortunately, they don’t currently align this with accounting. They think that if you study accounting, you become an accountant and that’s your career path – that you sit at your desk in a big corporate office.”
Alexander adds that a variety of career paths flow from accounting, but it’s a benefit that’s often overlooked. “It can take you beyond a pure accounting role and gives you that business acumen for running businesses,” she says.
Narayan says another barrier to students choosing accounting is a concern about technological disruption. “I’m hearing that many people are put off by the idea that technology is replacing accounting roles,” he says. “The reality is that a lot of accounting tasks are now being done by technology, but the irony is that these are generally the number-crunching tasks that inform the boring stereotypes of accounting. Technology has made accounting more exciting because you need to be more analytical, but a lot of younger people just don’t see that.”
What’s in a name?
The accounting profession may need to sharpen its image, but one of biggest branding challenges may be its name.
CA ANZ has partnered with Year13, a digital youth engagement platform that helps school leavers activate their post-school goals – from study and work, to travel. When gauging perceptions of accounting among high school students, Rankin says findings show that most kids don’t associate accounting with innovation.
“One of the polls that we did through our Year 13 partnership shows that 63% of kids believe that if it was accounting, it wasn’t innovative,” she says. “That’s a red flag because we know that innovation is prized at all ages these days. In the work we’re doing to change the perception of high school students, we don’t tend to use the word ‘accounting’ in headlines or in a major way,” adds Rankin. “But, while the profession’s name is a brand challenge, I don’t think we can ever fully move away from it.”
Professor Paul Andon FCA, head of the school of accounting, auditing and taxation at the University of New South Wales, says the profession’s image would be more appealing through a “strong and compelling narrative” to promote its “critical value to business success”.
“I firmly believe that accounting is the best skill set an aspiring professional can have in order to understand and run a business, but that’s something that we don’t communicate effectively,” he says.
“If you want to work in the tech industry or become an entrepreneur, there are role models who you can look up to,” says Andon. “The accounting industry doesn’t really have those inspiring role models, so people don’t often equate accounting with an inspiring career path and you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Rankin says that while accounting career benefits, like salary and career stability, are generally understood among young people, it’s not driving career choices.
“What we’ve found is the drivers for a lot of students in choosing their electives at high school and the degrees they study at university is to align their career with their passion,” she says.
“That’s what we need to focus on,” she continues. “Whether you want to have a side hustle, whether your passion is to work in sport, in cybersecurity or to protect the environment, studying accounting is a really great foundation for you to have a career that aligns with your passions, because careers in accounting exist everywhere.”
Promoting the profession
CA ANZ is working to promote the attractiveness of the accounting profession through a range of initiatives. These include a partnership with Year13 to highlight the diverse career opportunities that can help students pursue their passions.
CA ANZ has also produced a series of resources for members wishing to promote the profession to a high school audience. This includes a presentation that covers:
- Being an accountant, including where you can work and what you would do
- The breadth of roles accountants hold and the variety of industries they work in
- Common misconceptions around accounting
- How to become a chartered accountant.
Visit: Presentation for high school students to access the presentation and other resources.
Covering the fees
CA ANZ is the only professional accounting body in Australia approved by the Australian Government to offer FEE-HELP loans, which help eligible full-fee paying students to pay all or part of their course tuition fees at Australian universities and other higher education providers.
For a CA Program candidate to be eligible for a FEE-HELP loan, they must meet all of the following criteria:
- Be enrolled in studies that form part of their CA Program Graduate Diploma of Chartered Accounting (GradDipCA) award course
- Be an Australian citizen, a permanent Australian Government humanitarian visa holder or on a New Zealand Special Category visa (SCV) and meet the residency requirements
- Have enrolled in the GradDipCA subject on or before the census date and be enrolled in the subject at the end of the subject census date
- Have submitted a completed Electronic Commonwealth Assistance Form (eCAF) on or before the census date of the first enrolment period when seeking access to a FEE-HELP loan
- Have an available HELP balance that is greater than zero and sufficient to cover the cost of the FEE-HELP loan that is being sought for their enrolled GradDipCA subject.
To remain eligible for the FEE-HELP loan scheme, the candidate must also maintain a pass rate of 50% or above, having undertaken eight or more subjects as part of their current GradDipCA course, unless the candidate applies in writing to the CA Program Assessment’s team for an exemption from this requirement and CA ANZ is satisfied that special circumstances apply to the candidate.
For more details go to: FEE-HELP approval and Term 2
Why did you become an accountant?
Here’s what some Reddit contributors answered, between February and August 2023.
“It was a practical choice, good job prospects and it came easy to me.” – Wafflebot3500
“I went to see [an accountant] for advice on a new business, then got the bill for the half-hour meeting and realised I was in the wrong business.” – Standard_Gur30
“I make mid-$200k as an accountant, with higher earnings potential in the future. It’s great earnings, stable and intellectually rewarding.” – Mika-El-3
“Because I honestly love it. Keeping numbers in order and businesses running brings me satisfaction and joy. Getting paid to play with spreadsheets is also a nice bonus.” – C4RTON
“Following in the footsteps of my father.” – mebethis
“Offered me stability, good benefits and job security (even throughout a major recession). And, I enjoy analytical work.” – Starboard_Pete
“I love playing music. A lot of the musicians I played with did accounting and it gave them the flexibility and the money needed to keep up this hobby.” – Churchthrowaway
“I love organising things, and accounting is another form of organisation. And, most importantly, I wanted a career that would allow me the independence of self-employment. It’s been better than I ever dreamed!” – HoursPass