Youth Movement: Attracting and Keeping Young People in the CPA Profession

By Brandon Allfrey, CPA

Editors: Steven F. Holub, CPA, MBA, and T. Charles Parr III, CPA, CGMA

CPAs from the Baby Boomer generation are approaching retirement in great numbers. Obviously, there will be a gap of both people and knowledge to fill.

Of course, this trend is not a recent discovery. The profession has been aware of this issue for many years. Numerous continuing professional education courses have been offered on topics such as succession planning. Articles in recent AICPA publications have placed this issue at the forefront (see Sinkin and Putney, "How to Price an Owner's Interest in a CPA Firm," Journal of Accountancy (December 2014); and Knafo and Dennis, "Succession Challenges for U.S. CPA Firms to Tackle," Journal of Accountancy (November 2014)).

Additionally, CPAs may have noticed the increased attention being paid to developing future leaders. In fact, the AICPA, state societies, and professional networks and associations are developing and delivering offerings to help accelerate the learning of "soft" skills for those who are less experienced in the profession. Programs such as the AICPA's Leadership Academy and its Young CPA Network are dedicated to helping transition those new to the profession into leadership roles that need to be filled in the near future.

At the same time, the AICPA reported that the number of college students enrolled as accounting majors is at an all-time high (see 2013 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits). This sounds like great news and the answer to the issues the profession faces. However, in its analysis, the AICPA also reports that the number of accounting graduates who are completing their degrees and sitting for the CPA exam is declining. Many articles have tried to explain this demographic change. But no one factor can explain the shift within the accounting profession.

The profession has a highly talented group of people who are relatively new to the discipline. The skills they are bringing to the workforce are immensely different from those seen historically. They are encountering the hurdle of having their skills and characteristics put to use within the traditional accounting culture. As a result, new people in the profession are looking for different opportunities that fit their skills, desires, and characteristics. Many have chosen to look outside traditional accounting roles.

The data and statistics point to a new paradigm for how to encourage the new generation of workers to embrace the accounting profession. Employers are learning how to adapt their workplaces and processes while attempting to maintain their values and culture to retain their top talent.

How to Attract (and Keep) Young People in the Profession

Generational issues are commonly raised. The Millennials, or Generation Y (those born between 1981 and 2000), seem to get mentioned more than any other generation as the source of misunderstanding between the generations. The stereotypes that have arisen have produced a common explanation for why young people are not staying in the profession. However, each generation should understand the role it plays in helping both the profession and the Millennials.

Instead of pointing out the differences and points of contention among the generations, the discussion has begun to shift to how the generations can learn from each other and use the strengths and characteristics of their respective generations to help build the workforce.

The accounting profession is no different. Several accounting publications and organizations are regularly addressing the challenges of a multigenerational workforce. For example, Accounting Today asks members of different generations to provide guidance on these issues in its regular "Generational Viewpoints" column. The Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants and its CEO, Tom Hood, have taken center stage in this discussion by addressing the issues of the generation gap, the changing nature of the profession, and the development of young people within the accounting profession.

A major challenge for the accounting profession is to overcome these generational differences and stereotypes. This can start by shifting the conversation away from rationalizing behaviors and motivations based on those stereotypes and moving it toward cooperation, collaboration, and using strengths between generations. This will create opportunities for engaging the generations in a dialogue that can address the issues facing the profession. This effort is a two-way street—Millennials need to understand the perspective and attitudes of Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers need to make the connections to those older and younger than they are. One of the biggest keys is for the Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980) to gain an understanding of those who are new to the profession—the Millennials.

"Why" Generation

Millennials have certain characteristics and attitudes that often have been portrayed as different from any other generation in history. The key is to understand some basic issues that are critical to this generation.

Through the experience of thought leaders and pioneers in the profession, many of these important issues have been identified. Millennials have also been referred to as "Generation Why." Perhaps more than any other generation, these individuals truly want to understand the purpose of their daily tasks. Millennials have a very strong sense of purpose and want to understand and believe in the things they are doing in their lives.

The understanding of the purpose, or the "why," is critical to them. Without this understanding, it is difficult for them to commit to a task, an event, or even a job. A common buzzword regarding this commitment level is engagement. Getting engagement of young people starts with their understanding.

For supervising staff or older partners, taking the time to help explain the purpose of a job, project, or task has not been a traditional part of accounting culture. Young staff have been expected to just perform the work. This is not necessarily wrong either. However, working alongside multiple generations requires an understanding of how to unlock the strengths of each generation by communicating and establishing common expectations.


One of the most often cited dissatisfactions of the younger generation in performance evaluations is the desire, and even the need in some cases, for better communication from management. Although management may believe it is already communicating effectively and often enough, it is important to understand the Millennials' point of view about communication. More importantly, learning the type and style of communication Millennials respond to will help management bridge the generations.

First, communication with Millennials needs to be frequent. Unfortunately, there is no safe harbor for determining how frequent. Generally, Millennials want their employers to know who they are and what they do. Simple acts of getting to know members of the young generation on the staff will help to build trust and rapport. They will begin to see older colleagues as people who care enough and might be able to help them. In turn, these Millennials will engage in the work they are assigned because of the trust that has been established.

A common result of increasing communication with Millennials is discovering similar interests, hobbies, and ideas. Creating a relationship through increased communication adds another level of trust and respect to a cross-generational relationship.

Another important aspect in establishing more frequent communication with Millennials is the need to validate their efforts when they perform as expected (or even beyond expectations). Recognizing the effort the younger generation puts forth reinforces behavior and motivates them. Some literature contends that this practice, often referred to as "everyone gets a trophy," is the downfall of Millennials. However, because this generation is a social generation, it is important to Millennials to hear that they are doing what is expected. Simply being told "thank you" or "great job" inspires and motivates Millennials.

There will be times when the communication is not about getting a trophy. Things go wrong. People make mistakes. In communicating with Millennials, negative feedback can be turned into an opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, this is a sensitive topic because, as previously mentioned, trust is an important component of communicating. Taking the right approach to delivering "bad" news is critical to maintaining the trust that has been built up. The communication must remain focused on the issue and not take on a personal or individual dimension. Management and leadership need to learn how to use these situations as professional development opportunities.

Instructions or important news must be communicated to Millennials in a manner that is clear, concise, and specific. Eliminating ambiguity in communications allows for expectations to be defined and understood. Some experts recommend asking the person receiving the communication to restate his or her understanding of it and what is expected in response. Other suggested practices include encouraging Millennials to ask for clarification at the time of instruction to prevent a situation that needs to be cleaned up in the future.

Learning how to communicate effectively with Millennials is really about being able to teach and share knowledge with them. They often do not know what they need to know in the profession. Their seniors need to communicate with them in a way that builds trust, inspires them, and develops them professionally.

Of course, this may sound overly simplistic, and it probably is. However, without understanding some simple communication techniques to cross the generational gap, the profession cannot effectively attract and retain the talented people who are joining the workforce. Learning to communicate effectively will increase the level of accountability between the generations.


Being able to better communicate with Millennials not only establishes greater trust, but it also allows expectations of personal and work responsibilities to be defined and agreed to by each generation. When expectations are defined and agreed to, management and leadership are better able to hold members of the younger generation accountable.

A common stereotype of the Millennials is that they do not want to be held accountable. However, accountability is critical for the development of young people in the profession. Through building trust and having a genuine interest in and understanding of Millennials, leadership and management can clearly teach the principle of accountability through efforts to establish, communicate, and agree on expectations.

An important item to note in the subject of accountability with Millennials relates to the way they approach problems. Often, for seasoned members of the profession, the way things have been done in the past is the only way that things can be done now and in the future. When members of the younger generation are asked to perform work, they are taught the old ways. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Millennials tend to prefer receiving assistance when attempting something new. However, as they begin to understand the work, they may discover new ways to achieve the same result.

It is important to remember that Millennials may work differently than members of previous generations do. In the spirit of accountability, management and leadership should hold them accountable only to the defined expectations that were mutually agreed upon in the communication between the generations. Sometimes it truly is possible for an old dog to learn new tricks. When relationships are based on trust and respect between the generations, the principle of accountability allows the entire firm or company to succeed. This becomes more and more evident as Millennials get the opportunity to work closely with members of older generations and with clients.

Opening Opportunities

Millennials are looking for opportunities to expand their influence faster than previous generations. The amount of information they grew up with and their ability to handle many things at the same time sometimes allows them to think they can take on anything. They often get frustrated when they are not allowed to take on projects that they are truly interested in and want to be a part of.

Millennials often cite their desire to be exposed to client interactions early in their career. They are social creatures with a desire to learn and look for ways to make an impact. Could there be a better place for them than learning and working with a client early in their career (under supervision, of course)?

Opening these opportunities for Millennials to work on the front lines early on provides several benefits for the future of the profession. First, they learn how to develop client relationships and manage clients' expectations. The earlier they can learn key soft skills and that, at its core, accounting is a relationship business, the better. Millennials' social abilities can be harnessed to strengthen and deepen client relationships. Additionally, Millennials will feel more loyal to clients and to the firm because of these new opportunities—creating a better process for retaining the best employees.

As the profession's focus shifts toward becoming trusted advisers instead of historical recordkeepers, allowing Millennials to participate in opportunities for client interaction and decision-making provides real-life on-the-job training that will speed their learning and development. As they continue to learn in these situations, they will gain a stronger sense of accountability to projects, clients, and the firm because they are participating and collaborating in setting expectations for themselves and the teams they work on.

Collaboration is at the heart of this generation. They desire to share knowledge and skills more than prior generations. They intrinsically believe that a greater good can be gained through collaboration—allowing everyone to enjoy more of life than just work. The more that management and leadership teams can involve Millennials in decision-making and processes through collaboration, the more success they will enjoy in a multigenerational office.


The concept of collaboration also extends to mentoring the rising generation. Like many in earlier generations, Millennials are searching for their path in life, but their paths seem to change more frequently than prior generations' did. Perhaps, along with communication, accountability, and early opportunities, mentoring from the older generations could help to attract and keep the best and brightest.

Mentoring a Millennial allows a veteran CPA to share knowledge, insight, and experience within a personal relationship built on trust and genuine interest in the person being mentored. For a Millennial, it is important to learn the lessons from those who have built the profession and are monitoring the changing of the guard. The mentor can help build and develop the individual skills of a young professional while pointing him or her to amazing opportunities that exist within the profession. In a relationship built on trust and respect, the generation gap can be closed through a mentor relationship that communicates effectively, holds each member accountable, and provides opportunities to develop.


Taking the steps outlined in this column is not as easy as taking a pill that produces a magical cure. The process and communication may sometimes need to be repeated several times in the same way before progress becomes apparent. No one should become discouraged by one or two opportunities that do not net the expected results. This process is necessary to cross generational lines in the workplace. The bright hope for the future of the profession lies in Millennials.

Giving them the best opportunities to learn, grow, and develop professionally and personally is in the best interests of the older generations within the profession. By learning how to communicate, teaching accountability, opening opportunities for them, and mentoring, Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, can bridge the generational gap and enjoy the benefits of working directly with Millennials.



Steven Holub is a national director in the Professional Practice Department of Cherry Bekaert LLP in Tampa, Fla., and is a former chairman of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Practice Management Committee. Charles Parr is the managing shareholder of Parr & Associates in San Antonio. Brandon Allfrey is a partner with Squire & Co. PC in Orem, Utah. Mr. Parr is chairman and Mr. Allfrey is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact Mr. Allfrey at


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