Jeff Drew
PwC vice chair: CPA firms need to engage Millennials now

Failing to do so could lead to falling behind in the marketplace.

January 13, 2014
By Jeff Drew

Tim Ryan, CPA, vice chairman and market, strategy, and stakeholders leader at PwC, believes that the time is now for organizations to understand and embrace the Millennial generation.

Yes, the Millennials. Those whippersnappers born after 1982. You may have heard the stereotypes. They are entitled. They want to be handed leadership positions. They don’t want to wait their turn and climb the ladder as their predecessors did. They don’t want to work as hard as previous generations.

Ryan would advise CPA firms and other businesses to forget the stereotypes and recognize reality. The Millennials are a major force in the workplace, and their time isn’t 20 years down the road, or 10 years, or even five. It’s today, and organizations, including CPA firms, that fail to attract Millennials are going to fall hopelessly behind in the competitive landscape.

How big is the shift to Millennials going to be, and how fast is it coming? Consider this: PwC expects that in just a few years, 80% of its workforce will be Millennials. Yes, 80%.

That’s one reason Ryan is pushing for CPA firms and other organizations of all sizes to actively engage, employ, and empower Millennials. He points to a couple of megatrends that are changing the world and making it imperative for employers to begin connecting with Millennials today.

The first megatrend is rapidly changing demographics. There are approximately 60 countries, mainly in the developed world, where population decline is inevitable. “Think about the number of people out there,” Ryan said in a recent phone interview. “How do you compete in that world for a smaller group of talent?”

The second megatrend Ryan cites is the rapid advances in technology. Millennials are accustomed to being able to access information and perform tasks on an anywhere, anytime basis. That affects the way they want to work.

“There’s a myth that this generation doesn’t work hard,” Ryan said. “This generation works hard, but it is different. It’s more about when and where they want to do their work, not about how much work they will do.”

The preference to work from home (or the coffee shop) at nontraditional work hours runs contrary to the long-established accounting firm culture of doing work in the office, or at the clients’ office, and putting in long hours on-site, especially during the busy season. Many employers want to force Millennials to adapt to workplace tradition, but as the 78 million U.S. Baby Boomers move into retirement, the need for Millennials will continue to grow. That means it will be imperative for CPA firms and other businesses to adapt to make themselves more attractive to younger workers. Failure to do so could mean failing to land the talent needed to stay competitive in the marketplace.

What can CPA firms and other businesses do? Ryan has a few recommendations.

  • Organizations need to embed flexibility into their culture. They need to recognize that some people work better in different environments. Circumstances arise that require flexibility. For example, it is far more common to find single parents in the workplace today than it was in the past. More employees are caring for elderly parents. In addition, employees want to develop themselves outside the workplace, and they have interests that they want to pursue. In the face of those demographic and generational realities, CPA firms should let go of traditions such as no one leaving the office until the partners leave. With cloud and mobile technologies, CPA firms and other businesses can set up their employees to do their jobs remotely on an anywhere, anytime basis. This allows Millennials the flexibility they demand while equipping them to be as productive as their employers need.
  • Organizations should provide real-time, constructive feedback. Millennials want to develop as whole professionals. They desire technical assessments and improvement, but they long for growth in soft skills as well. Is their emotional quotient (EQ) developing as well as their IQ? Are they learning how to collaborate? Beyond their individual concerns, Millennials also are very interested in social justice and corporate responsibility programs. They want to have the ability to make a difference. “There are no shortages of opportunities,” Ryan said.
  • Millennials want to be exposed to different cultures in different ways, Ryan said. Large firms and organizations have long immersed employees in a foreign city, and now increasingly in emerging and newly emerged markets, for a couple of years to provide a global perspective. Such mobility experiences are still common today—and popular with Millennials—but other types of experiences provide positive learning experiences as well, Ryan said. For organizations with the capacity, sending Millennials on business trips to overseas locations can develop cultural versatility. Or firms can bring in clients or colleagues from different countries to work with Millennials on American soil. “Even within the United States, there are mobility opportunities, because the experience of San Francisco is different from the experience of Chicago, which is very different from Des Moines, which is very different than Richmond, Va.,” Ryan said.

In the end, Ryan believes the accounting profession has a lot going for it in the fight for Millennial talent. The profession’s unique role providing independent assurance and valued advice to businesses gives accountants a seat at the table that no other profession has.

“As a profession, we need to continue to talk about importance of the profession and the very special place that we have,” Ryan said. “What we’re focused on is … making sure that we continuously remind people who are considering the profession of the important role we play in the capital markets.”

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Jeff Drew is a senior editor with the AICPA Magazines & Newsletters team.