Daniel Griffiths
How to stop young CPAs from leaving public accounting

Firms can take steps to lessen the migration of top talent, and avoid the costs related to such departures.

January 14, 2013
By Daniel Griffiths, CPA

Partner: “You’re leaving! A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the big future you have here at the firm. What changed?”
Soon-to-be-former manager: “I got an offer I just couldn’t refuse. Not only are the pay and benefits great, but I’ll also weigh in on decision-making. The company develops lifesaving malaria therapies, and it will be rewarding to be part of an organization that helps save lives. Plus, I’ll actually be able to take my wife out to dinner on Valentine’s Day and attend some of my son’s ice hockey games this winter. It’s been a great ride, and I appreciate everything I have learned here at the firm, but it’s time to move on.”

Does this sound familiar? The public accounting world has always been a demanding one. Today we see leadership at public accounting firms confronting the challenge of top talent leaving for greener pastures just as Baby Boomers are preparing for retirement. The challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that there are more Baby Boomers in the workforce than Generation Xers. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in 2012 show there are nearly 60 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. labor force compared with fewer than 50 million Generation Xers. Who is going to lead the profession in the coming decades? Who is going to fund partner retirements?

How do we keep them?

First, many younger professionals place significant value on personal time and flexible work arrangements. Do we even need an office? At the AICPA Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference in June, it was stated that 8% of CPA firms are virtual, up from just 4% the prior year. This is a trend to watch. While the lack of physical office space comes with a set of challenges, it also creates opportunity.

For example, do we want to allow or even encourage part-time or flexible-time arrangements with staff? Would that be easier with a virtual office or partially virtual office? How many staff have we lost because they had a baby or some other life event where they chose to focus on other priorities? How much money, in training dollars alone, walked out the door when they left? Even for our full-time staff, how many of them would see virtual office options as a major perk?

Second, where’s the meaning? Younger professionals are hungry for it. When we hand them a compliance project and tell them to put their head down and get their work done, they can be left feeling that there isn’t much meaning in our profession. We have a tremendous opportunity to anchor young CPAs to the values of our profession. We need to help them see how their work and their profession make a real difference in the world. 

How do we do this when compliance happens to be a big part of what we do? When handing off standard compliance projects to staff, take a moment to tell them a little about who the client is. Why do they need this work done, and how will this help them? Why is this client relationship important to the firm? It may sound silly, but this can make a big difference in the way that staff approaches their work.

Where possible, look for ways to involve younger CPAs on noncompliance projects where they will have opportunities to see the impact of their work. Invite them to client meetings. Where that isn’t practical, take a few minutes to share what happened at those meetings and to express appreciation for their part in maintaining an important client relationship.

Many seasoned members of the profession might think that suggestions like this amount to hand holding. “Why should I have to baby these kids? Can’t they just do their work and pay their dues the way that I did?”

You don’t have to “baby” any of these kids; just don’t be surprised when they leave the firm. Call it what you want—this is the way to engage newer members of the profession. This is how to connect with things that they value and help them find the meaning that will inspire them to do their best work.

Our professional associations have a role to play here as well. If young CPAs can get a taste of what the profession is all about, they won’t want to leave. Help them see how the profession is leading the way on matters of integrity. Share with them the AICPA initiative on government fiscal responsibility. If you are active with a state society committee or nonprofit board, invite a younger CPA to tag along to a meeting. What are we doing as firms to encourage our younger members to get active and participate? We belong to one of the greatest and most trusted professions in the world. Do we believe that? Does our staff believe it? They’ll have to if we want to keep the next generation’s top talent engaged and committed for the long term.

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Daniel Griffiths, CPA, is principal and CFO of Proficio Services Group, which provides strategic accounting, IT, consulting, and outsourcing services.