The world is changing. The CPA profession is not, or at least it’s changing far slower than the accounting profession as a whole. Sometimes it feels like the profession is stuck in the middle of the 20th century, still functioning in a bubble and believing it has no competition from any outside sources. CPAs are fragmented by state, with different rules and regulations, but all carrying the same designation. State boards of accounting are predominantly run by people who still think marketing means hanging a sign in their window. Existing rules are archaic and burdensome on the profession and drive many accountants to give up their CPA licenses because they don’t want to deal with the hassle.
The world is becoming “flatter.” This author’s small South Carolina firm files tax returns in every state in the country that has an income tax and has individual clients from all over the world. Similarly, the firm’s CPAs work from all over the country, and sometimes the world. The authorities who administer the CPA designation need to understand that the profession is not a brick-and-mortar, single-location profession anymore. If a CPA moves from one state to the other to take a new job, the conversion process should not be complicated. To the public, a CPA in Wisconsin is a CPA in South Carolina; moving across an invisible state line shouldn’t change the designation.
If the profession does not make significant changes, younger people are going to leave the CPA designation behind and start their own accounting practices without it. As the accounting profession changes, with less reliance on the traditional tax and audit services that most CPA firms rely on for their majority of business, the CPA designation will become less and less important to accountants providing these new services unless CPAs adapt. Why does an accountant need to maintain a CPA designation just to assist clients with their accounting technology stack, reconcile their books monthly, and do a few tax returns? What it means to be an accountant is changing, and CPAs can either catch up or lose their significance and prestige in the marketplace.
Here is this author’s modest proposal: All the states should come together and figure out a national standard for the requirements for being a CPA, such meeting to be brokered by the AICPA. There is already a standard national exam, so coming to a similar agreement on 150 hours of education or 120, the length of the experience requirement, and other matters should not be that hard. The individual states can still manage CPA licenses, but the conversion process from state to state should be a one-page digital form.
The profession also needs a uniform set of rules for CPA firms. If a firm is located in one state but has an audit in another, it should not have to register in the other state to perform the services. A CPA firm is a CPA firm, no matter which state it happens to be located in. CPAs working for non-CPA firms should be able to put CPA on their business cards without fear of losing their license. The list goes on.
The AICPA and state societies also need to focus a lot more on brand awareness of the CPA designation. It feels like no money is spent on advertising. How is the public supposed to know what CPAs do in this new economy if no one tells them? The message of what CPAs can do—rather than what they have traditionally done—has to come from the top, and it has to be advertised correctly.
In this author’s opinion, what makes the CPA community special is its integrity. Most CPAs believe in doing what’s best for the client. This core foundation is something that no other profession has. This key attribute that transcends everything CPAs do, whether tax, audit, advisory, technology, or whatever lies in the future. CPAs are “the trusted professionals” for this reason. To build on this foundation in the 21st century, however, the profession must get out of its bubble and change with the times.