While society has come a long way in its diversity efforts, the fact that many corporations have yet to implement diversity programs shows that the journey is far from over. Diversity pioneer and founder and former chairman and CEO of Mitchell & Titus LLP Bert N. Mitchell laid a great foundation and career path for African American CPAs. The accounting profession, however, continues to tackle challenges attracting and advancing minorities within the accounting profession.
Recently, Alfonzo Alexander, National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) Chief Relations Officer and president of its Center for the Public Trust (CPT), shared some facts, myths, and suggestions on how the profession can improve diversity efforts with author and sole practitioner Orumé Hays. That interview is presented below in edited form.
Orumé Hays for The CPA Journal:
In 2009, the AICPA’s Minority Initiatives Committee published an e-book, CPAs of Color, for its 40th anniversary celebration. Current estimates of the percentage of minority CPAs vary, but remain in the low single digits. Why do you think the CPA profession made little diversity inroads in the past 40 years?
The pipeline into the profession for minorities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, is limited. There are not enough minority people starting the path because African Americans and Hispanics are traditionally not familiar with the profession. Studies show the profession is a generational profession. Most current CPAs have a family member who is or was a CPA, and that is where the original exposure came from.
In the minority communities, where few have close family members in the profession, most of the exposure to the profession comes from outside of the family. As an example, though my own academic background is in business with an MBA, I did not understand upon graduation what a CPA was. Many folks make career decisions in life having heard about accountants as bookkeepers, but not about CPAs. This is the situation with many in the inner city, where so many minorities live, which is why becoming a CPA is seldom considered.
So, the problem comes from lack of exposure?
Yes, and that becomes a branding issue. Once people get to know about the CPA profession, the issue then becomes navigating against the stereotype that exists. Often the first impression of the profession is a negative one: unexciting people with pockets stuffed with pens, pencils, and pocket protectors.
Is finance ever an issue?
The second obstacle is the financial commitment it takes to become a CPA. This manifests in multiple ways. There is a requirement of additional education (after a bachelor’s degree) in terms of the 150 additional education hours required to become a CPA. About 30 of the hours are postgraduate; meanwhile, scholarship dollars and funding support are not as prevalent as in other professions. The compounding effect of a minority with limited exposure having gone through school—and now realizing maybe it is a path they want to pursue—is that many struggle with the fact that certification requires additional hours and qualification.
Then the expense of taking the CPA exam, plus the expense of exam prep courses, all comes into play. Statistics show that a CPA track costs anywhere between $15,000 to $50,000 in addition to their bachelor degree, depending on the locality. Hence, some minority students who might consider becoming CPAs are choosing instead to get the accounting degree and then go into industry. The expense component of becoming a CPA is a major factor.
According to the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA; http://www.nabainc.org), the United States had less than 1% of African American CPAs when the association was founded in 1969. Four decades later, barely 3% of CPAs are African Americans. What other issues affect certification?
Some of the contributing factors have cultural components, such as the following:
The dropout rate. When it comes to taking the CPA exam, different ethnic groups are more likely to remove themselves from the exam process after one sitting versus other ethnic groups. Whereas 12% of Caucasian exam candidates drop out after taking one component of the exams, the numbers are twice as high among Hispanics (24.5%) and even higher among African Americans (32%). These are skewed numbers; we need to get more answers to understand the data.
Some minority students who might consider becoming CPAs are choosing instead to get the accounting degree and then go into industry.
The need to make money immediately after graduation. Minorities are more likely to need to start earning money immediately upon graduation with an undergraduate degree, so the time and financial investment needed to take the CPA exam after one attempt is not forthcoming.
Exam prep. Minorities very frequently do not take an exam prep course. This makes their chances of success limited in comparison to those who do take an exam prep course.
The age in which different ethnic group takes the exam. Most people try to take the exam as close to after completion of their academic work as possible. 63% of the overall candidate population takes the exam before the age of 27. The number of African Americans coming in end up being only 1% of overall exam takers. Findings show that 71% of African Americans take the CPA exam after their 29th birthday, 59% after their 34th birthday. If these are traditional students, they are waiting several years before taking the exams. Data shows that for every year that you wait after completing the academic requirement to take the exam, your chances of success go down.
Another issue could be that these are second-career students versus traditional students, or they could be full-time students and full-time employees. If a person already has a family or has a full-time job, then their ability to dedicate the time to study and prepare for the exam is impacted because of these and other life circumstances.
A caveat on the CPA exam data: candidates are asked to self-select a box to check their ethnicity. We have learned that there are African Americans who do not check the box because they think it might negatively affect their grade. That’s another complexity that may be skewing the statistics.
At the end of the day, we don’t have enough minorities coming in. We have cultural and financial issues very much at play in the ability to take and pass the exams. Afterwards, it becomes a different problem with ongoing confidence and resources to continue with the process and address new challenges.
We have cultural and financial issues very much at play in the ability to take and pass the exams.
A postcertification challenge is retention. This becomes difficult, as African American CPAs are usually further along in age than their counterparts when they enter the workforce. So, they choose to leave the public accounting arena and go into industry at a higher rate.
Noting the aforementioned challenges, can you talk about NASBA’s initiatives to promote diversity in the profession and increase the number of accounting graduates and young professionals sitting for the CPA exam?
We are working on four key areas:
- To develop the candidacy pipeline, our goal is to increase the number of people who are eligible to take the CPA exam and to make it through the process. We are partnering with the AICPA to see how we can work with state boards and their relationships at a global level, and also with their relationships with state societies to develop more positive attention to the profession and drive more high school and college students into the pipeline.
- We are also partnering with boards of accountancy to get more exposure on college campuses through activities with other organizations and affinity groups serving women and ethnic minorities.
- Another partnership is with the PhD Project (a nonprofit organization in New Jersey with a mission to increase workplace diversity by increasing mentorship of minorities through diversity of business school faculties). We firmly believe that having diverse faculty influences student decisions, so we engage with their projects and sponsor some of their activities.
- We are focused on increasing the diversity at the board of accountancy level. The responsibility is to ensure that CPAs licensed in their states are doing what they should be doing to protect the public. We feel that it’s important for the board to be a fair representation of the diverse public that it is protecting. We are trying to help identify good minority CPAs who have proven track records of high quality work and encourage them to consider applying for state board positions all across the country. In some cases, the societies make the recommendations to the governors, and the governors make the appointments.
All our pipeline activities are designed to help support what is already being done by other groups. We are in a unique position to help because of our access to CPA exam data, which tells us the number of minorities entering the examination process, competing the process, and dropping out of the process. We support different groups by providing data centered around the CPA candidate examination performance, when they are pursuing initiatives that help increase the diversity, quality, and quantity of the CPA pipeline success.
Can you talk about companies and their recruitment efforts?
Some companies are more aggressive and serious in their efforts to secure diverse candidates for their positions. Moreover, the focus is predominately in recruiting diverse candidates from the top schools. There are also state schools and historically black colleges that also have good talent, but some firms don’t recruit from them because the total number of applicants they obtain from these schools does not justify their recruitment effort and costs. Sometimes it becomes a strategic decision that has an unintended consequence. So if firm A decides, we are only going to recruit from the top 10 business schools in the nation, those schools may not collectively have a representative number of minority students, but the top 100 would.
What are your thoughts about mentorships and mentors of a different race?
Successful employees need a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor is there to give you advice and wise counsel to help you navigate through difficult situations. A sponsor also does those things, but in addition, the sponsor looks out for you in terms of promotional opportunities or opportunities to get in on the right kind of projects so you can get exposure to the key decision makers. Any professional trying to grow her career needs more than one mentor. And she needs a sponsor, someone who trusts her and is interested in helping her career growth. Opportunities to grow come faster for those who have those two things.
Recently, an African American employee asked me for a recommendation on mentors and mentioned a couple of names under consideration. I responded they were great, but asked the individual, “How many white mentors do you have?” The response was, none. My response: “I think you need to find somebody who is a different race than yours, and preferably somebody white, to be a mentor. If nothing else, you earn a boarder prospective.” If anybody of any one ethnic group surrounds himself with only people who are like him, and all his advice comes from people who are the same ethnic group, then all his decisions are going to be made based on the opinions of that particular group.
I have four mentors, people who mentor me in different aspects of my life. Two of them are African American, as am I, and two of them are European American. I think it’s wise for CPAs to have mentors of the same race, as they can more easily talk to them about certain things, and mentors who are of a different race, so they can talk to them about other things and still feel comfortable.
What advice would you give to accounting students, graduates, and recent professionals contemplating the CPA track?
Diversity Tools and Resources
AICPA National Diversity Pipeline Project: https://www.aicpa.org/content/dam/aicpa/career/diversityinitiatives/downloadabledocuments/accounting-profession-pipeline-vision.pdf
AICPA, Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in Accounting: https://www.aicpa.org/career/diversityinitiatives/increasing-diversity-accounting.html
AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion: Recruitment and Retention Toolkit: https://www.aicpa.org/Career/DiversityInitiatives/DownloadableDocuments/Recruitment-Retention-Toolkit.pdf
AICPA Diversity and Inclusion Webcasts: https://www.aicpa.org/career/diversityinitiatives/webcasts.html
AICPA/National Academy Foundation (NAF) Recognition Program: https://www.startheregoplaces.com/students/naf/
NASBA Diversity Committee: https://nasba.org/mc/committees/diversity/
PricewaterhouseCoopers, Diversity: Closing the Talent Gap: https://www.pwc.com/us/en/faculty-resource/assets/2016/Diversity-Closing-the-Talent-Gap-website.pdf
NYSSCPA Diversity and Inclusion Committee: http://www.nysscpa.org/membership/committees/committee-information?ID=797#sthash.uDl51cpe.dpbs
Vault.com, Best Accounting Firms for Diversity: http://www.vault.com/company-rankings/accounting/best-accounting-firms-for-diversity/
Alfonzo Alexander is committed to championing diversity efforts. At past speaking engagements, his message to firms has been “you have to be intentional” in diversity efforts. This is captured in the diversity theme for 2017, “Intentional Inclusion.”
He believes that the diversity goal for the profession can best be achieved by a two-track approach. While organizations and academic institutions need to be more aggressive in their efforts to improve diversity within the profession, minorities in the profession also bear a responsibility to be more engaged in diversity efforts sponsored by their state societies or firms.
At a recent NYSSCPA event where attendance of minority members was light, J. Michael Kirkland, NYSSCPA past president, noted that African Americans are too thin-skinned. “We self-exclude ourselves,” he said. “We have to learn. Come to events.” Ultimately, minority CPAs and CPA candidates need to make themselves available to be included.
I think they should look at the end goals: one, helping to serve and protect the public, and two, being in a very lucrative career.
The CPA Journal invites readers to join the conversation and send their thoughts about NASBA’s initiatives, as well as their own ideas about moving diversity along and steps that can be taken in outreach efforts, both at high school and college levels.