Probably the hottest topic in the profession over the past few years has been the pipeline problem: Firms can’t find qualified individuals to handle the increasingly complex world that CPAs deal with on an ongoing basis. The problem has become so serious that the AICPA summoned a task force that came up with 12 root causes of the current pipeline crisis (“AICPA Publishes Detailed Plan to Boost Pool of Prospective CPA Candidates,” http://tinyurl.com/bdfr6d65).

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I think to understand the root cause of our pipeline issue, we have to first wrestle with the fundamental question—do we still need CPAs? And if the answer is yes, how can we market and convey the appeal of being a CPA to a new generation and create a designation that people, both young and old, will continue to strive to achieve its credentialing?

Technically, in the future, or today, we might not “need” a CPA to do anything. Most CPAs today, including myself, perform functions that almost anyone in the public can do (preparing tax returns, bookkeeping, advising clients, financial planning). Currently, there are very few tasks that need to be done by a CPA. Most of these services are assurance-related (audits, reviews, and compilations normally must be performed by a licensed CPA). Obviously, these assurance functions are important, but they become less important as technology improves. So, for the sake of this argument, having a CPA to perform a specific job is an argument that’s going to win over the potential future CPAs.

The CPA brand is most important. To me, the CPA brand must convey what our grandparents think of a CPA—an intelligent professional with integrity, the most trusted advisor. Those qualities are what’s at our core and what separates us from almost any other profession. What must change is the negative associations of our brand—boring, lame, workaholic, conservative, and frugal.

Making a Difference

Growing up, I was the son of a CPA. I saw my dad form these relationships with clients that were integral to the success of the client’s business and wealth. I could see my dad making a difference in their lives, and how thankful they were for him. I also saw that we had a nice lifestyle; he always had the latest computer, and people in the community treated him with respect.

To me, a trusted advisor who solves problems and generates wealth for clients—and in turn themselves—is something that is cool and worth pursuing as a profession. That professional designation, the CPA, then would be something that I think would be attractive to other talented people and the public at large.

If we reframe the pipeline problem as a branding problem, then I think the solutions are straightforward. We need to market the hell out of CPAs—not just to students, but to the public. Any kid growing up should know what a CPA is and think that it’s cool to be a CPA. What being a CPA offers—flexibility, financial security, and, most importantly, making a difference in people’s lives—are all things that young people want.

This marketing needs to be a multi-prong effort. We need a large, national campaign that will highlight the CPA brand and start to shift minds from “boring accountant” to “cutting-edge, trusted advisor.” The AICPA is the logical organization to lead this effort. Although I am often critical of the AICPA, we need a national voice that can shape our marketing message to the public, and the AICPA is that organization that can quickly and efficiently help deliver on this message. I think this should be the No. 1 function of the AICPA: to protect and promote the brand of the CPA by all means necessary.

Next, we need to focus on guerilla marketing—the one-on-one interactions we as CPAs have within our community on a daily basis. We need to have a consistent message when it comes to speaking with people. Here’s why CPAs are important: we are trusted advisors, we solve problems, and—if you believe that money talks—we are the advisors who understand the language of money and business. When we talk to the students of the world, we need to make sure we keep the same message, but gear it toward their future. If you become a CPA, you will feel gratitude for the fact that you are helping your clients solve problems, and you will be handsomely rewarded monetarily for doing so.

The CPA brand is all we have, and we have to protect it at all costs. There is a serious risk that the CPA profession will lose our franchise to the unlicensed, unregulated accounting companies of the world if we don’t focus on our brand, because every day that an accounting student decides not to pursue a CPA, or an accounting firm decides not to become a CPA firm, the brand gets weaker—and the voices saying that the CPA is not important anymore become louder. Are we going to do something about it, or are we going to let the designation wither on the vine?

Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP is a CPA with BNA CPAs & Advisors, Rock Hill, S.C.