Who’s Balancing the Books?

An acute shortage of both entry-level and senior accountants has an industry—and its clients—worried.

No one particularly likes paying taxes, but for decades, young people fresh out of college have found steady careers as accountants.

But this May, as colleges confer degrees on the latest batch of new grads, fewer and fewer are finding accounting an attractive field. It’s a cause of concern across industries, from organizations looking for new recruits to help balance the books to big professional-services firms which derive substantial revenue from accounting services. It’s top of mind for the International Federation of Accountants and its member organizations around the globe. “The numbers are definitely concerning,” says Jeff Constable, co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Financial Officers practice.

More than 300,000 US accountants and auditors have left their jobs in the past couple of years, a 17% decline in overall industry employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants says fewer people are graduating with accounting degrees than in years past, and the number of people taking and passing the certified public accountant exam is dropping.

Experts trace the accountant shortfall to several causes. To begin with, the starting pay for graduates working in accounting can seem low. The median graduate working in accounting had a starting salary of $66,504 in 2021, compared with $97,562 in data science and $101,401 in tech, according to the Burning Glass Institute, a nonprofit that researches employment trends. What’s more, salaries for accountants haven’t risen at the pace of other professional-service roles—assuming would-be accountants even get that far. Most accounting roles, particularly at professional-service organizations, require a person to take 150 credit hours, then pass the certified public accountant exam. Meanwhile, there’s widespread anxiety about recent developments in artificial intelligence, which may significantly alter the role of entry- or even mid-level accountants.

Then there are the traditional long hours. “Busy season” at a large accounting firm can mean months of 60- to 100-hour workweeks. Accountants focusing on small businesses or individuals could pull 50- to 60-hour weeks at tax time.

Long hours wouldn’t be as significant a problem if people felt that being an accountant had a greater purpose, says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer. “People are searching for more than just hours, and they might not necessarily get that with their organizations,” he says. It’s a disconnect felt outside the United States as well. “Accounting is not the first place to change the world,” says Mark Lancelott, a UK-based Korn Ferry senior client partner.

The last accountant shortage occurred during the late 1990s, for reasons that sound familiar today: very long work hours for pay that wasn’t keeping up with other professions. Firms adjusted their practices and again became attractive employers, Constable says. Now, companies will have to make similar adjustments. They’ve already begun. Accounting organizations have been raising their starting pay over the last few years. In many cases, firms have extended the remote- or hybrid-work schedules they offered during the pandemic as well. Because of how critical the accounting profession is to the world’s economies, Constable is optimistic that organizations will, over time, adjust once again.


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