Accountants now in short supply

Md. requiring longer schooling for a field fewer seek

The professions

June 13, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Fearing a life of endless number-crunching under the hum of fluorescent lights, fewer and fewer college students are choosing careers in accounting, leaving some firms in a mad scramble to find qualified applicants.

And a state law requiring an extra year of higher education to become a certified public accountant isn't helping the situation.

Under a 1995 law, students who apply to take the CPA exam after July 1 must have completed 150 hours, or five years, of college. The extra year was added because the profession has changed so drastically that CPAs must have a broader set of skills. Yet, many students seem to view the field in its old light -- one of green eyeshades and adding machines -- and are opting for other careers.

"What we do has changed more in the last five years than it has in the last 50," said Mark Bartlett, managing partner of Ernst & Young LLP's Baltimore office.

"We have 10 people in our office that do nothing but electronic commerce -- assisting clients with electronic commerce strategy, imple- mentation of electronic commerce plans and bringing electronic commerce to the marketplace.

"We also have a whole group of people in the mid-Atlantic area that do nothing but work with clients on mergers and acquisitions," added Bartlett, who has been at the firm 27 years.

L. Thomas Hood III, executive director of the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants, said the profession has not done a good job of communicating the changes in accounting, but his group will try to change that. It's putting together an education task force whose members will try to improve the field's image.

The group will lobby for advanced-placement accounting classes in high schools and will sponsor an education day for career counselors to make sure college and high school advisers are presenting an accurate picture of CPAs. The group spent $250,000 in the past year on radio and print ads touting the profession.

Because it's difficult to recruit applicants, Bartlett said, he's not a fan of the new 150-hour rule because it creates a disincentive to major in accounting. And he hadn't found fault with entry-level hires' skills.

"If they're not in the top 10 percent of their class, they're probably not going to work here anyway," he said. "We're finding that limited population has great skill sets."

But others say too many graduates have not been sufficiently well-rounded by their education to perform well all of the increasing functions of CPAs.

"What was lacking was communication and leadership skills and a team-based culture," said Hood, whose group supports the new education requirement. "That was not part of a CPA's education."

Terry Hancock, managing partner of Clifton Gunderson LLC's mid-Atlantic region, agrees.

"I absolutely support [the requirement]. There were people coming into the business that did not know how to communicate with people, who could not write memos and who didn't have a talking knowledge of general events," he said.

"CPAs are doing a heck of a lot more than number-crunching -- we're business advisers. I've never done a tax return or balance-sheet audit in my life."

Half of the additional 30 hours of course work must be in business-related classes, but the rest can be in any subject. Many educators and employers are encouraging students to use those hours to study nonbusiness subjects such as English or political science.

Maryland's new requirement is part of a nationwide movement.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy have been pushing states to implement a uniform 150-hour requirement.

So far, more than 40 accountancy board jurisdictions -- which include the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands -- have passed the requirement, although not all have gone into effect.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a bill last month that requires one year of work experience -- which can include internships and volunteering -- for certification.

The requirement will be phased in over two years. Many in the profession say that by the time people take the CPA exam they already have a year of experience and that the rule is not expected to slow many paths to certification.

There are no current national or statewide statistics that show the number of students who major in accounting, but several colleges in the state say they are seeing declines.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, for example, the number of undergraduates who earned accounting degrees fell from 279 in 1990 to 250 last year. Perhaps more significant, the number of students enrolled in the first required class for accounting majors fell from 209 in the fall of 1997 to 132 the following year.

"We're kind of thinking this 150-hour requirement is not going down very well with students," said Patricia Cleveland, assistant dean in charge of undergraduate studies in the college's business school.

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