PICPA Program Inspires Minority Students to Become CPAs
You could say that Julius Green, CPA, JD, is the inspiration behind the Inspire Future CPAs program hosted by the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs (PICPA).
Amid increasing focus on diversity and inclusion in the accounting profession, the Inspire program focuses on an early introduction to accounting for middle school and high school students, mainly at minority and inner-city schools.
“Minority populations in particular are in need of CPA role models,” the program description states.
So far, 12 schools have participated in the program, and PICPA’s goal is to grow the program to 50 schools over the next five years, Green says.
A partner with Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP, Green is a PICPA past president and the first African-American to serve in that position. Inspire was one of his efforts, and he continues to be a leader in PICPA’s diversity initiatives.
In an interview with AccountingWEB, Green explained the impetus and goals for the Inspire program, what has made it successful, and the case for diversity initiatives in the accounting profession.
AW: The issues of diversity and inclusion, succession planning, and recruitment of younger people into the accounting profession are well-known. Was there a specific impetus for PICPA’s Inspire program?
Julius Green: PICPA has been sponsoring diversity programs for a number of years. We’ve held programs for young professionals, college students, and managing partners of public accounting firms. We have also recognized the substantial challenge in the pipeline into the profession and have learned that it starts in high school and middle school.
What we have discovered is that the seed of a career choice gets planted in students earlier and earlier. By reaching out to students at an earlier age, we are not only exposing them to a career that many were not aware of, but we are also providing them with lifelong financial management and financial literacy skills.
AW: How unique is your program nationwide?
Green: From my conversations with the AICPA and on AICPA Council, I’ve discovered that we are ahead of most state societies when it comes to diversity initiatives. Many of the affinity groups, including the National Association of Black Accountants, have some great high school programs, like the Accounting Career Awareness Program. We think we are ahead of the curve in terms of state societies when it comes to our outreach.
Most career programs are one-hit wonders. We go to a school for a career day or sponsor events at our firm. What makes this program unique is that we strive to schedule multiple programs with the same students to build relationships. We get insight into their perspective and they get a glimpse into what we do. As the program continues, students become more comfortable with us and more open with their questions. I don’t know what other programs are designed this way, but it was the goal for us when this first started.
A side benefit is that we involve college students and our interns in our outreach so that they begin to appreciate the benefit and responsibility of mentoring at an early age. It also builds their confidence and improves their presentation and communication skill sets.
AW: How do you explain accounting and what accounting professionals do to middle-schoolers and high school students in a way that’s engaging and appeals to their generation? Can you offer a real classroom example?
Green: I’ve been impressed with the intellect of the students who we have worked with and their ability to be a quick study. When we started, I also thought these concepts were a bit complex for middle school students. However, each time I speak to a group of these students and ask the question, “What does an accountant do?” a handful of students take a stab at it, and soon others start to join in. Some common responses are: “They help people make money” or “They do taxes.”
At one middle school, the advanced math class students planned a school-wide yard sale to raise funds. Students and families would donate items they no longer wanted, or they made crafts and jewelry for students to buy and sell during their free periods. We had the students sell chips and pretzels at the fair. We had them figure out the cost, how much their profit was, and develop the marketing. After the event, they reconciled the books and had a real cash profit. They used that money to buy special math games and other classroom resources, and we put stickers on the resources purchased so the students saw a tangible benefit to their activity.
In a high school setting, the students started talking about how much money they could make if they owned the vending machines in the school. We took them through the process of what it takes to run a vending machine business and demonstrated that it could be a person’s job to help determine if it was worth starting a specific business. It was a real eye-opening experience for the students to start understanding the costs associated with a simple business, including licensing fees and taxes. I think that was a lesson that really drove home an understanding of what CPAs can do to help a business succeed and basic accounting principles a businessperson needs to understand, even if they don’t want to pursue an accounting career.
Lastly, we have had both middle school and high school classes visit my firm and spend the day in our offices meeting accountants, performing a community service project, and presenting on a project that they were working on during the course of the school year to our managing partner. We have very impressive offices on the 45th floor in Center City Philadelphia that impress most adults. The inspiration and amazement of the students, many of whom were in a professional office setting of this type for the first time, were awesome. The office-visit component also served as an introduction to business etiquette.
AW: Have you been able to track how many students went on to become CPAs?
Green: This is a fairly new program and we don’t have data to indicate how many students went on to study accounting, and at this point, we don’t collect data on the students to follow their career paths. This is a labor of love, and our success will be anecdotal. Collecting and maintaining data about students is beyond the scope of this program.
At this point, there have been 12 schools that have participated in the program, and one more is in the queue. We believe this program will continue to grow as it becomes more popular around the state. Our ambitious goal is to grow this to 50 schools over the next five years and to increase the number of professionals and college students interested in “adopting” these schools and their students.
AW: While the accounting profession isn’t alone in outreach efforts to bolster its ranks, do you have a sense of whether accounting’s efforts are more intensified or necessary than other professions? Has this always been the case, or has something changed in recent years to demand more concentrated recruitment? Are a greater number of older accountants retiring with fewer younger ones coming in today than in the past? If so, why?
Green: When you look at the demographics, the baby boomers are a huge generation, and there are less people coming up to replace them one-for-one. Accounting is certainly not the only profession looking at this demographic phenomenon, so the competition for the best and the brightest crosses many professions. Many of our publications have focused on the business case for diversity initiatives, including the pipeline challenges created by the exodus of the baby boomers from the profession, and the growing number of minorities within the country, including those in decision-making positions, who are increasingly asking the question: “What is the firm’s diversity strategy?”
In my blog, I discussed the growth of minority-owned businesses, which has grown by 38.1 percent from 2007 to 2012. This phenomenon is one of the drivers of our diversity recruitment initiatives. Diversity in accounting allows firms to more successfully compete for clients who have similar backgrounds.
In addition, accounting is often a team sport where perspectives from various disciplines in the firm work together to serve a client. If we can develop teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences, that frequently provides the best service for a client and translates into firm profits.
Starting in middle school and working up, we should be able to attract members to the profession who reflect the demographics of our society.
Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has covered real estate, mortgage finance, health care, insurance, personal finance, and accounting and taxation issues for newspapers, magazines, and websites. A Chicago native and former South Florida resident, she now lives in New England.