A documentary-style program that showcases careers in public accounting offers that profession a unique vehicle to reach minority candidates and convince them there’s a future in the work.
A new episode of Roadtrip Nation is posted and is scheduled to air on some public television stations beginning Friday, featuring three Big Four audit recruits. Cameras follow the CPA candidates as they travel the country interviewing leaders from all corners of the profession—including a former chief executive officer of Deloitte, an accountant turned baker, and a forensic accountant.
Along the way, they question their place in a largely white profession, where their accounting degrees might take them in the future, and how to cope with the enormous pressure they feel from their families to succeed.
The broadcast coincides with a tumultuous week of protests and clashes with police in cities across the country following the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. Public accounting’s largest firms and organizations acknowledged pent-up frustrations and outpourings of concerns from their own staffs this week and pledged to take concrete action in the weeks ahead.
The PBS show, which explores a decades-long struggle to find and keep more minority accountants, was in the works far sooner.
“This is a profession that is actively trying to recruit and improve and provide opportunity for underrepresented and underserved talent,” said Liz Barentzen, vice president for operations and talent at the Center for Audit Quality, which sponsored the episode. “We saw this as a great opportunity specifically to talk directly to diverse talent.”
One of the center’s goals is to increase diversity in the profession—an acknowledgment of what has been a nagging weakness despite years of attention and focus.
“There’s a lot more work to be done,” Barentzen said.
In the wake of this week’s unrest: the Institute of Management Accountants released a toolkit laying out best practices to launch a diversity and inclusion program; PwC LLP said it would create a council made up of rank and file staff to help shape the firm’s efforts and advise its senior leadership; and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy committed to offering unconscious-bias training and creating a system to report and investigate discriminatory behavior.
Opportunities to Grow
To recruit and retain minority CPAs, the American Institute of CPAs offers a litany of resources, scholarships, and programming all dedicated to broadening the pipeline of future accountants.
Gains have been made among Hispanic and Asian accountants working for public accounting firms. But the number of black accountants has remained stubbornly consistent. Today, roughly 1% of CPAs are black. In the broader field of accounting and auditing, 9% are black.
The figures have hardly budged since Frank Ross, an accounting professor at Howard University, started his career at what is now KPMG in the late 1960s. He credits a partner who assigned him tough engagements, opportunities that he used to prove he could be successful and a leader at the firm.
Less than a decade in, he became the firm’s first black partner.
Ross believes that the firms should take steps to give young black staff similar opportunities to test and grow the skills that will advance their careers. Networking between social groups is key to develop connections between white managers and junior black accountants that could lead to better assignment and more opportunities, he said.
These are just a few of many ideas that have been floated over the years and that the firms are likely now hearing. Selling the profession to students in order to broaden the pipeline of future CPAs is another commonly cited step.
Ross challenged firm leaders to be dogged in their pursuit of a diverse, talented staff.
“If this profession hopes to solve the problem, it has to be ready to take some chances, it has to be ready to do some things and give it a chance to see if they’re going to work. You’re not going to find a 100% solution unless you try something and make mistakes,” Ross said.
It’s easy for firm leaders to get stuck in the status quo and not to adapt, said Sheila Enriquez, managing partner and CEO of Briggs & Veselka Co., the largest independent CPA firm in diverse Houston, and a former member of the AICPA governing council.
Taking It for Granted
About a third of her staff are considered minorities, including Enriquez, who immigrated from the Philippines in college. Still, there’s more that the firm can do, she said.
The firm hired its first chief people officer earlier this year and is starting to sketch out what its own diversity and inclusion program could look like.
“We just take it for granted that we are diverse because we see it, we feel it,” she said.
Like Ross, Enriquez had her career trajectory affected by mentoring. She was planning to go to law school when a college dean recruited her to join a new master’s degree program that set her on course for a CPA license. She would eventually also pass the bar exam.
According to both her and Ross, the profession has an image issue: It hasn’t done a good job of debunking the myth that accounting is just about numbers, and it hasn’t highlighted the financial benefits of earning a healthy salary and the many career paths it offers—including working at the center of corporate America or as a partner in a firm.
Enriquez wants to change that image to show that like her firm, accounting can be diverse.
“I’m very optimistic that it’s achievable. Trust me, I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s a constant effort,” she said.
The episode can be viewed on the Roadtrip Nation website or on public television stations.