How one CPA is boosting the pipeline, one student at a time

A group of accountants stand in a classroom during a student outreach event.
Michael Wetmore, Shelby Jackson, Jorge Garzon, and Alicia D. Whitworth visit a Virginia middle school to excite students about a career in accounting. Photo courtesy of Greater Washington Society of CPAs.

The accounting profession is facing a shortfall of new recruits, a trend that has serious implications. Not only are firms facing challenges in attracting new hires, but some publicly held companies are even falling short on filing critical financial reports due to the lack of accounting professionals. Employers, educators, accounting associations, and other stakeholders are already responding with strategies such as gamification in the classroom designed to build excitement around the profession, revisiting firms’ business models and pay structures, and expanding paths for underrepresented populations. But expanding the accounting pipeline is also about making a direct and personal connection with students, whether it’s in a formal classroom or business setting, or even in less formal one-on-one conversations.

Persistence pays off

Michael Wetmore, CPA, partner at Ryan & Wetmore, P.C. in Vienna, Virginia, and father of two high school students, understands the one-on-one connection well. Considering the experience of his own children and the need to address the profession’s shortage, he asked himself, “Who’s going to take us to the promised land?” He knew the answer: “We, as CPAs, have to say, ‘I have to own this problem at my own level.’”

Spotting a perfect opportunity, he contacted a career counselor at his children’s school, and said, “I’d like to get in front of some of your students who are undecided about what they want to do.”

The first session proved a little disappointing, with only six students showing up, four of whom were there only because they had not signed up for anything else. Wetmore never gave up, and his persistence paid off.

“I’m not sure it resonated with any of those students except for maybe one, but the teacher heard,” Wetmore said. Ultimately the students would appreciate the message and the excitement Wetmore brought to the classroom.

“The teacher promoted the next time I came around, and I got 15 kids the next time. I started talking in that class about some of the cool things that we do, and some of the cool people that we work with, and how accounting is the language of business.”

His sessions became more popular. Wetmore gave one example: “I was approached by one of the students after class, and she said, ‘I’d like to learn more about this. Can I come to your office?’” Wetmore agreed, and his firm offered her an internship working after school. “That young lady had no idea what she wanted to do, but she knew she wanted to go to college. She was accepted at the University of Virginia and is now an accounting major.”

One of my clients worked in the Obama White House and was with Obama in the Oval Office every day. Another client is a musician who just came back off tour. He’s a rapper, and they need tax returns and tax planning.”

What was particularly exciting to some of the students, at that session and future ones, was Wetmore’s work with some truly fascinating people, including professional athletes and other celebrities. Students responded well when he told stories beyond the day-to-day work, and were more about whom that work was being delivered to. “One of my clients worked in the Obama White House and was with Obama in the Oval Office every day. Another client is a musician who just came back off tour. He’s a rapper, and they need tax returns and tax planning. I tell these stories to the kids. I’ve planted seeds. That will bear fruit in four years if they come back to me.”

Meeting students where they are

The solution to building the profession must include many different strategies, but as seen in Wetmore’s example, some of bringing younger people into the profession lies in grassroots, one-on-one relationship building and storytelling.

It is precisely that storytelling that overcomes stereotypes and misconceptions students who are not familiar with the profession may hold. “We as a profession are not promoting the good stuff,” Wetmore said. “I think society has an image of accountants with green eyeshades and running a calculator all day.” Wetmore does not fit that stereotype, and his tales of chatting with celebrities and high-profile politicos — and occasionally delivering papers to the White House — conjure an image of a career that is anything but ordinary.

Conveying that message goes even beyond the storytelling, and Wetmore supplements his relatable stories with participation, getting students more excited about the profession with games and hands-on activities. In his other role as part of a student outreach committee of the Greater Washington Society of CPAs, he and others teach financial literacy. “We go into schools and talk about financial literacy, and we play games like Jeopardy. We went into one of the local Catholic middle schools, and we talked to eighth graders, and I would do it again. The kids were great, and they responded to it. I think that’s the way you win the game.”

At the college level, Wetmore was asked by a professor in Catholic University’s Busch School of Business Entrepreneurship Program to talk to a class and give them guidance for a project. Within that class, each student must come up with an entrepreneurial idea, such as a product they want to take to market. Wetmore helps the students work through breakeven analysis and pricing considerations. “It’s more of a classroom setting, where we say, what are your numbers? What is your cost of sales? What are your variable costs, how are you going to price this? It’s not quite as structured as the ‘Shark Tank’ TV show, but modeled after that idea.” The students love it. “I’ve gone back to that class for the last four semesters. Through that, I’ve come to know some of the accounting professors and folks in the accounting program at Catholic University, who have referred me to some of the best interns I’ve had in 30 years.”

I’m just one accountant, what can I do?

The accountant shortage doesn’t just affect firms, it affects every single member of the profession. Every CPA can do their part to help the profession, and it doesn’t require a large investment of time. Mentorship, or even a single conversation with a student, can make a difference. Reach out to local middle or high schools, or local community colleges, colleges, and universities. Even schools that lack formal programs often welcome professionals who want to share their insights and expertise with students considering their career paths.

Accountants and CPAs can also take the Pipeline Pledge — an individual commitment to participate in at least two activities that have the potential to influence and grow the talent pool. Share your enthusiasm for the profession, share your stories, and reach out. One person at a time to help grow the future of the profession.