Making accounting sexy again

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IN TIKTOK PARLANCE, “accountant” is code for a sex worker. Now proper beancounters want to reclaim the title and make it appealing to prospective recruits, on the popular short-video app and elsewhere. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the profession’s main trade group in America, has a TikTok feed laden with career tips and young accountants (the real sort) living their best professional lives. It has 27,000 followers—and its work cut out.

America had 1.6m accountants and auditors last year, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. That is down from nearly 2m in 2019. Many veterans are retiring—five years ago three in four certified accountants were at or near retirement age, according to AICPA. Too few youngsters are interested in taking their place. Only 65,000 students completed an accounting degree in 2022, down from around 80,000 a year between 2012 and 2018.

This is having a material impact on American business. Advance Auto Parts, a car-parts supplier, explicitly mentioned “the loss of certain accounting personnel and turnover of accounting positions” as a reason for delaying its quarterly regulatory filings last year. It was not alone. In 2023 more than 700 companies blamed a lack of personnel, typically in accounting, for potential errors in their financial statements, according to Bloomberg, nearly a third more than made similar excuses in 2019.

Unless more people are attracted to the profession, such problems will proliferate. The rub is that making accounting appealing as a career is hard, says Ashley Austin, who teaches it to undergraduates at the University of Richmond. Other finance jobs, such as investment adviser or trader, require less time in college and pay more on graduation, she admits.

Ms Austin tries to promote the profession by describing practitioners as interpreters of data rather than counters of beans. PwC, one of the “big four” professional-services firms with a giant accounting practice, is collaborating with accounting professors to make entry-level courses less tedious, says Rod Adams, PwC’s chief recruiter in America. It helps that a lot of the grunt work typically taught in first-year classes is now done by computers, leaving the fun creative stuff to humans.

AICPA, too, wants to jazz up the job, by branding the accountant as a strategic contributor—or, in the words of Tom Hood of AICPA, from a “CF-No” (the chief financial officer who vetoes projects) to a “CF-Know”. One campaign led by AICPA touts virtues such as autonomy, remote work, travel, the ability to live anywhere: just the sort of thing that many youngsters say they relish. Accounting+, as the initiative is called, has enlisted the general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an American-football team, to endorse accounting courses. It has also sponsored TikTok influencers to make the career sexy. Not too sexy, though—at least one of the TikTokers had to clarify that she was endorsing actual accounting, not the sex trade.

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