Panel Discussion: Accounting Education, CPE Credits, and More

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know what training you need to be an accountant? In addition to asking yourself how many CPE credits you need, you should think about developing accounting soft skills, technical skills, and business acumen.

At Gusto, we want to help you stay on top of trends in the accounting industry, including in education. In an episode of On the Margins: LIVE, hosts Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Will Lopez, head of Gusto’s accountant community, discussed accounting education. They talked about what CPA training usually looks like and what they love about how education is evolving. You can check out the full episode — which aired on December 9, 2020 — on our YouTube channel, and don’t forget to subscribe. 

In this episode, they brought Jaclyn Anku — Partner Education Manager at Gusto — on the show to discuss how education can evolve and what CPE courses should include. Jaclyn Anku is an expert in financial literacy for small businesses. As a former business consultant, she is passionate about people services and believes that financial stability and well-being go hand in hand. 

What does traditional accounting education look like?

Caleb and Will discussed their experiences studying accounting, earning CPE credits, and preparing for their careers.

“My strategy waffled every year depending on how burned out I felt. … I would float from CPE [course] to CPE [course] just based on preference. I mean, sometimes I would take it really seriously and be like, ‘All right, I’ve got to learn this piece of code or this regulation or this new topic.’ … I think later in life, I didn’t take much of it seriously and wanted to check the boxes in the categories I had to, but [I] really [went] for stuff that I felt was creative.”

– Will Lopez

Let’s face it. Accounting education tends to be bland. It’s rare you’ll find someone running to the next CPE elective class feeling exuberant about learning something creative and inspiring. Earning credits is something people do more to check off the boxes or to learn whatever information is going to be useful. Any classes that are filled to the brim with students are likely full because the material is crucial for their jobs. 

“I’ve got a buddy who teaches CPE. He’s a tax wiz, and he flies around the country … [to do] tax update classes. … His classes are jam-packed, just filled with professionals [and] practitioners because so many of them rely on getting … freshened up on just the latest in the tax law.Those classes are extremely popular, but they’re popular out of a necessity.”

 Caleb Newquist
Business people at seminar.

Will agreed, noting that earning credits is something to get through rather than to relish. With limited time, energy, and mental bandwidth, it makes sense that students would prioritize the basics, whether it’s auditing, ethics, or tax law. 

“I think it’s going to be the path of least effort. … I think a lot of professionals try to kill a lot of birds at once. They’ll say, ‘If I’m going to go check the box and I have to learn the latest and greatest on this tax regulation or whatever I need to learn, I’m just going to pull the bandaid off, get in front of that thing, and just call it a day.’”

– Will Lopez

Does that mean that those classes are engaging, thought-provoking, or even fully supportive of the realities of the job? For most classes, the answer is no. However, there’s little impetus to revamp classes that hardly anyone attends. Educators should start with core classes to make changes and updates more impactful.

“I think a lot of pros would love some more modernized versions of those … CPE sessions, and I think that would resonate a lot more than going out of your way to find things that are a little bit more unique. That’s the only way you’re going to gravitate toward sprucing up decades of CPE experience. … You got to start with what is everyone going to, and then [consider] weaving in something a little better into that salad? [These courses are like] the same pasta dish from 50 years ago.”

– Will Lopez

It is possible to take dry, difficult subjects and make them more relatable. Caleb shared how he and Greg Kyte do so regularly during webinars on everything from ethics to fraud.

“One of the approaches that Greg and I have tried to do … is we try our best to make something memorable or interesting with the way we present the material. We try to do it in such a way that it is enjoyable for folks.”

– Caleb Newquist

Caleb and Greg are effective for two essential reasons. One, they make the material funny. Whether they’re joking about a ridiculously over-the-top fraud case or they’re bantering about the impact of robots on humans, they draw people in, get their attention, and even bring levity to tough topics. 

Two, they have a down-to-earth, approachable way of speaking, which is in huge contrast to most accounting education. This makes listening to them that much more fun. Just like clients want to work with advisors who connect in a natural, down-to-earth way, students want to learn from people who are approachable. Showcasing your personality goes a long way in building trust and connection. What’s the result of this approach? Students actually remember the information presented to them.

What’s missing from accounting education

Research conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) indicates that between 2015 and 2018 enrollment in accounting education decreased every year. Why are young people opting out of the profession? 

“I think there’s a variety of reasons for this. One, the skillset gap between what the profession conventionally and traditionally teaches in academia and the reality of what you need to learn out in the field are just … light-years apart. I think that is really speaking to a group of students who are saying, ‘Maybe accounting in its current form isn’t really something I should consider because I’m going to start out the gate already behind, and I’d rather do another degree.’”

– Will Lopez

As Will said, not having the right education can leave you seriously behind, but does this old-school education actually impact students’ ability to get jobs? The answer is yes. The AICPA’s 2019 Trends Report indicated that there’d been a 30% decrease in hiring new accounting graduates. The report states:

“The marketplace continues to demand different competencies, and while accounting graduates are still being hired, firms are seeking other skill sets to expand services. We are seeing that the gap in skills required in the profession, especially as it relates to technology needs, is being met with non-accounting graduates.”

–  AICPA’s 2019 Trends Reports

With those kinds of numbers, it’s critical that we rethink accounting education to better help students.

Side view of diverse well dressed business people attending a business seminar in office building.

What we should include in a school or CPE course

What should we teach aspiring accountants in order to best prepare them for their careers?  Caleb and Will brought Jaclyn Anku on board to discuss exactly that. First, she acknowledged that accounting technical skills — which are currently accounting education’s bread and butter — are still absolutely necessary, but there are three other essential areas of opportunity:

  • Technological proficiency
  • Soft skills, such as client communication 
  • Advisory skills, including how to run an advisory firm

What do these mean? Does technological proficiency mean learning to code or being a data scientist? According to Jaclyn, it’s more about proficiency on platforms.

“I do think that there’s a small subset of people that will likely do coding or automation and be true … technologists that help firms, but for the vast majority of practitioners, I would say that the education they need enables them to better use cloud-based platforms so that they can have the efficiency [and] feel confident using the tools. … It’s less about learning how to code [and] more about building efficiency in the technology that you’re using in your day-to-day.”

Jaclyn Anku

Soft skills are a major area of growth for CPAs, and Gusto is proud to help drive that trend. We help CPAs fine-tune their communication skills, expand their services, and build lasting client relationships through our People Advisory Certification. This innovative program prepares CPAs to support clients in everything from HR to benefits to hiring and onboarding. Good communication might look like being able to relate technical ideas and terms in easy-to-understand language for clients. Advisors also need good sales skills to be able to pitch services and run a business as well as conversation skills and empathy to build their client relationships.

Students should also learn the basics of running an advisory firm, which is essentially running a business. Sales, marketing, and even basic branding could help clients who are seeking to launch straight into advisory.

“[To] embrace advisory, you need both the soft skills to deliver advice to your clients, and if you’re a firm owner, you need to know how to capture the value of that advice that your team’s providing.”

Jaclyn Anku

Whether students learn this in a formal university education or through a program like Gusto’s People Advisory Certification, these areas of opportunity can equip young people for the realities of accounting.

Learn more about accounting education

According to studies from the American Institute of CPAs, accounting education isn’t preparing students for the realities of the job. Student enrollment in accounting education has been declining for years, and the AICPA’s 2019 report showed that the hiring of accounting graduates was down 30%. Those are significant stats, and they should be taken seriously. To improve upon the status quo, educators might consider revamping some of their core classes to make them more engaging and approachable. Educators should enhance their offerings by providing training in three important areas: soft skills, technology, and running an advisory firm.

To learn more about how accounting education is evolving, check out our other article based on the same episode: “The Value of CPE Credits with CPA Academy Founder Scott Zarret.”

Becoming a Gusto Partner can make your life easier. Get payroll and HR support for your team and our new advisory revenue stream for your practice through our people advisory platform. As a Gusto partner, you’ll also get tools to help you expand your accounting practice and offer your clients new insights, plus a free payroll subscription for your own accounting firm. Sign up today!

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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