· 4 min read
Fewer students are majoring in accounting and taking the CPA exam, which is contributing to the accountant shortage. To get more perspective on why students might not find accounting careers as attractive—and what employers can do to attract young accounting and finance talent—we spoke with Natalie Griffith, director of generations insights, and Jack Mackinnon, senior director of cultural insights, of consumer research firm Collage Group.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How would you characterize Gen Z and their approach to college and careers?
Mackinnon: Gen Z is so knowledgeable about things. They’ve had access to information at a younger age, so they know [college is] expensive. They know that sometimes the jobs afterwards don’t pay for it. Gen Z is doing this with a lot of thought behind it. So they are concerned about what they’re going to make, how much they’re investing, what the tuition costs are. And they’re thinking about it years ahead.
There’s cautiousness, there’s fear, and they have learned very well from what millennials went through [going into debt, living at home, delaying big life milestones]. And so there’s a practicality, that [college is] not just about “developing myself as a person. It’s about developing my professional self so that I’m ready to have a stable existence as an adult and not have to struggle and suffer.”
Do you have any insight into why fewer students might be going into accounting?
Griffith: [Gen Z are] pursuing more flexible degrees, like do-your-own major type programs, because of ambiguity with where the future economy is going. They’re seeing it as “Okay, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into doing just this one thing. I want to be well rounded and make sure I’m prepared for a variety of different careers.”
Mackinnon: Accounting, on the surface, feels like it would be a very straightforward, very safe, very stable career. But in reality, [young people] are doing the homework and knowing, “Actually, if I commit to one thing at this point, I could be in trouble if I can’t find a job and if the market is not favorable to me.”
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What should CFOs know about this generation, in terms of hiring them or working with them?
Mackinnon: [They have a] highly critical nature: the ability to look at a process, to look at a system, to look at the work that’s being done, and to be able to criticize it, to improve it immediately…This is the generation that has had a seat at the table with their families, with their teachers, and they really come expecting to participate. And so there is less of a focus on hierarchy.
Another aspect of Gen Z is that they’re going to find themselves in more stable, corporate, more traditional-looking companies, but they’re going to be pushing for change within those companies.
Where are Gen Zers finding information about careers and majors? What do they gravitate towards?
Griffith: We talk a lot about social-media-as-search-engine. We’ve seen that to be very true in the career space where you’re seeing all these “day in the life” TikTok videos that are shockingly popular for just being somebody’s day at the workplace.
Mackinnon: Behind-the-scenes content is so crucial. Millennials were posting, producing, watching content that’s more glossy, but Gen Z is asking, “Yeah, but what is it really like? What’s the bad stuff, too?” Colleges and universities can do that: What does it look like to be an accounting student? What are you doing every day? Are you doing internships? And what does it look like when you graduate? A day or a year in the life of those students ahead of them is really valuable information.
What advice would you give colleges or organizations for attracting this generation?
Mackinnon: Position your department, your degree as a means to a better life. Make that practical argument. Include flexibility: What can you do if there isn’t an official accountant role that’s being hired? What else can you do with an accounting degree? Where can it send you?
It’s almost like becoming a financial adviser, and instead of talking about retirement, you’re talking about careers. So what is the return on investment in this degree going to be in four years, in five years, after that?