The Evolution of the CPA Profession

Generational Approaches

By Delia Fernandez, CPA and John Kirk, CPA

Change is inevitable, and the accounting profession has changed a lot in the last few decades. Changes to the structure of the CPA exam; in laws, regulations and professional standards; and in technology have presented particular challenges.

We asked CPAs in these generational categories to tell us how these changes have impacted them:

More than 30 years of experience – the “Thirties”
Ten to 30 years of experience – the “Middies”
Less than 10 years of experience – the “Newbies”
Future CPAs – the “Wannabes”

Overall, each group said change has had a positive effect on the profession. But each generation handles change differently.

The Uniform CPA Examination has changed vastly throughout the years. Increased laws and regulations, and various levels of accounting standards, have added to the amount of information evaluated. But the exam format, and the associated study materials and review courses, have become more convenient.

The “Thirties” became certified when review-course options were limited. Some took 10-day prep courses right before the test. Others used study guides, or traveled to attend courses because they were given in few locations.

The “Middies” were slowly but steadily introduced to new technology. Although they still faced some restrictions related to the exam-taking process, they had more study options. Review courses were available in more locations, and computers provided intensive self-study options.

In 2004, the CPA exam became computer-based. This added convenience, but the “Newbies” had other challenges to face. Laws and regulations seemed to be changing monthly, and the exam was fighting to keep up. This generation had a multitude of prep courses and AICPA study guides – but they came with a price. The “Wannabes” will face rising costs for study materials, which will narrow options for some. Some firms offer their own study guides or cover expenses for future CPAs, but others can’t afford to help.

Technology has changed dramatically during the past 30 years. Experienced generations remember 10-key adding machines and mechanical calculators that were shared firm-wide. Calculator tapes strewn about the office reflected the amount of work put in for the day. These calculators are smaller and quieter now.

“Technology has advanced dramatically since I began practicing,” said “Thirties” member Bonnie Gandy of Law, Redd, Crona & Munroe, PA in Tallahassee. “Computers, software and the Internet have changed the way we do business. From creating, maintaining and accessing client files to research and communication, present-day technology offers streamlined processes and access to almost anything we need.”

Accounting software has increased the quality of our work and decreased the time it requires, allowing practitioners to increase their workload. However, clients’ and vendors’ expectations have changed, putting pressure on preparers and reviewers. Some “Thirties” practitioners argue that legal changes have made CPAs more defensive, and more focused on documenting procedures than on the quality of their work.

Today’s paperless business environment also has decreased the need for physical storage space. Storage has gone from warehouses and file rooms to servers and hard drives, which has increased mobility. CPAs have swapped thousands of pages of work papers for thumb drives or network connections to tote to onsite visits at clients’ offices.

But convenience comes with its own set of risks. Network security has become a huge issue for accounting firms, and for many of their clients. Firms store an abundance of confidential, and otherwise sensitive, information on their network servers. Clear policies and procedures, and proper personnel training, are crucial to preventing network breaches.

Jim Parker, also of Law, Redd, Crona & Munroe, PA in Tallahassee, is technically a “Newbie.” He began working in public accounting 10 years ago and left for eight years, only to return to the irresistible career.

“Coming back was almost like starting over,” he said. “My previous experience was mostly with paper files, and now everything is electronic.”

In the early years, CPAs weren’t required to complete CPE. But because accounting standards now are subject to change annually, CPE is required for licensure. It first was introduced in the form of classroom study. Today, practitioners receive e-mail from multiple organizations offering CPE through webinars, self-study, conferences and other formats.

“I think the trend toward electronic resources has been positive,” Parker said. “Information is at everyone’s fingertips.”

Although Gandy agrees, she’s concerned that practitioners are missing out on valuable networking opportunities that face-to-face CPE provides.

“Online and electronic resources have reduced the networking function that’s traditionally been a part of CPE,” she said. “By attending some events in person, we gain the benefits of interacting with colleagues and sharing professional perspectives on new developments and issues.”

The profession has changed in so many ways, but to all generations it seems to be heading in a positive direction. The CPA exam, technology and laws all will continue to evolve as we continue to remind future CPAs of past challenges. 

Delia Fernandez is a senior auditor at Law, Redd, Crona & Munroe, PA in Tallahassee. She has more six years of experience providing clients from various industries with audit and consulting services. Fernandez earned her bachelor’s degrees in accounting and finance and her master’s of accountancy at Florida State University. She serves on the FICPA’s Young CPAs and FSU Accounting Conference committees.

John Kirk joined Thomson Brock Luger & Company in March 2008 as an intern. He earned his bachelor’s degrees in accounting and finance at Florida State University in 2009 and, after graduating, was offered a staff accountant position at his firm. He works on various tax and audit engagements. Kirk is a member of the AICPA and serves on the FICPA’s Young CPAs and Accounting & Auditing committees.