Paycheck, Culture, Work-Life Balance
How to Attract and Retain Millennial Accountants
By: Barbara Sumrall White, PhD, CPA, CGMA, CBA, Bruce I. Davidson, PhD, CPA and Victoria Guboglo
Millennials are the future of the accounting profession. Much has already been written about their generation’s preferences and the implications for employers. To attract and retain employees, however, it is important for employers to understand employees’ perceptions of their own values, talents, and needs. White, B.S., Davidson, B.I., and Cullen, Z. (“Career Anchors of Millennial Accountants,” Advances in Accounting Behavioral Research, Vol. 23, pp. 141-161, 2020) conducted a survey utilizing the Schein & Van Maanen (E. Schein and J. Van Maanen, Career anchors: The changing nature of work and careers, 4th ed., Wiley, 2013) career anchors inventory to millennial accountants working in private and public practice. Consistent with a similar survey of accountants performed nearly a quarter of a century ago, the results suggest that just over 45% of respondents have a lifestyle anchor—that is, balancing work, family, and leisure into an integrated whole. For millennial accountants, however, the second (18%) and third (12%) most prevalent primary career anchors are security (i.e., job security, decent income, and stable future) and service (i.e., providing something meaningful for the betterment of others), respectively. In comparison, the second (12%) and third (9%) most prevalent primary anchors for accountants 25 years ago were challenge (i.e., solving seemingly unsolvable problems) and technical function (i.e., using specialized skills and expertise while avoiding general managerial functions). The implications of this change in accountants’ career needs are significant for employers as they work to attract and retain employees. The increased emphasis on security and stability was a surprising finding. Consequently, follow-up focus groups were held to delve further into the specific career needs and desires of millennial accountants.
This article highlights the most frequent comments provided by millennial accountants during these focus group sessions, especially those related to security and stability, ideal job situations, and job attractiveness. The comments provide key information to assist employers in designing desirable work environments for young accountants. In cooperation with various public accounting and private industry organizations, millennial accountants (age range, 22–40) participated in these informal focus groups. Although some similarities were found across all millennial accountants, differences existed between those in private and public practice and between accountants in their 20s and 30s. The results provide pertinent information senior management can use to improve an organization’s ability to attract, retain, and engage young accounting professionals.
The authors reached out to larger companies with accounting departments and public accounting firms in the area to obtain volunteers that were willing to participate in a focus group about job preferences. A total of 67 accountants across multiple organizations joined the focus groups, representing 32 males and 35 females. The requested participants were within the ages 22–40, following the common definition of millennials. It was also specified that participants work in the field of accounting. The participants were not offered any monetary incentives to participate, as involvement was on a voluntary basis.
In terms of practice, 23 participants were in public accounting and 44 participants were in private accounting. In terms of age, 38 participants were in their 20s, and 29 in their 30s. Further analysis looked at age broken down by public/private. For public, 16 participants were in their 20s and 7 were in their 30s; for private, 22 participants were in their 20s and 22 were in their 30s. The responses did not vary significantly by gender, which is interesting because millennial accountants did not show differences related to gender on job preference issues. Responses did however show significant differences by sector and age. By sector, the responses revealed a little more risk tolerance and more acceptance of working longer hours in public accounting. By age, the responses revealed more emphasis on job growth, defined career paths, and organizational culture for participants in their 20s. Participants in their 30s emphasized stability and security, flexible work arrangements, and supportive leadership.
When recalling their job search, most accountants stated they sought a position with a stable company that provided job security. Interestingly, accountants in public practice did not mention potential for growth within the organization, whereas those employed in private practice stated this was an important criterion.
When asked what attracted them to their current job, most accountants mentioned organizational culture. Within public practice, firm reputation was the second most frequently mentioned attraction. In contrast, those working in private practice mentioned internal growth opportunities and work-life balance almost as frequently as organizational culture.
Concerning compromises made in taking their job, those in public accounting strongly believed they had compromised personal time, while those in the private sector believed they had sacrificed higher monetary rewards and future marketability. Surprisingly, many of those in public accounting stated that, had they chosen a different career path, it would have been in one of the creative disciplines (e.g., interior design, wedding planning). But an overar-ching desire for job security and stability overwhelmed any consideration of alternative career paths. As one respondent stated, “I wanted to do something more creative, but I needed security—anything but accounting, but I wanted the security.”
In terms of what attracted them to their employer, participants in their 20s expressed interest in the paycheck, growth, reputation, organizational culture, and type of work. Participants in their 30s were more attracted to employers that offered stable schedules and hours, desirable locations, long-term viability, work-life balance, and benefit packages.
Security and Stability
In choosing between risk and reward versus security and stability, more than 77% of those respondents in public accounting, and more than 82% of those in private accounting, chose security and stability. Of those willing to choose some risk with reward, less than 10% said that they would choose risk with reward outright; hence, nearly all accountants considered themselves risk averse. As mentioned earlier, many accountants, especially those in public accounting, implied that while their passion was in a field other than accounting, the overriding lure of job security, and a comfortable salary led them to pursue a career in accounting.
Participants in their 20s said that stability and security were important, but they would take some risk early in their career, as long as it did not jeopardize their job. Participants in their 20s desired defined career paths, feedback, and growth. Participants in their 30s desired stability and security through positions and companies with longevity, whether based on the need to support family or due to past experiences with layoffs or company failures.
Ideal Job Situation
When asked to describe an ideal job situation, nearly all respondents stated that this would be one with a clearly defined career path as well as well-defined goals and expectations. For respondents, this was the most egregious missing component from their current job. The other desired missing components were interaction with others (co-workers and clients) and frequent/continual feedback that is structured while informal. Other components of an ideal job that were frequently mentioned included: work hours and work location flexibility; challenging and varied work assignments (that are also rewarding) to allow for learning and growth; and a reputable organization with a positive company culture.
Flexibility was the ideal, whether participants were in their 20s or 30s. Participants in their 20s also desired jobs with learning and growth opportunities, structured feedback, good organizational culture, and employee recognition. As one respondent noted: “It is my career and not just the firm that matters.” Participants in their 30s were interested in stability, work-life balance, part-time work opportunities, work-from-home opportunities, and supportive leadership.
Employers should continue to exhibit concerns for work-life balance and should also consider implementing mechanisms to reduce career-related uncertainies in their workplace.
Unsurprisingly, and consistent with preceding generations, millennial accountants place a high value on work-life balance. What may be surprising is that this cohort of employees also emphasized employment situations that make them feel secure in the job and in future employment. The need for job security and a stable career was second only to the desire for work-life balance. As such, employers should continue to exhibit concerns for work-life balance and should also consider implementing mechanisms to reduce career-related uncertainties in their workplace.
While some consistent themes were noted across all demographic groups, differences between those in private versus public practice were readily apparent. Those in private industry value work-life balance over a potentially higher monetary reward. Conversely, those in public accounting knowingly sacrifice personal time for professional experience with the goal of an advancing career and increasing salary. Although public accountants stated a willingness to work more hours early in their career, most doubted they would want to continue those hours as they aged and started families. One firm that embarked on the 40-hour initiative provided an exception, with employees generally expressing satisfaction with work-life balance and a high likelihood of staying with the firm for the foreseeable future. Regardless of practice, stability, flexibility, and growth along defined career paths are job attributes desired by millennial accountants.
Besides the differences between sectors, the focus groups revealed some differences in age between participants in their 20s and those in their 30s. Both groups showed an enhanced desire for security and stability, but their driver and the means to acquire it varied by age group. Participants in their 20s looked for security and stability through defined career paths, growth opportunities, and organizational culture. This desire was often driven by the need for a stable paycheck and secure job with learning opportunities. Participants in their 30s looked for security and stability in organizations that provided flexibility, work-life balance, supportive leadership, and company stability. The driver for security and stability was often due to family demands and past negative job experiences, including layoffs.
Three issues that stood out as causing angst and disillusionment among millennial accountants were 1) a lack of a clearly defined career path within the organization, 2) a lack of interaction with others, both within the organization and with customers or clients, and 3) a lack of timely and continual feedback. The need for a defined career path aligns with the need for job security and stability and a strong desire for growth and learning. Management should consider highlighting employee retention policies, the history and longevity of the organization, and the relative position of the organization within the community. Management should also provide employees with salient answers to questions such as, “What does it take to keep my job?” and “What are the benchmarks to keep the progression going?”
Nearly all of the accountants expressed that they were risk averse, and many stated it was the stability and security of the accounting field that drew them to choose accounting as a career.
Interaction with others aligns with millennials’ need to feel that they are offering valued service to fellow employees and clients. Management should discuss company culture and expected interactions with clients and co-workers during the hiring process and employee orientation. In addition, mentorship programs and a true “open door” policy offer communication opportunities with management. Management should also consider other ways to show leadership support, such as informal office walk-abouts. To build camaraderie among co-workers and management, companies could consider involvement in extracurricular activities, team community events, and service projects. Community service allows for further bonding with management, while opening up interaction across the organization and fulfilling employee’s desire to serve.
Timely and continued feedback is paramount for millennial accountants. Feedback, both formal and informal, not only reduces uncertainty regarding job performance and job security; it also helps build connections with supervisors and management. Feedback sessions also provide opportunities to highlight available training and leadership programs that might aid employee learning and growth.
Even though the accountants in the authors’ focus groups expressed a strong drive to continually learn, and a loathing of repetitive tasks, any emphasis on challenge was clearly subordinate to the desire for work-life balance and security. Nearly all of the accountants expressed that they were risk averse, and many stated it was the stability and security of the accounting field that drew them to choose accounting as a career. Outside of work-life balance, and consistent with risk aversion, the area that causes the greatest concern for millennial accountants is uncertainty about how their job performance and worth is perceived by management and uncertainty about their future careers (specifically, in terms of security and progression) with their current employers. What can be inferred from the comments of accountants during the focus group sessions is that they would like to form a long-term relationship with their current employers, but uncertainties due to insufficient feedback (related to job performance, task significance, career development) deterred them from forming these bonds.
The recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused additional concerns for all employees, including millennial accountants. While employees may have found greater flexibility, as many have been forced to work from home during the pandemic, they have lost much-needed interaction with others. The components of timely feedback, open-door polices, and corporate culture that are important to millennial accountants are harder to achieve in a remote environment—plus, job security and stability has been an issue for all employees due to business closings and changes brought about by COVID-19. Follow-up focus groups and further research with millennial accountants are planned to identify how the pandemic has impacted their perceptions and priorities. Meanwhile, employers of millennial accountants should address job security and stability issues and find ways to interact and provide feedback, whether working in a remote or in-person environment.
Barbara Sumrall White, PhD, CPA, CGMA, CBA, is an associate professor at the University of West Florida, Pensacola.
Bruce I. Davidson, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor at the University of West Florida.
Victoria Guboglo is a graduate assistant at the University of West Florida.
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