Become A CPA

Become A CPA

CPA Profession: You’ve Changed a Lot in 40 Years

by Rich Jones, CPA, CGMA | Nov 15, 2016

As I prepare to retire next year after 40+ years in the CPA profession, it gives me cause to think back about how things have changed in our profession. I am sure all of our Baby Boomer members will recognize these changes and will think of many more of them than I will recall. Where to start…


Forty plus years ago, the workforce was almost exclusively male and the professional staff was almost entirely Caucasian. I made partner in a Big 8 U.S. firm in 1982 with 750 partners. There were two women partners in the firm and the second one was in my class. The first woman partner was admitted in 1980. Both of these women left the firm within a few years of becoming partner. We all assumed it was because we lacked an inclusive culture. We were probably right.

New hires tended to be young (22-25 years old) and the exceptions might be veterans who had completed their military service, or perhaps people who had completed law school prior to joining us. There were very few MBAs at hire, although many staff went to school at night to obtain higher degrees. This was more common in tax. A large percentage of us came from middle-class backgrounds and few had parents who were doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. In many cases, we were the first members of our families to graduate from college.

We all seemed to appreciate the opportunity to work in attractive offices, meet interesting people, and were very optimistic about our prospects for the future. The firm assumed the best and brightest of us aspired to become partners and would want to spend our entire careers at the firm. The firm’s culture was known as “up or out,” meaning that you needed to continue to meet performance expectations and develop new skills or you would be asked to leave. Most people who left the firm went to work for companies in their accounting or tax functions.


Our office tools were pretty simple: an adding machine, access to the office copy machines, pads of lined paper, and a tick-mark-pencil for auditors. We started working in the audit department for about two years and then could move to tax or consulting if there were openings. We had tax and audit libraries and everyone shared in the task of updating the services as new information was received. Additionally, we had to proofread and foot financial statements if we were in the office without chargeable work.

We prepared tax returns by entering data into paper input forms and sent the forms to Dallas, TX to have them keypunched. We would get the return back by courier service in about 7-10 days. We really hoped there were no errors so we would not have to wait another 5-7 days to receive the corrected return. Near tax deadlines, we held our breath that we would get the returns back in time to process them and mail or deliver them to the client; otherwise we would need to extend the return.

There were no calculators in the office until the early 80s and then they became numerous as the cost of a simple calculator fell to about $10. Fax machines were introduced in the late 1980s, about the same time desktop computers were becoming popular. When I moved to Seattle in late 1989, we had two computers in the tax department, which was enough since almost no one knew how to use them. Again, once this began to change, it changed rapidly and everyone was issued a desktop computer. Voicemail systems were introduced which made communicating with clients and colleagues much more efficient. With these new tools, our productivity increased dramatically and the requirements of the job became more complex.


As we fast-forward to the accounting profession of today, it looks very different. People with very diverse backgrounds are hired into firms and directly into companies. Today’s hires at top public accounting firms may not have studied accounting and some may never expect to become a CPA. The advisory or consulting practices of the Top 100 CPA firms in the US is the fastest growing segment of their businesses, far outstripping the growth of auditing and tax.

For those pursuing the CPA designation, a new CPA exam, modified to measure more relevant capabilities, will be implemented in April 2017. The team charged with developing the new exam conducted focus groups of stakeholders in the accounting profession and identified six areas of proficiency for newly licensed CPAs: critical thinking, problem solving, analytical ability, professional skepticism, and adaptability; strong understanding of business environment; effective communication skills; ability to analyze data; and ethics and professional responsibilities.

The largest generational group in the workplace today is Millennials (people in their 20s to early 30s). In many firms today, Millennials already make up 50+ percent of the workforce and the projection is that they will constitute 75% of the U.S. workforce by 2025. How is this group different from those that preceded them? Here are some examples:

  • They will have many different jobs in their careers, perhaps as many as 10 or more. Because of this, they do not aspire to “climb the corporate ladder” at any one organization.
  • They greatly value flexibility and time to pursue their own personal interests, whether it be family, fitness, or hanging out with friends.
  • They do not accept as reasonable the requirement that work be done in the office and during prescribed hours.

Today women make up approximately 50% of the professional staff at firms, but they are still underrepresented at the leadership levels of the firms. It is interesting to note that today the CEOs of two of the Big 4 firms are women. This would not have happened a decade ago and it is not by accident. Most CPA firms and certainly our members in business and industry have been developing strategies to increase the number of women in their senior leadership ranks for many years. Still, the profession has far to go before this goal is achieved.

Some things have not changed. The CPA designation continues to be the most highly respected designation of any of the professions in the financial community. Perhaps one reason for this is our strong code of professional ethics that requires that we always put the interest of our clients ahead of our own and that we always perform all professional responsibilities with the highest sense of integrity. I am confident these underpinnings of our profession will continue to exists long into the future and will continue to give all CPAs a sense of pride as members of a great profession.

Rich Jones, CPA, CGMA, President and CEO of the WSCPA

Rich Jones, CPA, CGMA, is the President and CEO of the WSCPA.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2016 issue of  WashingtonCPA Magazine. Read more here.

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