Across the country, high school seniors are donning caps and gowns for graduation. Many will head off to college in the fall, full of hope for a bright future. Through the help of family, teachers and counselors, they have decided on a major which will determine the career they will enter into for the rest of their professional life.
Pretty simple, right?
Not so fast. Landing your dream job right out of college and sticking with it throughout your career is a thing of the past.
Only 14 percent of U.S. workers believe they have the perfect job and more than half want to change careers, according to a 2013 Harris Poll.
Making the Career Change
Deciding to make a career change is a huge decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. There are many risks to consider including the cost of going back to school, juggling a full-time job, and maintaining work-life balance while pursuing a new degree and career.
Robert Reynolds, CPA, CGMA, made a career switch in his early 30s. He went from manager of a convenience store to director and shareholder with Brady Ware.
“I finally found my calling, public accounting, at the tender age of 31,” Reynolds explained. “After obtaining my associate degree in business administration, I embarked on my journey to real adulthood as a mid-level manager for Stop-N-Go. Needless to say, the 24/7 retail environment lost its appeal after a few years, and in my late 20s, I found myself still struggling to determine just what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“A wise person I knew at the time spoke of the career opportunities available in accounting, and since I enjoyed working with numbers, I enrolled at Wright State University in the fall of 1985 as an accounting major and the rest is history,” he added. IU Health Ball Memorial Director of Finance Bettie Caldwell CPA, CGMA, also made the career change switch after reflecting on her long-term goals.
“I was a mid-life career–changer, having worked as a registered respiratory therapist in the hospital setting for over 15 years,” said Caldwell. “A family move to a new job market prompted me to re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my remaining 25 plus years of work life. I was primed for a challenge and a change, and found what I was looking for in the CPA profession. Eventually my career as a CPA led me full circle back to the healthcare setting, but this time as a director of finance for a large hospital system.”
“I was primed for a challenge and a change, and found what I was looking for in the CPA profession,” Bettie Caldwell, CPA, CGMA, a mid-life career changer.
Desire for Change
While not everyone who wants to change careers will actually make the decision to go through with a switch, a significant portion of the American workforce would like to do so.
Nearly 80 percent of workers in their 20s said they wanted to change careers, followed by 64 percent of 30-somethings and 54 percent in their 40s according to the Harris Poll.
“I just wasn’t thinking long-term about my career,” explains Mary Milner, staff accountant at Baden Gage & Schroeder LLC. “I didn’t really know myself well enough at age 19 to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I got a job in the real estate industry. I did leasing and a little bit of sales and customer service, putting out fires, conflict resolution. It was great experience and I did that for seven or eight years.
“There were a lot of things about it that I enjoyed but it just wasn’t where I wanted to be for my career,” she continued. “After a while I started doing some soul-searching. I found that all the things I enjoyed doing in real estate had to do with accounting. That was kind of my light bulb that maybe I should be doing this.”
Milner recognized her decision to go back to school and pursue an accounting degree was a risk.
“It was a big risk to say OK, I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to take out more student loans,” she said. Milner said she decided to make the commitment and take the risk knowing it would pay off in the long run. Quitting was not an option for her.
“It’s a whole different experience trying to go to school when you already have a full time job and I was starting a family,” she said. “And it leaves no time for anything because every free moment is spent studying. Looking for a job was probably the scariest part. I was unsure how to navigate that more so than just deciding to go back to school. It was almost a full time job looking for a full time job.”
Enter the CPA Profession
INCPAS President & CEO Gary Bolinger, CAE wrote about career changers entering the CPA profession in a post “The ‘War’ for Talent” on the Society’s blog I Was Just Thinkin’.
“Career changers are going to end up somewhere in the workforce,” Bolinger wrote. “It might as well be the CPA profession. A lot of these people have got the perspective and talent to be significant contributors in the profession. If we want to leverage this trend, the profession (which includes firms, corporate accounting departments, colleges and universities, and accounting associations and societies that serve the profession) needs to reassess recruitment. Are we willing to accept the need to aggressively recruit talent in places that we have never looked before? The places to start are the ‘career changer’ marketplace and the non-traditional student marketplace.”
There are more than 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in American higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics reports 38 percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another 23 percent by 2019.
“More seasoned candidates can bring a perspective on business and the role of being a professional to an organization that rests on a foundation built through real life and work experiences,” says Reynolds. “All I can say is at 31, I know I was a much better listener than I was at 21. At 31, I was more patient than I was at 21. I certainly was more thoughtful and empathetic at 31, than 21. I feel these traits and my journey not only allowed me to advance my career, but they contributed greatly in helping me become a trusted advisor to clients.”
Purdue University Northwest Department of Accounting Head Ed Furticella says nontraditional students are faced with challenges traditional students might not face.
“The speed of the course work can also be challenging for the nontraditional students,” he said. “Especially the students who are balancing work and family commitments. They are worried about balancing work, life and school. They worry about getting behind in class and typically, these are the students that will drop a class if they don’t think they’re doing well.”
Once Milner made the commitment to go back to school for her accounting degree, her concern shifted to what would happen after graduation.
“I was afraid as a job candidate that the people interviewing me would have concerns about it,” said Milner. “I was afraid they would have concerns and say ‘why did you go back to school, why are you at this age and you’re just starting out, why did you go to school online.’ What I found was that I had more anxiety about it than they did. They just wanted to understand. They wanted to know my story. I was afraid it was going to be a problem and it wasn’t.
“I think the first step begins with the people in charge of hiring having an open mind and seeing the value people can bring when they’ve had different experiences,” Milner continued. “When they look at a résumé, if they’ve been in a different profession, don’t automatically discount them. I think I got lucky here that’s what Baden Gage did. They didn’t discount me because I didn’t have accounting experience.”
One of the four “bold challenges” created by the Indiana CPA Society Board of Directors is to “Build bridges to the profession …” and one of the bridges must be the bridge for nontraditional students.
“We tend to focus our energies on current high school and traditional college students as potential future CPAs,” said Caldwell. “We value the longevity and new ideas that youth brings with it, but more mature candidates have their own advantages. When I returned to the hospital as a CPA, I brought with me my previous work experience and understanding of how a hospital operates, as well as the appreciation for the hospital culture and our ‘patients first’ focus.” The Society is working on reaching nontraditional students and encouraging them to pursue a new career in the CPA profession.
“Nearly every day I receive a phone call from a person considering a career change or wanting more information about the CPA designation, specifically the process applying and sitting for the CPA Exam,”said INCPAS Director — Diversity & Outreach Ali Paul. “They are often relieved to learn that depending on their previous college education, only a handful of additional classes may be needed to meet the 150-hour requirement in Indiana.”
The Society’s Diversity Advisory Council is developing a new toolkit to help career changers and nontraditional students better navigate the pathways to becoming CPAs. The goal is to help make the process as clear as possible and give candidates a better idea of what they can expect as they enter this profession. Career changers bring so much experience to the table and when you think about the core competencies of a CPA (Communications, Leadership, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Anticipating and Serving Evolving Needs, Synthesizing Intelligence to Insight, Integration and Collaboration) these are skills that career changers have been developing for years, allowing them to really hit the ground running upon entering the CPA profession.