February 2002

Is the Profession in Decline?- Is Accounting a "Profession"?

My response to Mary Ellen Oliverio's question, "Is the Public Accounting Profession in Decline?" (November 2001), is: yes-if, that is, certified public accounting even qualifies as a profession. Oliverio cites six criteria proposed early in the twentieth century for defining a profession:

In my view, these are reasonable criteria for defining a "learned profession." Aside from the increasing tendency in American society to refer to occupations or trades as professions, I see little or no tendency toward intellectual operations and little or no altruistic motivation from practicing CPAs.

In fact, increasingly larger portions of CPA firms place a much higher value on individuals who are simply salespeople, a value structure contrary to most of the above criteria, because it reduces most of those criteria to second-class status.

I was appalled by "The Top Five MAP Issues" in the The Practicing CPA (November/December 2001), published by the Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) of the AICPA. The author addresses the need to retain competent people and suggests creating a "career manager" position as a possible solution. This suggestion displays a condescending attitude that, unfortunately, is shared by a majority of CPA firm leaders.

Why would career managers-intelligent, competent individuals who for whatever reason aren't interested in pursuing the brass ring of partner-subject themselves to the authority of intellectually inferior partners whose talents lie more with acquiring clients than with providing the service that keeps those clients and builds the firm's reputation? Such a relationship is humiliating. Clearly, sales-oriented individuals (usually the extroverts) fail to recognize that competent professional service is as crucial as rainmaking.

A related issue concerns the perceived shortage of qualified CPAs, CPA candidates, and persons planning to become CPAs. I see no such shortage; in fact there are too many CPAs. The shortage, if any, is among bookkeepers and paraprofessionals. Professional fees are high and no one really wants to pay them. This is true for doctors, dentists, and lawyers as well as accountants. The dearth of bookkeepers and paraprofessionals forces many CPAs to do that work, which creates fee pressures and distracts them from the more intellectually challenging activities they are supposed to be trained to perform.

If at the time of my entry into accounting I had suspected that sales ability would be the primary determinant for career advancement, I would have changed directions. Presently, I cannot recommend a CPA career for any young person.

Robert J. Sonnelitter, Jr., CPA Sonnelitter Professional Services, LLC Bethel, Conn.

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