Shortage of Accountants: Is Education to Blame?

By Clevenger, Novella Noland; Clevenger, Thomas B. et al. | The Journal of Government Financial Management, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Shortage of Accountants: Is Education to Blame?

Clevenger, Novella Noland, Clevenger, Thomas B., McElroy, John, The Journal of Government Financial Management

The AGA Executive Session White Paper of July 2004(1) noted that, "Government faces a critical shortage of qualified workers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the accounting and finance area." Several excellent suggestions for attracting future financial managers were given in the paper. However, a larger problem exists that may explain the growing human capital shortage in the accounting profession-problems with accounting education itself.

In this article we will review three studies published by the American Accounting Association (AAA) over the past 20 years that suggest accounting education is broken and in need of a complete reorientation. Next, we will comment on what we perceive to be problems with the hiring procedures of government agencies that may lessen their ability to compete with private industry and accounting firms for available accounting graduates. Finally, we will highlight some possible solutions that might help ease the shortage of financial management professionals in government in spite of the problems with accounting education and government hiring barriers.

The Bedford Report

In 1986, the AAA published a report of the Bedford Committee titled, Future Accounting Education: Preparing for the Expanding Profession.2 According to the Executive Summary, "The committee's analysis indicates that accounting education as it is currently approached requires major reorientation between now and the year 2000."

The report noted that, although all professions change over time, "Most of the institutions responsible for educating professionals fail to evolve as rapidly as professional practice itself."3

In another revealing comment, the report points out that "the current content of professional accounting education, which has remained substantially the same over the past 50 years, is generally inadequate for the future accounting professional. A growing gap exists between what accountants do and what accounting educators teach. This gap will not be closed by efforts to update random aspects of accounting education. Rather a complete reorientation of accounting education may be needed."4

The typical undergraduate accounting curriculum of the mid-1980s consisted of 120 semester hours, including 30 semester hours of accounting. According to the Bedford Report, that pattern had been determined many years ago and had not changed over time. In addition to foundation courses in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences and a common body of knowledge for business, there were accounting courses such as elementary, intermediate, cost, auditing, information systems, and tax.5 (In 2006, this continues to be the typical undergraduate accounting curriculum in many universities.)

The report looked at the teaching process and made these comments:

Fifty years ago, the method of lecture together with routine problem solving was generally used. Today, that same method tends to dominate accounting teaching methods, although class discussion in the form of teacher-question and student-a nswer is given more emphasis. The current pedagogy also emphasizes problems with specific solutions rather than cases with alternative solutions.

Learning theory suggests that such methods are inadequate, primarily because they are not conducive to creative thinking and do not motivate students to self-development. Textbooks are a key aid to instruction, since they involve students in self-learning and establish a minimum level of technical accounting the student must learn. Nevertheless, excessive reliance on textbooks reduces the instructor's incentive to determine constantly what each student should learn. If the teaching process centers on repeating textbook material in the classroom and demonstrating the application of that material to conceived issues, problems and situations, then the learning process risks becoming uninspiring to capable future accountants.

The teaching process should be expanded to assure that students learn not only the technical professional accounting body of knowledge but that they also develop the ability to use that knowledge analytically, in creative and innovative ways in accordance with high standards of professional ethics.

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