What employers should understand about today’s accounting students

October 24, 2022

Colleen Sumpby Colleen Sump, Portland State University School of Business

The accounting profession is seeing a lot more of Gen Z, the first digital native generation to enter the workforce. These young professionals, who were born after 1996, will make up 30% of the workforce in just a few short years. To successfully attract, recruit, and retain this talent pool, employers need to understand the unique attributes and preferences of these young professionals who have come of age in a rapidly changing and technological world.

While juggling high school and college, Gen Z students experienced a global pandemic, political and civil unrest, a growing climate emergency, school shootings, and various economic crises. These challenges shaped and influenced what this generation not only wants from their careers, but what they want from their lives, including career growth opportunities, competitive compensation, a healthy work-life balance, and a strong company culture that reflects their values.

Career growth and professional learning opportunities

This generation is interested in upskilling and has a strong desire to stay relevant so they can advance as quickly as possible. The pandemic has strengthened their ability to learn on their own, but they also expect to be coached and trained at work. More specifically, accounting Gen Zers see a future world of work that is connected and transformed by technology, so they want access to training in new technologies and to be seen as the early adopters within their organizations. They are also looking for career development to be personalized since they have grown up with customized experiences, from playlists to newsfeeds.

One Portland State University (PSU) student said, “I want to put my absolute all into providing the best outcome for my employer, but if the opportunity for advancements is low, that would greatly affect my motivation.”

For employers - Create mentorship programs, offer online certifications and courses, and encourage attendance at conferences and seminars. Train your managers to be coaches. Consider having “stay” interviews instead of “exit” interviews. Provide real-time feedback rather than orchestrated performance reviews.

Competitive compensation

Salary has always been a major determining factor as emerging professionals weigh job opportunities, but today’s students are much more financially savvy due to the abundance of information at their fingertips. Right now, a top concern for early professionals is how rising inflation is outpacing salary growth. Financial stability is an important factor for many students who choose the accounting field, so they are concerned about the current inflation situation and salaries keeping up with their ability to lead the lives they were expecting.

Gen Zers also understand that compensation means a lot more than a paycheck. In addition to the traditional benefits like retirement, vacation, and health insurance, this generation is interested in additional perks like financial guidance, student loan assistance, tuition reimbursement, parental leave, backup caregiving options, and most importantly, benefits that directly affect mental health and well-being. Gen Z has grown up in tumultuous times and they understand that their physical, mental, and social well-being directly affects their ability to thrive at work and at home. “We’re looking for companies that value us as humans,” said one PSU accounting student. “Benefits in addition to PTO, health insurance, and retirement packages have the ability to really attract us.”

For employers – Think outside the box regarding compensation. When a candidate is weighing their options, this may be what convinces them to choose your offer.

Healthy work-life balance

As one PSU accounting student said, “I was not born to work, pay bills, and then die. I’d like to enjoy my life!” This sentiment is shared by many Gen Zers who point to flexibility as a major factor contributing to a good work-life balance. Gen Z understands that in today’s connected world, work doesn’t necessarily start and stop at pre-determined times. They want flexibility in taking time off, working remotely, and determining for themselves how to balance their personal and work lives, as long as they meet their employer’s expectations.

Young professionals also want to work a reasonable number of hours so they are able to integrate their other priorities and interests into their lives. “We are looking for jobs that offer opportunities for growth without having to spend crazy hours at work,” said another PSU student.

For students going into public accounting, the rigorous schedule during the busy season is expected and the trade-offs are understood, but firms should take note of this generation’s desire for a healthy work-life balance if they want to retain them past the first few years of employment.

For employers - Provide as much flexibility as possible, with options for remote or hybrid work.

Strong company culture

Gen Zers are drawn to employers with strong values and a sense of purpose. They care about environmental sustainability, wealth inequality, social justice, and corporate ethics. As the most diverse generation to enter the workforce, Gen Zers want employers to be able to articulate what DEI looks like in the day-to-day of their firm or business and not just have DEI as a part of their mission statement. They value action over promises, so employers need to show evidence they are actively working on their DEI initiatives while also recognizing the work will be ongoing and ever-changing.

Because Gen Z is mission-driven, they are interested in doing meaningful work for organizations that reflect their personal ethics. They are taking action on matters that are important to them and not waiting for change to happen. Employers that also make efforts to create positive impacts on society will benefit from having these young professionals want to work for their organizations.

For employers – Clearly communicate your mission and purpose to potential recruits. Develop pathway opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds. Display positivity, authenticity, and transparency during the recruiting process. Develop a culture of belonging for all employees. Be charitable.

What else should employers know about Gen Z? In general…
• They enjoy being independent and getting their work done without relying on others.
• They want to feel valued for their ideas and recognized for their contributions.
• They are intentional about their career choices and are ready to move from one employer to another with relative ease.
• They want to make a difference in their workplace and in society in general.
• They are visual content connoisseurs, so using short videos on social media, in emails, and on websites is critical to reaching and engaging this audience.
• They are concerned about entry-level accounting work being taken over by technology. That said, employers can convey that although technology is transforming many entry-level tasks, they are looking to emerging accounting professionals to step into higher-value work that requires personal judgment and problem-solving skills.

The next generation of accounting professionals will not all be Gen Z; non-traditional students are returning to school to study accounting because of its reputation as a stable field with excellent growth and earning potential. But these non-traditional students (mostly Millennials) have also been affected and shaped by the same world events and technological advances that Gen Z has and are wanting similar things from their employers. Millennials have been affected by the Great Resignation as they’ve watched many of their friends and family change jobs in the last few years looking for something more – more purpose, more flexibility, and more empathy. This has influenced their view of the work they want to do, who they want to do it with, and who they want to do it for.

The workplace is facing a lot of disruption right now, but it is also a time of great opportunity for employers who are willing to reimagine their approach to talent acquisition and retention. Gen Z students and early professionals are bringing an entrepreneurial spirit, a “can do” attitude, and an appetite to make the world a better place that has the potential to benefit us all.

Information for this article was derived from many sources, including the 2021 International Federation of Accountants Report, The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Report, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, as well as qualitative responses from Portland State University (PSU) accounting students.

About the author
With over thirty years of experience with educational institutions throughout the Northwest, Colleen Sump is currently a Career Coach in the School of Business at Portland State University working primarily with accounting and finance students.
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