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Opinion: The future of a unified Canadian accounting profession

There was a time when the Canadian accounting profession looked like it was headed towards specialization. What happened?, asks Nick A. Shepherd

Author: Nick A. Shepherd

IN THE LATE 1990s I was in Whistler, BC giving a one-day professional development workshop on the future of the accounting profession. During this period, I was traveling across Canada and internationally, often delivering more than sixty professional development workshops every year. At the time, we had no expectation of a consolidation ("merger") of the profession in Canada; our thoughts were mainly concerned around two core topics — both central to the growth of our knowledge base. 

Firstly, it was becoming increasingly difficult to provide new professionals with an adequate knowledge of the broad base of topics, issues, and challenges that were believed to be covered within the mandate of a professional accountant. How was this impacting the core curriculum for certification? What topics should be included as “core” and what areas might be left to be covered as future professional development, “post certification”? There was just so much to cover, yet, if the time frame for certification were extended, would this put people off the idea of joining the profession? 

This led to the second point. This was my belief that the profession of accounting, that already had a clear segregation relative to management accounting, would in fact further splinter into a series of specializations.

Statutory compliance, regulation, and reporting. Management accounting. IT accounting systems specialization. Business advisory and financial management consulting. Global financial management, including taxation and transfer pricing. There would no longer be room for “general accounting,” as the knowledge required to “all be in one tent” would be impossible to manage effectively. 

Fast forward to 2023 and what do we see? What have we learned? 

Contrary to expectations, particularly in Canada, far from recognizing the need for unique specializations, the Canadian accounting profession consolidated under one body, and merged designations into one: chartered professional accountant. While the need for servicing and supporting unique specializations remains recognized, the clear focus seems to remain in the traditional areas of statutory compliance, reporting, and regulation. If one looks at the CPA Ontario professional development website, the main topics are ethics, accounting and tax, audit and assurance, finance, leadership and professional skills, and data, technology, and innovation.

Even if one selects “all topics,” management accounting does not appear. 

The profession is facing a crisis of attraction. A recent article in Business Insider stated: 

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants says fewer people are graduating with accounting degrees than in years past, and the number of people taking and passing the certified public accountant exam is dropping. Meanwhile, a 2022 Deloitte poll found that 82% of hiring managers for accounting and financial positions at public companies and 69% at private companies said talent retention is a challenge.

Agreed, this is a US-based challenge, but does it suggest further problems in the Canadian profession? Entry barriers to the accounting profession, such as the recognition of non-Canadian work experience and professional designations, continue to pose challenges for many immigrants. Given that Canadian workforce growth requirements are heavily based on immigration, this issue, that has been slow to evolve of fifty years — the fifty years since I arrived in Canada with my newly minted ACCA designation from the UK — we are not making progress fast enough. 

The article also identified “talent retention” as a challenge. I have written many books on corporate culture and understand the importance of a “healthy” workplace as core to talent retention. Yet when we see that Deloitte Canada was fined $1.59 million for back-dating audit working papers[1] and “breaching the rules” one wonders what impact this has on people working within the profession.

Didn’t we all agree to a code of ethics? 

Keeping the brand “proud” is important. The recent dispute between CPA Canada and both CPA Ontario and CPA Quebec illustrates the importance of collaboration and cooperation within the unique Canadian context. Again, the problem is not new. I was a member and later Chair of the National Certification Board (as it was named at that time) of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants (CMC Canada).

Every province was represented and we did indeed have many heated discussions. Peoples voices were heard. Compromises were made. Quebec, which had been left to “walk away from the tent,” was brought back in through understanding and accommodation of its unique regulatory framework. We worked together for the good of the profession. 

The accounting profession is facing challenging times and, no question, by consolidating we have become an international voice. Yet are we prepared for the new challenges of attraction and retention? Of sustaining a brand that not only unites us under one banner, but speaks of ethical behaviour, professionalism, and above all “a great place to work?” (Which is not always reflected in certificates and awards).

Are we fully embracing the specializations required in a world of knowledge management? Intangibles? Value creation and retention? Social accountability and responsibility in areas over and above climate change? 

Time will tell. Consolidation may solve some problems but it has the potential to create others. Effective leadership will ensure that we stay ahead and set a global example of leading practices.

[1] HR Reporter, "Deloitte pays $1.59-million fine after Ontario auditors breach rules," November 1, 2023.

Nick A. Shepherd, FCPA, FCGA, FCCA, FCMC is a business professional, thinker, author, and futurist. He is a member and past Chair of the Canadian TC 260 mirror committee and a member of WG2 on HR metrics. He is the author of the recently published The Workplace Battlefield and the previously published The Cost of Poor Culture.

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