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Upheaval and resilience: The path to accounting amid COVID-19

The outlook for the next batch of CPAs

Corey Butler, MNCPA communications manager | April 2021 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated March 31, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic will cast a long shadow on our world in ways that even the best futurists have failed to consider. We just don’t know what we don’t know.

Since the early days of the pandemic through now, prognosticators have lumped it with other historic events that shaped our country, the world and specific generations. While some think this conjecture is pure hyperbole, others believe the ramifications of the COVID-19 fallout will be felt far and wide. This is especially true for the millions of Americans who are in transitional phases of their lives. Layoffs, imposed restrictions and home demands have shifted the workforce and home life.

But college students, often a forgotten cluster of people beyond the holes they will eventually fill in the workforce, undertook a dynamic shift during these key formative years. A summer 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research of 1,500 Arizona State University students found, due to COVID-19: 13% of students delayed graduation, 40% lost a job, internship or a job offer and 29% expect to earn less at age 35.

We’re on the precipice of tomorrow. Not only is the accounting profession, like all work, facing tremendous strain and acceleration forward, so, too, are these students whose lives are changing in front of their eyes as they embark on their very own futures. Will the events of the past year help or hinder their efforts to join the workforce?

For this article, we reached out to several MNCPA members who are professors, as well as a couple of MNCPA student members eyeing the accounting profession for their careers. Their experiences and expectations varied as much as flavor options at Baskin-Robbins. Needless to say, it’s been a trying year-plus for the next batch of CPAs and financial professionals — as well as those charged with educating them.

A transformative future

Among the four professors and two students interviewed, all, like most of the country, packed up and went home in spring 2020 and operated as best they could virtually. But, for the 2020–21 academic year, there’s a mix of them who’ve been on campus the entire time, part time and none of the time.

As a result, this academic year yielded different experiences and outlooks for what’s to come, both from a growth and experiential standpoint. It has also shaped the beliefs of how today’s accounting students will handle the changing face of our work and life, supplementing traditional facetime with more virtual FaceTime.

Barbara Beltrand, CPA, an associate professor of accounting at Metropolitan State University, is blunt in assessing her students and their peers at other campuses.

“They’re going to need more supervision,” she said. “They haven’t been able to practice the soft skills of face-to-face communication with their peers and professors. This is particularly true in asynchronous courses. Professionals should be ready for a higher level of interaction with people to get them on board with accounting standards and audit standards, and peer and client relations.”

At Concordia University – Saint Paul, where Eric Grube, CPA, DBA, is an assistant professor and program chair of accounting, they’ve had a mix of students on campus and learning online. Grube has been on campus this entire academic year.

While, from his conversations, Grube said he knows most students would rather be on campus than tuning in from their computers, he said a modified campus experience has allowed for education to carry on.

“This has been hard for a lot of schools,” Grube said, but “We’re lucky. We had the infrastructure in place to teach remotely.”

Daniel Trupin, a senior at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, has been learning strictly online since last spring.

“I actually like it,” said Trupin, who aims to earn his CPA. “They put more of the notes online because there aren’t any in-person classes.”

Two areas concerning Grube, particularly for his juniors and seniors, are internships and onboarding to new positions. Those experiences, for the most part, are now taking place from the students’ childhood bedrooms. It doesn’t carry the same weight and growth opportunity to catapult a student to a professional.

For Trupin, though, through a screen mere feet from his face, he’s attended career fairs, established relationships with professors and other students, and said class attendance has been strong because accountability, in the end, is still accountability. His internship with a Big 10 firm has also been online.

Ultimately, Trupin said whether in person or online, both methods are helping prepare students for the likely blended work experience of the future.

“I don’t think (COVID has) interrupted my career path at all,” he said. “I think people will be happier and more productive (with options).”

Seeing it through

Brandon Holland isn’t all that concerned about his career outlook either.

But unlike Trupin, the junior accounting student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter has been in person this entire academic year. It’s a stark difference from last spring when he was forced to learn intermediate accounting 2, cost accounting and accounting information systems on his computer.

“I hate online learning, personally,” he said. “It was wildly different how much better I learned tax by sitting in the classroom and hearing my professor explain things in person,” he said. Holland has also maintained a relatively normal in-person internship at a Big 10 firm in downtown Minneapolis.

In most cases, colleges and universities are recording classes, making them available online and doing what they can to help educate students. Accommodation, particularly by the professors, has been a key driver.

But defining boundaries, while ushering in more flexibility, will be the challenge of the workplace moving forward, said Connie Carter, CPA, an adjunct accounting instructor at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

“I think the profession was ready to make that jump to a more electronic-based environment,” she said. “(The pandemic) pushed up the inevitable.”

Carter, who has taught synchronous and asynchronous classes for years, said the idea of traditional students and professionals has transformed in recent years, brought on by people with overlapping responsibilities and the advent of technology.

And Carter, like Beltrand, said that some of the “softer” lessons typically conveyed to students, like eye contact, respectful body language and the like, are being missed out in this virtual world, putting some of these students behind their older peers. But an argument can be made that virtual etiquette may be as important, if not more, if that becomes the prevailing method of working with peers and clients.

William Graves, CPA, an assistant professor and department chair at Bemidji State University, agreed.

“With where the industry and world are going, these students will do more work online,” he said. “But how do you develop a rapport or relationship with people? How do you impart that culture on someone who never comes to the office?”

It’s a challenge that’s resonated through public accounting firms and industry offices the past year. Social isolation and mental health are top concerns of today and tomorrow because we’ve never been more connected — yet disconnected — to one another in our lives. To that end, the social aspect of preparing accounting students for the professional world, is something all the professors have put added attention on this year. From tips and lessons in the broader classes, to breakout sessions in virtual calls to encourage more of that direct connection with each other and scheduling more frequent one-on-ones to check in on students, professors have engaged in new ways to address this concern.

Through all that, Holland and Trupin remain hopeful for what’s to come.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” Holland said. “There will always be a demand for CPAs.”

In it together

We’re all familiar with the old adage of not being able to be in two places at once. No more. We can now swiftly move from one obligation to another thanks, in part, to this newfound technological summit, but also to our human desire to get the most out of everything, including our time.

“Students are adapting to the new reality,” Grube, of Concordia, said.

Holland, the Gustavus student, agreed.

“It’s very important to be able to adapt to changes,” he said, noting not only the effects of COVID-19, but also racial, social justice and political movements, are creating a more charged environment. “I think people in my generation will be better adapted to chaos.”

Though optimistic, Grube, who spends a lot of his time mentoring students and connecting them with potential employers, said face-to-face interaction will remain key in the accounting field, even as the work itself may continue to gravitate online in the coming years.

We, as a people, have always been resilient. It’s shepherded our survival for millennia. But now, as we continue to find ways to bond work with life, we have found ways to rise above challenges that just a decade or more ago would have completely shook us to our foundation. Now, instead, we’re finding ways to adjust our foundations and, in many cases, expand them.

Despite her concern about the next batch of accountants needing more assistance upon hiring, Beltrand, of Metro State, said it’s imperative to not overlook the potential these students possess.

“Make a plan,” she said. “They’re still good people. They will be good employees. You’re just going to have to help them navigate this new online work world.”

Corey Butler is the MNCPA communications coordinator. You may reach him at or 952-885-5533.