Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg likes to talk about the value of diversity. But of the 4,500 partners and other top executives at his firm, 92% are white. A big part of the problem, Salzberg believes, is where Deloitte has been looking: in the same pool of top universities that everyone else taps for minority talent.
So this spring, Salzberg directed some of his senior people to focus their recruiting efforts on community colleges. The rationale: The two-year, state-funded programs are where the majority of African-American and Latino students enroll, especially during tough times. While he says the accounting and consulting giant isn't bypassing universities, Salzberg disputes the notion that community college students are less suited to the job. "Many have the ability and the drive," he says. "Targeting these schools offers us a unique opportunity to reach another distinct pool of diverse, top talent."
While a growing number of professional services firms reach out to high school students to spur interest in their industries, few go into community colleges. It's riskier since the course requirements are rarely sufficient for partner-track jobs, and the standards are viewed as less rigorous. But nearly 25% of community college students transfer to four-year universities, where competition for recruits is intense.
Focusing on Six Schools
For Deloitte, the hope is to reach high-potential people of color at community colleges, interest them in accounting, and then shepherd them through a university to a job upon graduation. If it works, it could turn around a troubling trend. In 2004, African Americans represented 1% of all CPAs, Latinos 3%, and Asians 4%, according to a U.S. Treasury Dept. report on the profession. By 2007 the figures were unchanged, if not down slightly.
If Deloitte doesn't reach out to community college students, it understands a lot of talent is falling through the cracks. Salzberg says the college outreach prevents the firm from missing an opportunity to get students on the accounting-prep track, or worse, losing out altogether as the students forsake further university training for other vocations. "In general, big corporate companies don't realize the value that can be found in community colleges," says Stephanie J. Etter, director of the School of Business at Miami Dade College. "When a student chooses a two-year program rather than a four-year one, they are often overlooked."
The company is initially focusing on six schools: Miami Dade College, Houston Community College, Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Mira Costa College in North San Diego, Orange Coast College in Orange County, Calif., and Santa Monica College. Those schools rose to the top because they have good minority representation and strong business programs. "It's a rich untapped source of talent that we and others in the world have ignored up until now," says Allen Thomas, Deloitte's chief diversity officer.
Up Against Stereotypes
Still, Deloitte will have to do a fair amount of myth-busting. Many students believe accountants don green eyeshades and plunk away at calculators all day. So Deloitte is sending a brigade of up to eight staffers, including at least one senior partner, to enlighten, mentor, and ultimately guide potential recruits toward an accounting career. In visits to the campus classrooms, the partners plan to share workplace perspectives and explanations of how the industry has broadened to include financial, management, technology, and human capital consulting. "I don't think students realize the vastness of what you can do in accounting," says Gregory Brookins, a CPA and associate professor at Santa Monica Community College. "They feel like it's a boring bean-counting job."
Other accounting firms aren't rushing to follow Deloitte's lead. Ernst & Young does seminars for high school students interested in accounting.
But it recruits from four-year universities where students get credits toward the CPA exam. That's something "a two-year program doesn't offer," says Ken Bouyer, Americas Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting for Ernst & Young.
There are exceptions, such as Santa Monica College and Miami Dade College, which increasingly teach students the skills required to pass the public accounting exam. Along with basic accounting, the colleges now offer courses that include history and analysis of changes in federal accounting rules, auditing, and taxation.
Hitting the Glass Ceiling
Even so, the reality is that educational pedigree wins points in accounting, as it does throughout most of Corporate America. Deloitte, like E&Y and all of the major firms, pitches the merits of its people to win business. It's a badge of honor to have hundreds of elite university CPAs. Community college background is not something CPAs boast about. But "it's going to come out when résumés are gathered," says Dorri McWhorter, a partner at Crowe Horwath LLP, a top-10 firm in Chicago.
McWhorter, who became her firm's first black partner in 2008 and is a member of the American institute of Certified Public Accountants' minority initiatives committee, applauds Deloitte for its community college outreach. But she says the key to developing those recruits into partners at the firm depends on committed mentoring programs at every level of the firm. "They get through the door but then hit that glass ceiling," she says. "You need someone to tell you the real deal and get you to those projects to help you stand out."
Recently, the big firms have begun to institute high-level mentoring. Bouyer says Ernst & Young has launched something called "inclusive leadership," a six-month program for partners and directors, teaching them how best to lead in this new diverse world by building an inclusive team where collaboration is valued. Similarly, Deloitte has a program designating "breakthrough" minority leaders. In fact, Salzberg has assembled what he calls a "think tank" of these breakthrough accountants of color that he meets with quarterly to deal with everything from communication in the downturn to social media. "It gives me fabulous feedback," he says.
Working on the Pipeline
The question yet to be answered is whether the exposure will lead to genuine breakthroughs for minority accountants. Without a larger pool from which to recruit minority accountants "the pipeline is not strong enough" to support growing numbers of minority partners, Salzberg says. "In order to change that you have to work on the pipeline to get more recruiting done."