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NJ CPA Spotlight: Raising Awareness, Building Talent Pipeline to Unlock Potential of Next Generation of CPAs

AJ Johnson- NJCPA
AJ Johnson- NJCPA

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Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:00:00 - 00:00:53]

If I were speaking to a young person, and when I do speak to students, I like to remind them that whatever industry they may be interested in, there's a need for CPAs. So, I'm told of countless stories of, you know, being able to have impact, whether it's working with a startup, venture capital, in entertainment, gaming, all of those industries that we talked about where there's still a need for CPAs. And not only that, accounting provides the language, right, of business that would be very helpful in any business endeavor, whether you want to aspire to be an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur or something in between.

 

Announcer and Gene Marks [00:00:57 - 00:01:12]

Welcome to Paychex THRIVE, a Business Podcast, where you'll hear timely insights to help you navigate marketplace dynamics and propel your business forward. Here's your host, Gene Marks.

 

Gene Marks [00:01:12 - 00:02:06]

Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Paychex THRIVE podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. My name is Gene Marks. Before we get started, just want to give you a little bit of a pitch for our THRIVE newsletter. There's all sorts of insightful articles and compliance updates and mentions of this podcast and webinar, webinars that Paychex is up to. Really, really good stuff that'll keep you up to date, help you run your business, not just from an HR standpoint, but also from a business standpoint, as well. So, if you'd like to subscribe, please join us. We're at paychex.com/thrive. P-A-Y-C-H-E-X dot-com/thrive.

 

Anyway, let's get to the topic at hand, accounting stuff. And we are talking today to Aiysha Johnson, otherwise known as AJ, who is the chief executive officer of the New Jersey Society of CPAs. AJ, thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:02:06 - 00:02:09]

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Gene.

 

Gene Marks [00:02:09 - 00:02:28]

Yeah, I'm glad you're here. First of all, that studio behind you is, I don't know if you know this: I do the AICPAs once a quarter. We do a video thing on their sort of town hall, and they have a whole setup down in New York City. But man, your studio looks amazing. How long have you guys had that?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:02:29 - 00:02:47]

Few years now. So, it's actually a part of our overall space. So, we're really excited to have the studio. We're able to do a lot, including our Issues Watch and other podcasts. It really allows us to be cutting edge, if you will.

 

Gene Marks [00:02:48 - 00:03:05]

Yeah, it's really amazing how many organizations nowadays that are trying to create content and get media out there. They're investing in quality studios. I mean, this cannot look like an episode of Wayne's World, you know what I mean? So, it's got to look good. And that does take an investment, but it does pay off.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:03:05 - 00:03:09]

Yes, and it helps us to reach our members for sure.

 

Gene Marks [00:03:10 - 00:03:25]

It really does, in a very, very professional way. So, AJ, so first of all, tell me a little bit about yourself. You have been CEO now of the New Jersey Society. Since when and how did you get there? Tell us a little bit about your background.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:03:25 - 00:04:38]

Sure. So, it will almost be a year. June will be one year since I've been in the role. And I have been serving the accounting profession for five years, going on six now. And I was at a global accounting association where we served independent CPA firms and advisory firms. So, that was at BKR International out of New York, and I ran the executive office which manages all of the worldwide activities from accounting to membership, IT internal services and membership. But I also was the executive director for the Americas region, overseeing all of the operational member-related-type service questions, supporting all of the managing partners and their firms throughout the Americas region, which included Canada, the U.S. and Latin firms - firms throughout the Caribbean.

 

Gene Marks [00:04:39 - 00:04:46]

Wow, that's amazing. Is this like your first time, sort of, in the nonprofit world? I mean, was the association you were working with?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:04:47 - 00:05:17]

No, I come with the background of more than 20 years’ experience in association. So, I've done the whole gamut from running the marketing department to education, working closely with our partners and looking at opportunities there. So, I've had the opportunity to touch every area within associations prior to my work at BKR and now at NJCPA.

 

Gene Marks [00:05:18 - 00:05:35]

That's great. You're the CEO, some associations and chapters - and we'll talk about that in a minute - they have executive directors. Is there a difference between a CEO and an executive director? Is it just a director is just a title?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:05:36 - 00:06:15]

Well, at NJCPA, I'm actually the CEO and executive director. I know at some state societies they may be referred to as just the CEO or just the executive director. At times they're also the president and CEO. So, it just depends on the organization and the history and how they define that role. For us, we have, for us, we have a president that comes in annually. So, that's our history and part of our governance structure.

 

Gene Marks [00:06:16 - 00:06:23]

And the president that comes in. Is that an employee of the society or is that somebody that's in the profession?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:06:23 - 00:06:49]

They're in the profession, they're a member, and they've been voted, if you will, into the role and supported by our board of trustees. So, there's a whole process around nominations and thinking about who would be the best leader to serve as president in any given year.

 

Gene Marks [00:06:49 - 00:06:55]

And how long is the term for that unlucky individual?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:06:56 - 00:07:08]

In the president role, it's one year, but then they ... but prior to that, they serve as vice president and then immediate past president. So, consider it three years.

 

Gene Marks [00:07:08 - 00:07:15]

Okay. All right, I got you. How big an organization is the NJCPA?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:07:15 - 00:07:38]

So, internally. Yeah, internally, there are 30 internally. And then for members, we have more than 13,000 members. So, that gives you a sense of NJCPA and what we're trying to do and our reach, right?

 

Gene Marks [00:07:39 - 00:07:57]

Yeah, it is certainly a big job. And as CEO and executive director is your primary role fundraising, is that what you're supposed to be spending most of your time doing, as well as running the organization? Tell me what your role is.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:07:58 - 00:09:57]

So, I would describe my role in three ways. One is amplifying our brand for CPAs, but also anyone in the accounting profession, and serving as an ambassador there. So, I meet with key stakeholders, which may include at any given time a number of state officials, but then also our educators, our, our partners as well, to be able to reach students. And I'll talk about that later because I know that you're interested in some of the pipeline efforts within the profession. And then, also, from an internal perspective, looking at how we're organized to best serve members. So, part of that is just ensuring a positive member experience, and that may involve, you know, looking at our systems and making sure that we, we can answer the right questions internally. But essentially, we're here for our members.

 

And then the other aspect of, broad aspect of my position and my role would be to support the sustaining of the market share and to look at ways to ensure growth as part of the strategic efforts of the board and making sure that all of that aligns on a day to day basis. So, not so much the fundraising. We do have a scholarship and an education fund, if you will. We're 501(c)(6) and the other nonprofit entities for the scholarship and education fund, that's all (c)(3) organizations.

 

Gene Marks [00:09:57 - 00:11:01]

I got it. I got it now. So, really, I mean, you've got an organization that you've got to manage their operations. You are responsible for growth and existing and new revenue streams. But, yeah, you've got an organization that, I'm assuming you have a certain percentage of your revenue comes from member dues. I mean, I pay dues to my state. So, there's that recurring revenue coming in. And then obviously, you've got a robust education side to the societies, with conferences and seminars and CPE type things. So, those are all – so, it's not like you're going out looking for donors for the organization, but you're responsible for revenue growth. And I totally get that.

 

AJ, we were talking about this before we actually started recording, but there's a difference in this world between a chapter and a society. Some state CPA organizations call themselves chapters. Some of them call them societies. Can you tell me what the difference is and also just tell us what your relationship is nationally to the AICPA, you know?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:11:01 - 00:11:56]

Sure. Sure. So, all of the state CPA societies have a direct line to AICPA in terms of understanding what the priorities are for AICPA. But the state CPA societies operate independently. So, you know, NJCPA is a 501(c)(6). We have our own board. We look at what's important in the state of New Jersey.

 

And sure, other state societies are doing the same thing, but where we can, where there's a potential for alignment on the national level, looking at priorities that AICPA is also dealing with, then obviously we look to understand how we can all support any efforts that way. But we do operate independently.

 

Gene Marks [00:11:56 - 00:12:14]

So, AJ., so I'm in Philadelphia, so I belong to the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Have you guys ever considered changing your name from society to institute? Because institute does sound so much more academic and important and smart. Can we start that?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:12:15 - 00:12:18]

I am going to leave that one alone.

 

Gene Marks [00:12:19 - 00:12:47]

You're going to pass on that question? Fair enough. Fair enough. Okay, so obviously, you're dealing with all the CPAs that are in the state of New Jersey and dealing with New Jersey stuff. What's different about being a CPA in New Jersey than other states? What issues do you see facing your members that members in other states around the country may not be facing or might be unique to your members?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:12:48 - 00:14:03]

One of the things that comes to mind, well, a couple of things. So, obviously, we're concerned about whatever comes through annually with our state budget. So, we poll our members annually on the state budget, and that's obviously very unique to New Jersey.

 

And we also support work for credit alternatives in New Jersey. So, we have university partnerships between St. Peter's University and PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), Seton Hall and Witham. And then most recently, recently, Rider University announced a program this week where they will be partnering with WilkinGuttenplan out of New Jersey. So, you know, we're one of the first states, if you will, to really pilot a work for credit program as an alternative to getting those 30 hours of CPE credit. But being able to do it through experiential learning.

 

Gene Marks [00:14:04 - 00:14:27]

Got it. Got it. Are there any specific industries in New Jersey that you think are unique to the state? And don't say waste management, okay, that's a Sopranos thing. But is there maybe, like gambling or pharmaceuticals or anything else that you see? You would think more CPAs would be involved in. In the state than maybe elsewhere in the country.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:14:27 - 00:15:33]

I think you named two. So, pharma is big, and biotech, definitely huge industries here. Casinos and gaming, definitely another huge industry. And then there are, um, there's a focus this year on manufacturing, and there are a lot of infrastructure projects looking at various energy bills and things like that.

 

So, we definitely, I know that the governor also said that he wanted New Jersey to be an innovation hub. So, looking at technology and working with the largest companies to be able to test whatever that looks like around innovation. And I think we're also unique because we do have capacity to build some of this physical space. And while we're also looking at various infrastructure and transit projects across the state.

 

Gene Marks [00:15:34 - 00:16:08]

Got it. Do you find being in the state – I only say this because I'm local – the society covers the entire state, and yet the state of New Jersey is unique in that there is a north, a central, and a South Jersey. And South Jersey is like, everybody in south Jersey is wearing Phillies and eagles gear, and everybody north of Princeton is wearing Giants in Yankees gear. And people that are in the middle are still trying to figure out where they're at. Do you find that kind of culture affecting the society, as well?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:16:09 - 00:17:40]

No, not so much. I think that you'll see a concentration of maybe larger firms, more northern New Jersey, and then you see the whole gamut of just the variety of firms. And then to our conversation earlier, there are the large companies, and everyone needs the services of their CPA, right, regardless of what industry? So, I think it's, I would say each area, you know, South Jersey to North Jersey, I think there's some, you know, differences, like, just in terms of you, of thinking of being along the shore and the diversity of your current environment, and then, obviously, political leanings, as well.

 

So, all of those things that may impact just what you're doing, what you're thinking about, simply based on your location. But I think we're all, at the end of the day, I think we're all in it together when we think about New Jersey as a collective, in terms of serving the profession.

 

Gene Marks [00:17:41 - 00:17:52]

So, you're seeing these CPAs work along together, whether they're a Giants fan or an Eagles fan, they're still able to sort out their differences and work together? Is that what you're telling me? Yeah, thankfully. So, thank you. At your word.

 

Gene Marks:

[00:17:52 - 00:18:59]

AJ. Yes. Let's talk about. Let's talk about talent and let's talk about recruiting, okay? I've actually complained about this to other executive directors and CEOs of CPA society. I'm like, I am very frustrated at the amount of credit hours that are needed when somebody graduates college to become a CPA. You know, for me it was like 80 hours. And I think now it's like 120 credits in Philly, in Pennsylvania, I think in New Jersey as well. My son became a CPA, which automatically meant we had to pay for an extra year in college. I'm just telling you, it's like, it's annoying. So, for him to get the credit, so.

 

And I also think, more importantly, but putting aside my gripes, I think that has an impact on recruiting people into the profession. You know, it's a big expense and an investment to make. So, tell me what, you know, the society is doing, you know, and working along with national to, you know, to try and fix some of the recruiting challenges that this profession is having, trying to get younger talent involved. What do you got going on? And, you know, what can we expect to see?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:19:00 - 00:22:16]

So, a couple of things. One is that NJCPA is really committed to addressing the pipeline challenges, however possible. And last year we convened a pipeline task force, and that included, you know, various segments, if you will, of our memberships. Just, so we had, you know, emerging leaders represented on the task force. We had educators on the task force and members in various size firms, you name it. So, that's a plus because we want to bring diversity of perspective to the table when thinking about these larger recommendations.

 

So, the recommendations that came out of the task force was to raise awareness of the accounting profession to high school students and help them to understand opportunities that are out there within the profession, but to also address the negative perceptions that college students and recent grads may have about accounting. And so that's one thing. And then secondly is to look at the barriers to licensure. So, whether that's, you know, waiting for a long period of time to actually become licensed in your state after passing the exam, and I hear that, you know, across the board, it's not just one state.

 

So, I think that if states made that a priority, then it would be something that we could see as a fundamental shift. But we're looking at what we're looking at that, and then we obviously have our members. So, we're leveraging the insights of our members, you know, we talked about different companies and industries being represented here in the state, so involving all of our key stakeholders, our members, who could give us insights. Right. On what they're dealing with as a firm, as a company in academia, to ensure that we understand their challenges and build that into our recommendations.

 

So, where we're at today is that they shared the list of recommendations. And now in the spring, our board of trustees will look at approving these recommendations and providing any additional insights. And from there, we'll be able to prioritize where we want to put our resources and where it makes sense to put our resources along this pipeline challenge, if you will, where we can have the most impact as a state society. I can also get into our pipeline advisory workgroup, which is what I consider an extension of the work of the task force, but I'll stop here if you have any questions.

 

Gene Marks [00:22:17 - 00:22:51]

Yeah, I'd like to actually hear about the pipeline advisory work group. But before I do, if the pipeline task force comes up with recommendations that would require changing some of the certification requirements. Just for argument's sake, they reduce the number of hours required or something like that. The state has to give the license. It's a state licensing thing. So, what do they do now? Do they just go back to the state and be like, hey, we're changing the requirements, so therefore, you, the state should change the requirements as well? Or does that have to be a whole other process that the state has to go through?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:22:51 - 00:22:53]

It's a whole process.

 

Gene Marks [00:22:54 - 00:22:55]

Yeah, big surprise.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:22:55 - 00:23:38]

Yeah, it's a whole process, and it's a conversation. It seems that everyone has a task force. I know AICPA has a pipeline advisory group. I know that NASBA also has a group looking into this. And if it were a simple fix, Gene, I think we would probably all, you know, push that button. But there is so much at stake when we think about mobility and substantial equivalency and what it means to practice across state borders, right?

 

Gene Marks [00:23:38 - 00:23:39]

Yeah.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:23:39 - 00:24:49]

So, there are just so many considerations, and I think that the reason why we see the proliferation of so many task forces and advisory groups is that we want to make sure that this, whatever comes out of this is aligned. So, I can say with confidence that I think that our state society would consider all of those activities, and what is the larger goal? So, you know, we have work for credit programs that have already been piloted, new programs coming up that will allow recent graduates, students, to be able to work for credit through experiential learning. So, that's something that is supported and our board continues to support. But the larger question of, you know, the current 150 hours versus 120 or anything else that that's going to take some more.

 

Gene Marks [00:24:50 - 00:25:05]

Gotcha. You know, somebody needs to come up with like, an AI application and just have it. Just do it for us. You know, make things like that much easier. You would, you would mention this advocacy committee as well, so give us a little bit about what they're up to.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:25:05 - 00:27:09]

Yeah, so we recently established a pipeline advocacy workgroup. One of the reasons for that is because we realized that at the state level, there are efforts that could be, you know, looked into, examined to help the pipeline challenge. So, we're literally turning every stone, if you will, to understand what are some of the challenges at the state level that would impact a young student from maybe having exposure to the accounting profession.

And so, this workgroup consists of key stakeholders, educators at the high school level, educators at the college level as well, so that we could examine those types of things, and I'll give you an example. So, STEM. AICPA wrote federal legislation that would designate accounting as a STEM subject on the federal level. And all of the state CPA societies, when I talk about alignment, we all supported that. So, this, so this advocacy workgroup allows us to dig deeper into STEM and see, you know, what are the opportunities specific to New Jersey? So, we're just getting started with that.

 

We'll do the same thing in terms of looking at short-term opportunities, long-term opportunities, and where we could, you know, allocate our resources. So, I'm really excited about that because I think that knowing that there's no one single solution, I think it's really important that we do have this multi-stakeholder, you know, approach to solving the problem and moving the needle forward in a positive way.

 

Gene Marks [00:27:09 - 00:27:13]

And this is all designed to try and get younger people more involved in the profession, right?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:27:14 - 00:27:15]

Yes, yes, right.

 

Gene Marks [00:27:15 - 00:28:37]

Well, good luck with that, because, AJ, the younger generation, they just don't want to work like you and me. You know what I mean? That's the problem. I'm just kidding. They do sound great and I wish you success with it because I know a lot of the state societies are trying to do the very same, same thing and try and reinvigorate people into understanding the opportunities, which I'm going to ask you about in a minute.

 

But I wanted to just say a word; that being a CPA is not just about doing taxes. I've realized that. And I've met director of marketing at Fortune 500 companies that are CPA, because CPA is because it's a data-driven profession. And people that run businesses, they go into sales, they go into technical degrees, they host podcasts, they're CPAs, as well. The financial knowledge is important, really important and good, but it's a foundation for doing a lot of other stuff. And I just, the more that message gets out to younger people, the more they should know that to be in a world of business.

 

And the other thing I could say to AJ is that, yeah, I've been a CPA for like 1,000 years now. I don't even practice accounting anymore. My firm doesn't do financial statements or tax returns, but I get the CPE every other year because proud of it, and it's very credible. Do you know what I mean?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:28:37 - 00:28:39]

Yes, absolutely.

 

Gene Marks [00:28:39 - 00:29:08]

So, having said that, let me ask you, what is your. If you were talking to not only just younger people starting out profession, but people that are already in the profession, what opportunities do you think there are in going forward for CPAs? Where do you see, like, if you were starting up a CPA firm or you were a partner in a CPA firm and it's 2024, we're having this conversation, where do you think there are some growth opportunities if you're in that world? I'm curious to see what you're seeing.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:29:10 - 00:30:46]

Well, I would agree with you. I think that the options, the sky is the limit, honestly. I think that if I were speaking to a young person, and when I do speak to students, I like to remind them that whatever industry they may be interested in, there's a need for CPAs. So, I'm told of countless stories of being able to have impact, whether it's working with a startup, venture capital, in entertainment, gaming, all of those industries that we talked about where there's still a need for CPAs. And not only that, accounting provides the language, right, of business that would be very helpful in any business endeavor, whether you want to aspire to be an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur or something in between.

 

So, I think that we have to bring the relevance of the profession to young people and help them to understand, you know, and also to experience earlier what accounting could be in their lives and how they may be able to, you know, change their their lives and their community, right, as a CPA and simply being in the profession. So, that, that's where I would go, the conversation.

 

Gene Marks [00:30:46 - 00:31:14]

I would agree. I think there are those opportunities out there. And listen, it's, it's everybody that runs a business needs to be financially literate because it's math and, right? And even if you don't want to run a business, but you're applying for a job in the corporate world, having that CPA after your name. I mean, even if you're not applying for an accounting job, it carries just a level of knowledge and credibility that gets people's attention. So, I wish you the best of luck getting word out there. Go ahead.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:31:14 - 00:32:36]

I will tell you something, Gene. So, when we looked at the research among colleges students, they still felt that the CPA was the gold standard, if you will, whether they intended to pursue it or not, and that has to do with if they think that it's too hard to attain all of those things. So, I think that students definitely need the mentoring and the help along the way to understand, "Yes, I can do this."

 

While math may be a part of it, the other part of it is to be a strategic thinker, to be able to, you know, be a trusted and strategic advisor to your clients in whatever capacity, whatever industry you're in, not just as a firm leader or someone coming up in a firm. And so that's why I say the opportunities are truly endless, right? You earn the license, you become a CPA. It's a gold standard. Like you said, it's respected. And so, I think we just have to find ways to communicate the positive messages and the positive stories to encourage the young people to actually take a chance if they're uncertain of their own capabilities.

 

Gene Marks [00:32:36 - 00:32:44]

I couldn't agree with you more. I couldn't agree with you more. Well, AJ, we're out of time. You're going to do your summer conference at the Borgata again this summer?

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:32:44 - 00:32:48]

Yes. Good. Feel free to join us.

 

Gene Marks [00:32:48 - 00:33:19]

Yes. Whenever it is. I've spoken there a few times. It is a great conference for any of you guys that are watching or listening. You know, it's at the Borgata. It's usually, like in the June timeframe, and it's well worth the trip for any CPAs or people in the financial community that really want to get good content and education. I just think it's a great, it's a great conference. So, good to hear you're doing that. Aiysha Johnson, or AJ, is the CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs. AJ, thank you so much for joining us. This is a great conversation.

 

Aiysha (AJ) Johnson [00:33:19 - 00:33:22]

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

 

Gene Marks [00:33:22 - 00:34:26]

And everybody, you're watching this, the Paychex THRIVE podcast. If you are looking for more insights, some more knowledge, more advice to help you run your business, more information about not only just HR, but just overall business practices, sign up for our newsletter. Please visit us  at paychex.com/thrive. It's P-A-Y-C-H-E-X dot-com/thrive. You'll love our newsletter. It will really help you run your business. My name is Gene Marks. Hope you've enjoyed this conversation. We'll see you again soon. Take care.

 

Do you have a topic or a guest that you would like to hear on THRIVE? Please let us know. Visit payx.me/thrivetopics and send us your ideas or matters of interest. Also, if your business is looking to simplify your HR, payroll, benefits or insurance services, see how Paychex can help. Visit the resource hub paychex.com/worx. That's W-O-R-X. Paychex can help manage those complexities while you focus on all the ways you want your business to thrive. I'm your host, Gene Marks, and thanks for joining us. Till next time, take care.

 

Announcer [00:34:28 - 00:34:33]

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