Planning for the Coronavirus Recession

If past recessions are any guide, the profession could lose up to 100,000 jobs.

Busy Season Barometer:
Bracing for the Coronavirus recession

Join the survey. Get the facts.

By Beth Bellor

The tax and accounting profession was adding new jobs at a rate of 2.3 percent per year before the Coronavirus outbreak, according to CPA Trendlines Research.

See: All CPA Trendlines Special Coronavirus Crisis Coverage

More Staffing and Hiring Trends: Automation and the Future of Accounting  |  Getting and Keeping the Best: The Struggle Continues |  Headcounts Dip by 3,500 in Tax & Accounting |  Creative Perks for Remote Employees |  What Staffing Shortage? |  Hiring Trends Flash Warning Signs of Slowdown in Tax & Accounting |  Salary Survey: Top Skills Getting Top Pay

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But with a new recession looming, CPA Trendlines estimates the profession could lose up to 100,000 jobs and take up to seven years to recover.

The latest data available show more than a million employees in the profession, and growing at about 2,800 new jobs per month. At the same time, wages are hitting record highs.

But with the Coronavirus crisis threatening a new recession, CPA Trendlines conducted a long-term, 30-year analysis, focused on the job losses caused by the dot-com crash of 2001 and the financial meltdown of 2007. From the analysis, CPA Trendlines calculates the profession could shed up to 10 percent of its current workforce, and not fully recover for two to seven years.

All employees, thousands, accounting and bookkeeping services, seasonally adjusted
^ Showing dips after the dot-com bubble in 2001 and financial crash in 2008: All tax, accounting, and bookkeeping services, all employees, in thousands, seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

In this report, CPA Trendlines highlights:

  • Current and long-term hiring trends in each of the bookkeeping, payroll, tax and CPA segments of the industry (all data seasonally adjusted)
  • Average hourly wages for key segments
  • Typical hours worked per week
  • Trends concerning women in the accounting workforce


Nationally, the unemployment rate stands at 3.5 percent. For the past six months, the unemployment rate has been either 3.5 percent or 3.6 percent. Nationally, employment rose by 273,000 in February, and the number of unemployed persons at 5.8 million changed little. Professional and technical services increased by 32,000, and employment in financial activities increased by 26,000.

OVERALL TAX & ACCOUNTING EMPLOYMENT

The overall tax and accounting profession was growing at a 2.3 percent annualized date, according to the latest data available from February, repeating January's performance, but down from December's 2.8 percent rate.

A long-term view of earlier recessions shows the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001 resulted in 84,300 job losses, as the overall headcount in the tax and accounting profession fell from a peak of 884,800 in July 2001 to a low of 800,5000 exactly two years later. It would take another 34 months for headcounts to recover.

The financial crash of 2007-2008 resulted in the loss of more than 98,000 jobs and took almost eight years for a full recovery. In December 2007, the profession counted 967,500 employees, then dropped to 869,000 in October 2010, and finally recovered in March 2015 with 970,800 jobs.

^ Production and nonsupervisory employees, thousands, accounting and bookkeeping services, seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

In fact, the number of staffers has never fully recovered from the financial meltdown, after peaking at 767,800 in January 2008, dropping to 692,900 in December 2012, and edging back up to 777,7000 in July 2019, before slipping back down to 765,700 in the latest month available, pre-Coronavirus.

The new data show a total headcount in the profession of 1,035,600 employees in February, up 2,800 or 0.3 percent for the month, and up 23,000 or 2.3 percent for the year. They worked an average 36.3 hours per week, up 0.3 percent for the month and flat for the year. Their hourly earnings averaged $35.04, a new record by 3 cents, up 0.1 percent for the month, and $1.16, or 3.4 percent, for the year.

Staff numbered 765,700, down 11,700 or 1.5 percent for the month but up 6,200 or 0.8 percent for the year. They averaged 34.3 hours, up 18 minutes or 0.9 percent for the month but down 24 minutes or 1.2 percent for the year. They made $27.70 an hour, a new high and up 6 cents or 0.2 percent for the month and $1.26 or 4.8 percent for the year.

CPA FIRMS

In the latest month, CPA firms set a new high-water mark in employment at 496,500, up 1,800 or 0.4 percent for the month and 14,500 or 3 percent for the year. Workers put in 37 hours per week, down 6 minutes or 0.3 percent for the month and 42 minutes or 1.9 percent for the year. They earned $36.94, a new record by a nickel or 0.1 percent for the month, 87 cents or 2.4 percent for the year.

Staff at CPA firms numbered 351,100, up 1,000 or 0.3 percent for the month and 300 or 0.1 percent for the year. They averaged 35.8 hours, up 6 minutes or 0.3 percent for the month but down half an hour or 1.4 percent for the year. Earnings hit a new high of $28.62, up 20 cents or 0.7 percent for the month and $1.33 or 4.9 percent for the year.

But in the long-term, the recessionary job cuts are stark.

^ CPA Firms, 12-month net change, all employees, in thousands, not seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

After the dot-com crash, CPA firms started cutting headcounts in September 2001 (remember 9/11?) and didn't stop until June 2004. Following the financial crisis, CPA firms started shedding employees in January 2009 and kept cutting until June 2011. In both eras, female owners and partners felt the brunt of the down-sizings before male staffers.

TAX PREP

^ Tax preparation services, all employees, in thousands, seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

Tax preparation services employed 87,500 for January, the latest month available, down 9,600 or 9.9 percent and 5,100 or 5.5 percent for the year. But the long-term view charts a generally downward trend since June 2011when employment peaked at 137,100. On the other hand, tax shops snapped back faster than other sectors of the tax and accounting profession.

PAYROLL SERVICES

Line chart
^ Payroll services, weekly hours, since 2010. (CPA Trendlines Research)

Payroll services had 181,500 employees, a new record, up 1,200 or 0.7 percent for the month and 8,600 or 5 percent for the year. They hit 37 hours for the first time, up 24 minutes or 1.1 percent for the month and 1 hour 48 minutes or 5.1 percent for the year. They got new high earnings to match, making $33.35, up 43 cents or 1.3 percent for the month and $3.43 or 11.5 percent for the year.

^ Payroll services, all employees, thousands, seasonally adjusted, since 1990. (CPA Trendlines Research)

In the latest month, staff in payroll numbered 150,700, up 1,000 or 0.7 percent for the month and 4,400 or 3 percent for the year. Their weekly hours hit a new high of 36.7, up 36 minutes or 1.7 percent for the month and 1 hour 42 minutes or 4.9 percent for the year. They made $28.31 an hour, down 8 cents or 0.3 percent for the month but up $1.54 or 5.8 percent for the year.

Payroll agencies started cutting staff before 9/11, with the first blow landing on 4,400 positions in May 2001. The bloodletting continued until 2006, just in time for the financial meltdown, which saw retrenchment for years, on and off, until 2017.

BOOKKEEPING

^ Bookkeeping and other accounting services, all employees, in thousands, seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

In the latest month, bookkeeping and other accounting services dipped slightly from the previous month’s record high to 267,300, down 600 or 0.2 percent for the month but up 9,500 or 3.7 percent for the year.

Longer-term, bookkeeping agencies after 9/11 started trimming in June 2002 and continued into 2005. The financial crisis hit bookkeepers in 2008 and continued until 2011. Since then, the sector has see-sawed between expansion and contraction, with the Coronavirus outbreak now positioned to reverse recent gains.

WOMEN

In the latest month, the number of women employees, who consistently make up about 60% of the profession's workforce, fell to 660,800, down 5,600 or 0.8 percent for the month but up 26,300 or 4.1 percent for the year. At CPA firms they numbered 306,600, down 500 or 0.2 percent for the month but up 9,400 or 3.2 percent for the year.

There were 92,300 women in payroll services, down 1,600 or 1.7 percent for the month but up 13,400 or 17 percent for the year.

^ Women employees, in thousands, all tax, accounting, and bookkeeping services, seasonally adjusted. (CPA Trendlines Research)

 

In each of the century's prior recessions, women were the first to be fired, and also the first to be hired back, but often in lower-paid positions than men.


How are accountants bracing for a recession?

Tell us in Comments

46 Responses to “Planning for the Coronavirus Recession”

  1. joe eckelkamp

    I’m disappointed by the level of panic in the profession. Yes, there will be adverse impacts on client’s, CPAs and jobs, but losing 100,000 CPA jobs is “sky is falling” stuff. This is a media created hysteria. Carry on.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca, California

    In regards to tax clients, have an online portal for upload and retrieval of documents. Have options for e-signature of documents and online payment options. Have a way to do conference calls with Zoom or similar software so you review clients’ tax returns.

    For accounting, have online accounting options: QBO, Xero or hosted environment for desktop accounting software.

    Continue to advertise and market your business. There may be new markets that are developing and thriving that need your services.

    Reply
  3. WJG, CPA in "farm country" South Dakota

    I have been consulting with my farmers for the last couple of years working on freeing up working capital and reducing debt.

    Reply
  4. Cathy

    I think we have to ramp up our drop off, email, & mail process for quicker turnaround.

    Reply
  5. Nick

    We are hoping to be immune from it somewhat, but we expect it to feel much like 2008 and will have to help guide our clients through this turbulence

    Reply
  6. Betty W.

    File more extensions spreading out the completion of returns.

    Reply
  7. Ted P., CPA

    More business advisory functions with a focus on cashflow and advisory things.

    Reply
  8. John in Connecticut

    Improve remote-service ability.

    Reply
  9. Andy, Los Angeles, CA

    Helping business clients.

    Pricing power with many small- and medium-sized businesses is going to go way down, in my opinion.

    Nevertheless, the needs for service among these client groups will continue to be huge, and those accountants and tax pros who truly serve biz clients will emerge victoriously.

    Reply
  10. John Finning

    Offer to help clients with analytics and budgeting

    Reply
  11. Carl in Connecticut

    We are actively working on coaching companies to survive this downturn.

    Reply
  12. Dean, Florida CPA

    Just like past “recessions”. Keep working; hold costs and defer some exp/improvements until later.

    Reply
  13. Russell King

    I am working on utilizing telecommunication, and possibly lowering rates, although there is increased cost for technology and security issues.

    Reply
  14. Kevin J Collins

    1) Be vigilant in not performing work for clients that already owe you money.
    2) up your collection efforts
    2) Watch your staffing levels and be quick to cut any questionable staff post 4/15.
    3) Watch discretionary expenses
    4) monitor the financial well being of clients, especially those in more susceptible industries

    Reply
  15. Veronica

    Cutting costs and reassuring clients

    Reply
  16. Michael Royer

    Communicating with staff
    Assessing excess capacity issues
    Discussions with our bank and vendors.
    Developing a contingency plan for all aspects of our business.

    Reply
  17. Hugh, CPA, President and Founder

    Increase advisory services!

    Reply
  18. Michael H Simms

    Prepare for a recession? Actively engaging clients now with proactive advice tax planning and business management strategies to guide them through the current dynamic and into the new paradigm

    Reply
  19. Gordon Jack

    Get in front of clients more often, make them know that you are their trusted partner through the process. Show them that you value them as a client.

    Reply
  20. MCP, AZ CPA

    Positive attitudes. Move applicable clients online. At every chance, inquire about assisting specific clients with specific services.

    Reply
  21. Jody Padar

    Get ahead of it! Hello Advisory… Be there for your customers! Stay Positive.

    Reply
  22. Karen Schwimmer

    I already work from home and have the ability to send and receive documents remotely so I’m not particularly worried. My overhead is low, but I plan further cuts after tax season. All non-vital bills are going. Stockpiling money earned this season.

    Reply
  23. Jeffrey Barrett

    Stay on top of new regulations and laws. Stay in communication with clients.

    Reply
  24. BH, CPA and Partner, Jacksonville, Fla.

    Reach out to clients that are heavily affected (restaurants, hospitality, etc.) to help by reducing the scope of work or offering a discount until things settle down.

    Reply
  25. MJK, CPA, Maryland

    Just have liquidity (cash on hand) and supplies on hand, and try to keep in good health.

    Reply
  26. Kathleen, CPA EA, Illinois

    Now is the time to make sure all of your systems are sunning in the most efficient way they can. Not only working remotely, but training clients to be better about the security of their confidential information, offering delivery and pickup services to those that do not have computers (many of my seniors), streamlining processes when you have multiple employees and maintaining the highest quality of tax return preparation.

    Reply
  27. Robert Krim

    Review normal workload, and attempt to project the effect the virus will have on this workload. Discuss the situation with staff, and get their input. Contact clients and discuss possible solutions to their problems and concerns. Under any circumstances be Positive!

    Reply
  28. Kelli Cox

    I think we need to start looking at cash flow and cost-saving issues now–even though we have money coming in from tax season we must plan on revenues slowing down.

    Reply
  29. Michigan EA

    This one you couldn’t see coming, so we are doing all our returns by drop off, mail, email or fax.

    Reply
  30. LSC

    Small business clients will have a hard time with a recession. If the government helps small businesses like they’re helping airlines and other big businesses, we could help them get whatever assistance becomes available.

    Reply
  31. Victoria Martin

    Always be conservative in your approach to budgeting and cash flow projections. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Don’t deplete all cash reserves to the bare bones. Some CPAs, by nature, are conservative, but I have seen a lot over the years who literally live paycheck to paycheck. If you don’t have reserves, something like the current pandemic could send your firm into bankruptcy.

    Reply
  32. Kevin Cloward

    Working remote, cutting costs, leveraging technology

    Reply
  33. Perry Barnett

    Stay in contact with clients and ask them what is happening in their business, as well as upstream and downstream. This will allow the CPA firm to plan ahead with the CPA firm’s decisions.

    Reply
  34. Alysha

    Less staff and increased workloads.

    Reply
  35. Sandy Durke

    Make sure to eliminate unnecessary overhead. No more business lunches, etc.

    Reply
  36. Steven Bankler CPA

    Last year we converted to all laptops and cloud applications. Employees are now free to work from home.

    Reply
  37. TRH CPA

    Many industries will be impacted while some will not. The accounting and payroll needs may modify some, but the need for current accounting will increase so management will no how to respond. I don’t expect the time demands for our services to decrease but collection becomes a concern.

    Reply
  38. Brett

    Unfortunately, we may have to lay off bookkeepers and other staff if the recession hits hard enough. I’m already hearing people talking about going under or getting laid off. I’m saddened this happened so quickly and dramatically.

    Reply
  39. Mike McC.

    Have a defined process for client acquisition and engagement management.

    Reply
  40. Les in Minnesota

    Brace clients for reduced revenues, assist with possible cost controls. Keep close attention to firm receivables and continue to be a trusted advisor.

    Reply
  41. John Finning

    Prepare to consult with clients on cost reduction

    Reply
  42. BL CPA

    Review with clients their plans & cash flows.

    Reply
  43. Paul, Salt Lake City

    Collect fees upfront; keep slow-paying clients on a short leash

    Reply
  44. Jerry McHale

    We will need to bring on staff – We don’t do tax work, but are heavily involved in bankruptcy.

    Reply
  45. TB Jr

    Hunker down on hiring and new systems; perhaps bring most training in house.

    Reply
  46. Misssouri CPA

    We have an employee quarantined because he went on a cruise last week.

    Reply

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