Enrollment is down in Alaska’s university-level accounting programs — but demand for accounting in the state is on the rise.

Julie Hamilton is the former Chief Financial Officer of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, and an associate professor of Accounting, Business, and Public Administration at the University of Alaska Southeast.

In a presentation last week (10-20-21) as part of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Speaker Series, Hamilton reported that enrollment in the university’s accounting classes had dropped from 600 in 2017, to just over 400 now.

Nevertheless, there is an upmarket for accounting professionals at all levels in the state. 

“So we definitely have these declining, degrees awarded,” said Hamilton, “and I am contacted, often from businesses, the state, CPA firms saying ‘we need graduates, we need accountants, we need people.’ They have to go outside of the state to try and recruit these students. And and that’s sometimes unfortunate. We all know that trying to bring people into Alaska can be hit or miss.”

Hamilton’s department offers four levels of accounting training: An occupational endorsement, a one-year accounting tech certificate, a two-year Associate’s Degree, and a four-year Bachelor’s Degree with an emphasis in Accounting.

The school’s Masters of Public Administration also incorporates accounting classes.

Three-quarters of the students are attending part-time while working; 60-percent of students are over 30 years of age. And there’s a flexible schedule  that was unheard of until a few years ago.

“What I would personally love to do is teach more classes that are — I think the new term is maybe polysynchronous — where we teach in the classroom at the same time, as we’re teaching online, and we’re recording,” Hamilton said. “So students can choose ‘Okay, do I want to go to class today? Do I want to log in to class today? Do I want to watch the video later?’”

Hamilton has worked as a professional accountant for 33 years, with many of those spent in the private sector, in addition to her tenure with the Alaska Permanent Fund. She’s born and raised in Juneau. Like many Alaskans, she did not spend her entire career behind a desk. 

“One of my little side detours in between working for LG Rayfield and opening my own CPA firm, I did commercial fishing on a seiner, and I ran the seine skiff for a summer,” Hamilton said. “And of course I was the accountant for the skipper. ‘You have a CPA license, Oh can you do this for me? Can you do that? Can you do all the 1099s?’ So I have seen it’s it’s a business and I have seen some of the business owners sort of fail in that way. And 1099s are critical. You can’t not file them.”

Hamilton was introduced to accounting in a class at Juneau-Douglas High School, and she loved it right away, and knew that it would be her career. She regrets that high schools typically don’t offer accounting classes anymore, and that the profession — which can mean the difference between success and failure in business — has become stigmatized.

“Everybody has this notion that it’s a boring…something, you know,” said Hamilton. “There are some things about accounting that, you know, we count beans and things like that. But accounting can be fun. You can work anywhere. I know that’s not exactly what we’re here to talk about. But I just wanted to put that out there.”

Hamilton said that there are niche opportunities opening up in Alaska that are unique to the state and the lifestyle here, like environmental accounting, including sustainable tourism and ecotourism.

The Sitka Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Speaker series meets every Wednesday at noon via Zoom.