College students attending an Ernst & Young tax career event acknowledged they are seeing more interest on campus in accounting as jobs in the financial industry dry up.

"The finance majors are not getting internships," said Deandrea Greer-Thomas, a junior accounting major at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. "Some of them are thinking about changing over to accounting."

She became interested in accounting because her mother works as an accountant for FedEx back home in Dallas. She has interned for the past three summers at Deloitte & Touche, but Ernst & Young is now trying to woo her and other accounting students.

The firm sponsored a two-day "Discover Tax" Diversity Leadership Conference in New York, attracting 97 students from 57 colleges and universities around the country. E&Y aims to attract minority students who are already studying accounting and expose them to the tax specialization, which many college accounting courses don't cover in as much depth as auditing.

"When a new student joins our tax practice, they get to experience a little bit of all the service lines," said Americas director of campus recruiting Dan Black.

The firm has been holding the diversity event for several years, but Black has noticed more applications coming in this year from students as the recession forces many companies to cut back on their recruiting.

This year, E&Y received about 300 applications for the available slots, which are typically around 100. Meanwhile, competition has gotten stiffer, with the grade point average of this year's attendees climbing from an average of 3.5 last year to 3.65 this year.

Last year, Ernst & Young made offers to 75 percent of the students who attended the event, and 95 percent of those who received the offers accepted them. Some students who turned down the offers from E&Y are now asking for jobs after other employers rescinded their offers.

However, this year, E&Y plans to reduce its hiring by 7 to 8 percent. Instead of a little over 5,000 new employees, it will hire less than 5,000, according to Black. He has seen similar trends at rival firms. "The other three big accounting firms have all dropped their recruiting goals," he said. In the past few years, E&Y had been steadily increasing its goals.

PricewaterhouseCoopers U.S sourcing operations leader Holly Paul, however, said the firm hired more full-time campus candidates to start in 2009 than in 2008, and the number of interns PwC has hired has also increased.

However, E&Y doesn't plan to reduce its recruiting drastically and lose out on the next generation of accountants. "We don't want to mortgage the future to save some money now," said Black.

The firm is aiming to recruit a diverse workforce in terms of gender, sexual orientation and ethnic background. Greer-Thomas is president of her campus chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants and is interested in studying international tax issues. She wants to get both a master's degree in accounting as well as a law degree, and eventually practice law at an accounting firm. She has met with other students from around the country at the conference, including another student who happens to come from her Dallas neighborhood.

Emanuel Powell, a freshman who is studying business at the University of South California, also got involved with NABA after a professor introduced him to the organization. He is leaning toward an accounting major, and learning about various disciplines, including tax. "I've been exploring all the different service lines," he said. He took accounting courses at the University of Mississippi while still in high school and is now interviewing for an internship with Ernst & Young.

E&Y only had one or two freshmen at the conference this year, and just one senior. Sixty percent of the attendees were sophomores and 35 percent were juniors. The conference included sessions devoted to tax, the firm, and self-discovery. Students assembled for dinners at a restaurant near Battery Park and Ernst & Young's offices in Times Square. They also went on a scavenger hunt that sent them hunting for items at several client offices in the neighborhood. Perhaps one day they will be calling on those same clients as working accountants.

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