Accounting firm recruiters often refer to themselves as matchmakers, an apt identification, as job-seeking mirrors dating trends -- mainly in balancing increased online scope with necessary personal connection.

In an increasingly competitive market space, firms are using new online tools and forums to broaden their tech-savvy appeal to the next generation of candidates, while still emphasizing the all-important cultural fit only found through in-person interaction.

Whether on campus or on Twitter, a firm's greatest selling point remains its unique story. In communicating that to Millennial students, firms could take tips from the dating world by appearing cool, confident and, at times, casual. In both processes, initial contact is all-important.

 

EARLY AND OFTEN

Recruiters agree that courting prospects in the final year or two of college no longer seals the deal, as demand for accounting talent is up and the competition among firms is fiercer.

"Firms want to start earlier in the academic journey and build a relationship," explained Deepak Surana, vice president of product management at MyEdu, a provider of academic data, college Web applications and a job platform for finance students. "Millennials are all about what relationships, what mission, what's the culture going to be like at a company, and to hear it over and over again from freshman through senior year is incredibly important."

Before selling themselves, though, accounting firms are working to attract students to the profession as a whole, by offering new, more casual introductions to freshmen and sophomores.

"There is sometimes up to four years of relationship development," shared Brent Stevens, partner-in-charge of Top 100 Firm RubinBrown's college and university industry group and campus recruiting function. "We're not even looking from an assessment perspective, but an educational perspective. We want students who are really attracted to the values and mission here, that are not just looking for a job to start, a launching pad for their career."

RubinBrown begins the development process with its two-day, personalized Greater Opportunity for Advancement and Learning, or GOAL, program, which invites sophomores, juniors and occasionally freshmen to come into one of its three offices and shadow professionals. Established four years ago, the program welcomes about 10 to 15 students annually who meet with 20 firm professionals from different service offerings one on one, before going out on a team client meeting.

While RubinBrown designed the separate student visits to ensure individualized attention, they are still meant to be lower pressure than other career events. "We're trying to identify people by going outside the normal recruiting process on campus with more informal, casual events," Stevens explained. "We start the relationships with low pressure -- we don't ask students to bring their resumes."

Equally casual are the interactions that RubinBrown aims to create with students by positioning its younger team members on campuses throughout the year. "We're all cognizant that, as younger students, they probably haven't had as much coaching from career people or professors on how the interview process works, and the students who have gone through that are much more apt at presenting," Stevens said. "That can make them shy away if they haven't done it before - going into a really professional setting is scary. This is designed to identify many more people and we see it as helpful for the profession. Some people have undetermined majors and are thinking of what they are doing with their career, or haven't started."

RubinBrown's on-campus representatives will often be alumni of that particular school, strengthening the network of influence.

"Students tend to follow other students, they tend to engage with other students, and that's a major factor in those organizations' success when it comes to the best of the best," said MyEdu sales director David Hinojosa. "You have to be able to tell your story, and make sure that the students are the people who are actually doing that for you. Students want to connect with students, they don't want to connect with a mid-career CPA who's trying to recruit them to their firm."

 

TOUCH OF A BUTTON

As they develop more complex Internet profiles, students also want to connect online.

"You can't be an ostrich about it; online is here to stay," stressed MyEdu's Surana. "It's important to have an online presence, because whether you know it or not, you do have an online presence -- Glassdoor, LinkedIn, MyEdu -- where students are talking about you, so you better have a presence so you can control that message and participate in that conversation, and start owning your brand online, [rather] than ignoring it."

Pittsburgh-based Top 100 Firm Alpern Rosenthal links its careers Web page to applicant tracking system Applicant Pro, where students can upload their resume and cover letter so human resources and the firm's recruiting coordinator, Tammy Kirksey, can evaluate and monitor candidate progress. She also pushes the firm's job ads out to Twitter and LinkedIn on an automated daily, weekly or monthly basis through social media software solution Bullhorn Reach.

The system, which Alpern Rosenthal has been using for almost a year, refines the recruiting process while improving firm perception, said Kirksey, as students can "use modern technology" to apply through a Web site, rather than sending bulky PDFs.

The Alpern Rosenthal Facebook page similarly positions the firm, as postings about fun events and firm news establish a continual point of contact with students. "When we go to college recruiting, I push Facebook hard and encourage them to tie into our Facebook page, as a lot of new fall hires really enjoy seeing what's going on in the firm," Kirksey shared. "It keeps them excited. If they've accepted the offer and are coming in, you still need to keep them motivated on things over the summer and encourage them."

While LinkedIn caters more to experienced candidates, Stevens said that RubinBrown is keeping an eye on the social network as a developing trend among students.

Overall, however, while the firm has a presence there and on Twitter, Stevens said that they favor a personal touch over most social media. "We will see how career services functions at universities will integrate with [social media]," he said. "We still rely heavily on [career services] and mentors and professors, networks on campus, and business fraternities that have speakers come in."

Alpern Rosenthal does as well, participating in three to four career fairs per season. But when geography prevents students from physically attending campus events, Kirksey said that they sometimes conduct initial interviews over Skype.

"I try to use all the tools all the time," Kirksey explained. "Thinking outside the box never hurts either. So much is available to us now as recruiters, and some things work better than others. We still use mail-outs, which are fairly productive for an external piece."

For the best shot at compatibility, though, the message still transcends the medium.

"Be real - tell students what it's really like to work there and be transparent about what that first job is going to look like," advised Surana. "The cultural fit is probably the No. 1 thing we're seeing from students that they're looking for when they join their first firm."

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