Accountants' salaries will continue their steady growth in 2014, according to financial staffing concern Robert Half International's annual guide to compensation in accounting and finance.

Across the board, RHI projects that accounting and auditing salaries will rise 3.4 percent. Generally, the more years of experience, the slightly higher the salary increase.

Indeed, according to Robert Half International's senior executive director Paul McDonald, the demand for experienced accountants is fiercer than ever. "The war for talent is very hot right now," he said. "We're seeing those experienced folks commonly receive multiple offers. I've talked to many at the experienced level and senior level who have had offers and acceptance within two to four weeks after putting their resumes out, or even mentioning to people they're looking for new opportunities." The bounty also extends to entry-level job seekers, he added. "It bodes well for students and the accounting profession -- it's a very good picture, a great time to be an accountant and auditor."

BY THE NUMBERS

Just how great? The pay bumps are a little higher at large firms (those generating $250 million or more in revenue) in all three service categories -- tax, audit/assurance and management services -- though the midsized ($25 million to $250 million in revenue) and small (up to $25 million) firms trail by only a couple tenths of a percent.

Within each size category, the increases are similarly distributed: highest at the top and dropping off very slightly at each experience rank.

Midsized firms have the slimmest gap in salary bumps between the most experienced role of senior manager/director and the "up to 1 year" level, compared to the small and large firms.

Midsized firms in the management services category have the least disparity in pay increases between all titles, with entry-level gains even trumping those for senior manager/director -- but only by a tenth of a percent.

The paraprofessional/bookkeeper role, at all firms, should expect a 3.4 percent gain.

Meanwhile, the profession's unemployment rate is still below the general population, at 3.2 percent compared to the 7.3 percent national average recorded in the final months of 2013.

"We went through a period of very tough employment, from 2008 to 2010, and since then have seen unemployment for public accountants go down each year," McDonald said. "We project it will go down again ... and it's not going to get any easier to find available candidates for the job openings that public firms have today or are projecting to have in 2014."

These firms tell McDonald that they are focused on a three-pronged recruiting strategy, starting with students.

AT THE ENTRY LEVEL

"I'm hearing firms are meeting with candidates in their sophomore years to build those relationships so when they are into their junior year and getting internships, those firms already have a leg up on the competition. ... The firms are very active on campus, and not just the Big Four. They are going to more universities and the budgets have been enhanced to spread out to more universities."

Are firms leveraging social media in this "early and often" approach?

"Not only in public accounting recruitment, but all recruitment," McDonald shared. "They are using social media to announce they're going to be on campus, building the population of available students to meet with them, and to stay in touch with the audience after the event. We're seeing LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter be the big three as it relates to staying in touch with students."

This social savvy extends to soft skills, which McDonald explained have been more apparent in new hires. "Students coming off campus today have enhanced non-technical skills. There is a lot of academic involvement in that area - I'm quite impressed with the level of soft skills. It's apparent in career fairs and interviews. Accounting students, and all business students, have better training today than a few years ago. Word is out that employers are looking for it."

LATERAL MOVES

The second part of most firms' current recruiting strategy, according to McDonald, focuses on those very sought-after experienced hires.

Their current demand prompted Chicago-based professional and financial services consultancy Koltin Consulting Group to issue a 2013 Lateral Hiring Study of 150 lateral hires made by non-Big Four public accounting and financial consulting firms between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 2013.

According to the study, firms are increasingly spending money at the "heavyweight" level, with a majority of firms (74 percent) hiring lateral partners to accelerate their growth. At the same time, 14 percent of firm hires were senior managers and 12 percent were director/principals.

Unsurprisingly, the most lateral hires were made in regions home to the largest population of Top 100 Firms, with seven states representing 60 percent of total hires. The Mid-Atlantic region led with 34 percent of those hires, with the Southeast at 20 percent and the Midwest at 17 percent.

Tax is the most in-demand service line for lateral hires, at 44 percent, though advisory/consulting services have become more popular, bringing the category even with audit services as each comprise 28 percent of lateral hires.

"Firms can't get enough highly qualified tax talent, a complete role reversal from five years ago when the hiring surge of experienced auditors ignited by Sarbanes-Oxley was still in full effect," according to the study.

On the flip side, generalists are less attractive, with the top lateral hires by industry expertise led by real estate, then high-net-worth individuals/family office, with hedge funds/broker-dealers/private equity rounding out the top three.

Other desired areas of expertise were in technology/media, not-for-profit/government and retail/consumer products. The top lateral hires by technical expertise, in descending order, were in international tax, partnerships, transactions, trust and estates, Yellow Book/Circular A-133 audits and state/local tax.

These lateral hires, as noted by the survey, are driven by most firms' impatience to groom and develop their potential talent into high performers.

SUCCESSION PLANNING

Consequently, McDonald reports succession planning as the third and final part of the current recruiting puzzle for most firms.

"There's a lot of movement to try and get Generation Y experienced accountants to move toward senior leadership positions," he said. "A lot more time and focus is spent on that, as firms see the fruits of their labor. There is an increased investment in time and dollars to see these staff, managers and senior managers get to the next level - and more so than last year."

Retention is obviously the first battle regarding in-house talent, and McDonald has witnessed several salary trends to hold on to these high potentials, including flexible work hours, and more signing, variable and spot bonuses.

"One thing we're hearing more of is the unexpected bonus," he shared. "The bonus that is given for a job well done goes a long way when someone doesn't expect that, the spot bonus. We're hearing more of it today and it goes a long way for retention and morale."

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