Good things do not come to those who wait, as the war for talent heats up and accounting firms scramble to offer the best possible salaries and perks to worthy candidates.

Accounting salaries as a whole are projected to grow 3.3 percent in 2013, according to this year's edition of financial staffing concern Robert Half International's annual guide to compensation in accounting and finance. The continued salary rise is across multiple levels in public accounting, with increases generally commensurate to experience in tax and audit/assurance services. Those at the senior manager/director, manager and senior levels will see the most escalation, with entry-level gains lagging by a few tenths of a percentage point.

Accountants in management services will generally see bumps across all levels, with the smallest increases at the up-to-one-year and one-to-three-year experience levels, and some of the largest coming to those in the manager and senior positions.

Overall, the forecast is even rosier for job-seekers than these numbers suggest, according to Robert Half International senior executive director Paul McDonald, who has tracked a continued upswing. The unemployment rate for senior accountants and auditors was also at a relatively low 4.1 percent as 2012 drew to a close, compared to the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent. "Demand is higher in the fourth quarter for public accounting, at all levels, than initially projected," he explained. "For individuals at a staff, senior or senior manager level -- it knows no boundaries -- or for small, medium-sized or large firms."

The report's numbers support low variance across firm size, though generally large firms (those generating $250 million or more in revenue) in tax and audit/assurance services lead the charge slightly, with midsized ($25 million to $250 million in revenue) and small firms (up to $25 million) just behind.

In management services, however, small firms keep pace, and, at the one and one-to-three year levels, surpass the salary projections at the same level in large firms.

 

DRIVER'S SEAT

Qualified candidates are even more in control of their destiny in 2013 than in recent years, with firms looking for new ways to attract and retain beyond mere paystubs.

This begins at the entry level, according to McDonald. "With the Big Four and international firms, we're seeing students be courted quite heavily," he reported. "Students know they have choices, and are savvy at making their choices."

In response, big firms have become more aggressive. "Firms are really trying to get the interns in between their junior and senior year, and have them sign on, even as they complete the internship, in order to get them early. They have the chance to evaluate their technical skills and aptitude for advancement, and they lock them in with a summer internship. They're trying to lock them in at that point."

More experienced accountants are also a hot commodity. "Good candidates at the three-to-six-year level are getting multiple offers if they are actively interviewing," McDonald explained. "There's a shelf life of between two-to-three weeks for a three-to-six-year CPA with an audit or tax background."

This means that firms have to act fast and be receptive to new recruitment resources beyond traditional advertising, he continued, including LinkedIn, state societies and "an entrusted network of employees."

The good news is that those in this experienced pool are more open to staying in the public sphere than in years past. Typically, those in public accounting will move to corporate accounting during the summer or early fall but, according to McDonald, that migration has slowed. "We are actually seeing candidates more open to public-to-public movement," he shared. "Maybe the busy season is easier at another firm, maybe the travel is less at another firm, or maybe the industry exposure is greater. We've been seeing this historic trend of public-to-private, but the newer, more robust dimension is more candidates entertaining public-to-public, which bodes well for the profession."

 

PERKS

This shift is a result of firms offering greater benefits, which can range from flexible time to investing in individual training and CPE. As the appeal of each varies by candidate, McDonald recommends that all options be discussed during the interview process, though "not just as a recruiting technique, but an actual fact." For example, don't tell a candidate they will be able to leave at 5 p.m. three days a week and then fall back on that promise, he warned.

Bonuses have also become more popular in the last year, as both recruitment and retention incentives. "Retention bonuses are being offered to keep people, and also for enticing through the interview and hiring process, with sign-on bonuses, which we haven't seen in quite a bit of time," McDonald continued. "Pre-2007, sign-on bonuses were bandied about, and they are more prevalent today than last year. They are about as prevalent as we were seeing pre-recession."

According to the 2013 salary guide and survey from staffing company Accounting Principals, two in three (63 percent) executives agree that talent retention has become more of a priority within their companies over the last two years, and they consequently report being more proactive in ensuring employee satisfaction.

This extends to the review process, according to McDonald. "Firms are giving earlier reviews, and the monetary reviews are greater than last year. They don't want to go out in the open market for the war for talent that's starting to develop for these CPAs."

 

MULTI-THREATS

Accountants with technology backgrounds continue to be highly attractive, with Robert Half projecting that technology salaries will outpace those in accounting and finance, growing approximately 5.3 percent.

Especially hot are business systems analysts and accountants who are familiar with the latest versions of software, McDonald explained, including ERP systems such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics and Oracle's JD Edwards and Hyperion business intelligence software. "The edges have blurred between accounting and finance and technology over the past decade, the past two decades," he said. "If today, a professional with audit skills has a real strong understanding of IT audits, if they have a [Certified Information Systems Auditor] license, they are a very marketable individual."

In that vein, IT auditors will see some of the biggest salary gains on the corporate side, joined by controllers, divisional controllers and general accountants across most levels and company sizes. Businesses are also seeking employees who can handle Securities and Exchange Commission reporting and, for those that do work overseas, International Financial Reporting Standards. Compliance professionals and internal auditors should also earn steady increases, with those versed in Basel III and Dodd-Frank requirements at an even greater advantage.

With this high demand at so many skill levels in both public and corporate accounting, and the ease of communicating via online networks like LinkedIn, even accountants not looking to switch jobs are being pursued, according to McDonald. "Proactive firms are not waiting for a resignation to react to the situation," he explained. "They are being proactive early, in compensation reviews and unexpected bonuses to boost morale. These are all things to proactively increase retention in a very candidate-driven market."

Robert Half's 2013 Salary Guide is available as a PDF online at www.roberthalffinance.com/salarycenter, or you can order hard copies by calling (800) 474-4253. Accounting Principals' 2013 guide can be found at www.accountingprincipals.com.

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