The accounting profession has traditionally attracted high-caliber candidates, those with top-flight financial and technology skill sets and long on ambition.

The overall luster of signing on at a CPA firm, however, has dimmed slightly. To soften that trend, firms looking to fill new positions with high-potential entry-level candidates should sweeten the pot by offering new incentives - or emphasizing old ones, job experts advise.

"There is more of a spotlight given to other professions," explained Jodi Chavez, senior vice president of accounting finance and recruitment agency Accounting Principals. "Accounting doesn't seem to get the limelight or spotlight it once did."

Indeed, in 2011 the Big Four dropped in their rankings of ideal employers for U.S. undergraduate students, according to a survey from employer branding company Universum. Based on the responses of 61,726 college students to their Ideal Employers for Undergraduates report, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PwC each fell two spots, while KPMG dropped three.

Overall, Universum found that more students were looking outside their majors for employment. "Students are beginning to realize they can apply their skills in any company they choose, from accounting in the United Nations to HR in NASA," stated Roger Manfredsson, Universum's global director of sales.

Accounting majors who do stick to the traditional path will find that post-graduation offer rates have diminished slightly, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' 2011 Student Survey. For the first time since the survey's inception in 2008, accounting majors no longer top the list with the highest percentage of offers, having been overtaken by computer science majors, who reported a 56.2 percent rate.

 

A CLOSE SECOND

Nonetheless, accounting still holds strong. Though the major's offer rate dropped by 8.3 percent among the 50,000 students (of which 20,000 are graduating seniors) surveyed this year, it still came in a close second at 53.8 percent.

The continued advantage this gives accounting students is not lost on them. "Candidates are confident to make moves," said Bill Driscoll, district president of Robert Half International, which owns temporary employment agency for accounting and finance professionals Accountemps. "Several years ago, you had a job and hunkered down and had the chinstrap mentality. Now there is more confidence in candidates."

The recent Robert Half Professional Employment Report revealed that a net 5 percent of financial executives plan to increase staff in the fourth quarter of 2011, up three points from the previous quarter's forecast and the highest projected net increase in three years. A total of 91 percent of the 4,000 surveyed U.S. executives also expressed at least some confidence in their companies' business prospects in that time period.

But while "candidates coming out of college campuses are fantastic, well-prepared ... and a very viable group of people," said Chavez, firms are always on the hunt for specialized hires, and that group is shrinking.

According to the Robert Half report, 59 percent of CFOs reported difficulty in finding highly skilled applicants, an increase of 18 points from the third-quarter survey.

 

FOCUS ON FLEXIBILITY

While even the dwindling pool of highly qualified candidates is at the mercy of an uncertain economy, both these candidates and firms can benefit from the shifting priorities of this next generation.

"People are ready to give up a little bit of pay for flexibility," reports Allison O'Kelly, a former CPA and founder and CEO of national staffing firm MomCorps, which matches employers with talent seeking flexible work. "And accounting is almost the perfect industry for flexibility."

A 2011 national Harris Interactive survey of 2,127 adults conducted by MomCorps found that 42 percent are willing to give up some percentage of their salary - the average was 6 percent - for more flexibility at work, while the 18-34 age group is up to three times more likely to give up more than 10 percent of their salary. Somewhat surprisingly, men are twice as likely, at 12 percent, to give up more than 10 percent of their salary for more flexibility than women - for what "everybody tends to think is a women's issue," said O'Kelly.

Regardless of gender, firms need to capitalize on this unique perk of the profession. "Firms should bring it up immediately as a recruiting tool," O'Kelly advised. "It used to be, 'Oh, by the way, we have flexible work polices.' Now it's a big piece of the package young people are looking for."

Ernst & Young's director of campus recruiting, Dan Black, agreed. "I wanted work-life balance, but it was not something I talked about in the recruiting process," he remembered. "[Today], they do talk about it more and are more forthcoming about what they hope to achieve."

O'Kelly has seen growth in the amount of flexible time firms that offer since she left public accounting in 1997, though not all firms equally advertise it. "I think it can be a differentiator," she continued. "The Big Four does a nice job of spelling it out for people."

 

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Larger firms have more chances to be overt, with myriad campus and leadership events.

Through E&Y's recruiting activities, Black has noticed other priorities besides flex-time emerge. "There is an ever-increasing interest in all things global; students continue to be interested in this and are explicit about what they are interested in," he explained. "They are spending time abroad at earlier and earlier junctions in their career. It's the main reason last year that we launched our global student exchange."

The American Institute of CPAs found that "the next city is more important than the next job to Millennials," said Heidi Brundage, senior technical manager of the AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section team, at August's AICPA EDGE Conference for emerging leaders. And for the first time this year, the AICPA administered the CPA Exam outside the U.S.

In addition to coveting a more international workplace, candidates are looking further into the future, said Black. Firms can help illuminate that path by bringing different levels of firm employees to recruiting events.

"Students are really interested in hearing from folks what they will be doing day-to-day," Black continued. "We bring a full team, from partner to staff, on campus, and students like to talk to all of them, see what life will be like in 10-15 years, and staff can say, 'This is what we'll be doing.' They get to hear not just the recruiting story, but exactly what it's going to be like on Day One."

Also, while Black acknowledges that online social networking has upgraded elements of the traditional booth-on-campus recruiting model, with "more students now signing up and looking more intently at jobs on LinkedIn than I've ever seen ... high touch is still very much at a premium for candidates to land their first job."

Accounting Principals' Chavez agrees that job networking sites like LinkedIn will never fully replace the in-person format, but said that firms can learn from their aesthetic. "Traditionally, CPA firms were traditional in types of recruiting style - booths were very traditional and corporate," she said. "We're starting to see a movement more to social networking and CPA firms enhancing their recruiting style and corporate images. Not to an unstructured or un-corporate look, but very much balancing their traditional look and feel and incorporating the look and feel of the next generation."

 

WHAT'S NEXT?

That look is still evolving.

Sarah Johnson, recruiter and chief growth strategist and founder of professional services firm advisor Inovautus Consulting, envisions some candidates using video resumes to apply for spots at more progressive firms in the next eight months to one year.

She also points to the career blogs of firms like Freed Maxick & Battaglia and Armanino McKenna that give advice, provide a window into staff life and advertise recruitment events as correctly targeting this demographic.

"Kids coming out of school now are so focused on digital," Johnson said. "I found, six years ago, doing campus recruiting, a distinct difference in attendance to events. If it's still trending that way, today there would be a very low attendance, where you're missing half of your potential candidates. Digital is important, specifically for that market."

While the bulk of CPAs and firms might not need too complex a digital strategy to hire or get hired, firms would still be wise to keep an eye on these online trends.

"Accounting has been and will remain a challenging industry to recruit for," said Chavez, "but my advice for firms would be to continue to stay on the leading edge."

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