If accounting recruiters were asked in 2002 where they expected to see themselves in 10 years, it's safe to assume that few could correctly answer the classic interview question.

One correct prediction, however, would be online. While recruitment professionals don't see Internet job boards, social media and networks, and video technology ever fully replacing in-person meetings, the virtual recruitment space has gained significant ground on traditional practices.

 

NEW SCHOOL

And in the last few years, that online space has become more specialized. The money that New York-based Top 20 Firm CohnReznick used to spend on job boards like Monster.com has been re-allocated to targeted campaigns on LinkedIn, Glassdoor and Indeed.com, according to national recruiting manager Chris Van Bavel. "We've moved more toward highlighting opportunities on those platforms, with less big money on posting to large boards," he shared. "Overall, [the money spent] hasn't varied significantly in the last three to four years. We made a significant spend on Monster.com in 2005, to purchase 150 job postings for the year. Now, we take that money for a SEO campaign on Indeed.com, and a branding campaign on LinkedIn. It results in a higher volume [of applicants] more specialized to the industry."

Van Bavel has also reprioritized his time, with an estimated 90 minutes to two hours spent each day on LinkedIn (a "fantastic recruiting tool" ). There, CohnReznick's budget is not limited to paid promotion; the firm also utilizes the Web site to award traditional referral bonuses to its employees.

"We have 100 people in the office, each with 150 to 300 followers, so one click can get to thousands," he explained. "Every two weeks, I'll push out a reminder, separate to tax, audit and consulting, saying, 'There are job openings in your market. Copy and paste this link into your LinkedIn newsfeed so all can see and click through to apply. If they put you as a source, you get the referral bonus.'"

While sites like LinkedIn are ideal for professionals with multiple "Experience" entries looking for lateral movement, students are also urged to establish a presence. "I encourage students to go on LinkedIn; it's the No. 1 way you can advance your career and keep networking opportunities up," advised Lauren Sanders, human resources coordinator at Missouri-based CPA and business consulting firm Brown Smith Wallace.

It's also a way for students and recruiters to keep in touch after a campus career event. "At the University of Maryland, we interview 80 to 90 people in one day," said Van Bavel. "It's a dizzying day for students to be interviewed. Then, it's about how much you differentiate yourself - sending a thank-you note and, through LinkedIn, asking to connect. It's a great differentiator and it only takes a little bit. Even if they don't hire you, maybe in two years they will be interested in hiring you."

 

OLD SCHOOL

Some methods of standing out, of course, remain classic even in the digital age.

Assigned in his college professional writing class to profile someone whose job he aspired to take one day, then-sophomore Chris Tkach left voicemails for the Missouri-based managing partners of each of the Big Four firms, as well as John Herber, MP of Clayton, Mo.-headquartered Top 100 Firm RubinBrown.

Herber was the only one who called him back that day. The two arranged and conducted the interview, and Tkach wrote the paper. Later, Tkach brought up that interview when he was on one of his own with RubinBrown, applying to the internship program. This led to four internships through the firm's "accelerate" program during college, and the job he now occupies as an auditor.

"After I met with Chris at the time, I told the recruiting team we need to make sure to follow up with him," Herber recalled. "I was talking to the partner-in-charge of recruiting, saying, 'You need to get to know Chris.'"

Though the two didn't have direct contact after the school-assigned interview, besides Tkach sending Herber the completed paper, Tkach had made an impression. "From inside the firm, we have a quarterly staffing meeting with HR and the recruiting team to talk about the status of students and experienced-level recruits," Herber continued. "His name kept coming up, to follow up with."

Also helping Tkach's buzz was his winning the AICPA's 2010 Elijah Watt Sells Award for achieving one of the 10 highest scores on the CPA Exam, which gave him "tremendous opportunities other than Rubin Brown," Herber pointed out. Consequently, Herber credits one piece of wisdom with helping the firm successfully recruit the young accountant. "Whoever calls, I meet with - that's my philosophy," he explained, "whether a student or someone high-level looking for employment, a CPA or financial professional. At the end of the day, you don't know what seat you're going to be in one day ... . You don't know the importance of that connection."

Tkach agreed, saying that his generation tends to undervalue connections beyond the one that LinkedIn members are prompted to "learn about" via e-mail updates. For that college assignment, "80 percent of the students in my class didn't go outside their comfort zone and didn't find someone doing the job they aspire to take one day," Tkach said. "It was too far outside where they're comfortable. People ask, 'How'd you get the job [with RubinBrown]?' I tell the story and they say, 'That's really great.' I say, 'Why don't you call up the head of the marketing department at Purina, and see if they're hiring?'"

With the availability of tools like e-mail and LinkedIn, phone calls can seem counterintuitive to Millennials, yet they stand out to the generation hiring them. "In my 28 years in public accounting, Chris is the only [student who has called me]," Herber said. "It's guts, is all I can say. ... . Everybody needs to get out of the zone to be in the zone. You have got to challenge yourself - what are you going to do today out of that comfort zone?"

Tkach now urges students toward getting out of that zone, as well as "clearly identifying to yourself what goals you have, to be able to answer that question of where you see yourself in five years or 10 years," in his role as RubinBrown ambassador on the campus of his alma mater, St. Louis University. The ambassador program places one young employee on each of the three to four local Missouri campuses during recruitment events to connect with candidates and evaluate their soft skills. To get to this point of personal assessment, the firm relies on new tools, with Tkach advertising recruitment BBQs on RubinBrown's Facebook page and helping firm members create professional Twitter accounts.

 

VIRTUAL SCHOOL

Online community CollegeFrog has found a niche somewhere between the online promotion for campus events and the events themselves. The company hosted its first National Meet the Firms Week in October, giving firms online access to the digitally submitted resumes of students in their state of operation.

The format hits on two major priorities of the younger generation. First, there's the value that Millennials place on location when choosing a job. Not all college students want to stay in the same town, or even state, after graduation. "I've talked to a lot of managing partners at over 150 accounting firms," said CollegeFrog CEO Jeff Phillips. "And one of the things I keep hearing is that they want to know who the best talent available is, period. At the nearby schools, but, 'What about students that grew up near my firm and went away to school? I can't find those on campus.'"

A second theme is the reliance on online communication. "There is a study that students are spending around nine hours a day on some sort of device, game console or desktop computer, and seven of those are online," Phillips shared. "Students are spending 50 hours a week online, and the average accounting firm career site is not really capitalizing on that."

With this method of communication comes an expectation of "instant feedback," according to Brown Smith Wallace's Sanders, who has seen an uptick of students contacting her online after an interview. "They ask me on LinkedIn why they didn't get [the job], and I'll tell them," she said. "It's becoming more frequent -- even during interviews. Not the primary interviews. But the interviewers are starting to say that students are more and more candid in asking, 'How do you think I did?' It's part of that generation ... more and more of a trend. I think it's refreshing."

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