Pizza parties, betting pools on the TV show Survivor and a team-building "camp" for new hires are images that do not come immediately to mind when pondering accounting firms. However, these are all tactics that CPA firms are currently using to lure in new accounting graduates and keep the employees already on staff smiling."We do crazy things. We just had a big St. Patrick's Day party, we had a Thanksgiving party, and one for Christmas. After the busy season is over, we all go bowling together," revealed Andrew Armanino Jr., managing partner at regional CPA firm Armanino McKenna LLP, based in San Ramon, Calif. "Our whole focus is people. Our clients will get great service if our staff is happy. You have to start with the core."

As enrollment in accounting programs at universities across America continues to climb, firms are looking to implement creative recruiting strategies.

The American Institute of CPAs reported a 19 percent increase in enrollment and the number of graduates - 53 percent of whom are women - in accounting programs from 2000 to 2004.

These new accountants are entering the market at a time when accountants in all fields are still in very high demand. New graduates have many options, as the number of job openings still outweighs the number of new accountants entering the profession, said Joel Allegretti, senior public relations manager at the AICPA.

At the same time, it's getting harder to qualify as a CPA. Forty-five state boards now require 150 credit hours in order to sit for the CPA exam - with three more states slated to join the list by 2009. Firms are compensating accounting majors for the extra cost and time by offering some of the highest entry-level salaries ever.

According to the Robert Half Finance & Accounting 2005 Salary Guide survey, the range for an entry-level accountant with a maximum of one year of experience was $28,250 to $39,750, depending on firm size. Today, the same criteria produces a range of salaries from $35,500 to $52,000, a 28.25 percent increase.

Times have most definitely changed, noted Nancy Geary, a partner at Northbrook, Ill.-based CPA firm ECS Financial Services Inc. "It was tougher to find a job out of school initially in my day," said Geary, who graduated over 20 years ago. "It's very much an employee's market today. Companies our size are fairly expensive, so we've gone with some alternative methods of recruiting new staff members."

On campus, and online

A number of firm executives agreed that the No. 1 avenue to pursue when recruiting new accounting professionals is to become as involved with local campuses as possible. Setting up a booth at the university's career fair is not the end-all of recruiting on campus, however, said Armanino.

"Get involved with professors, because they know and are involved with the top students," advised Armanino. "Go to 'Meet the firm' nights and [try to] sponsor things."

Other CPAs also suggested doing presentations and making speeches about your firm at local campuses, forming e-mail lists with local professors of accounting, and offering internships to students.

While many midsized or larger firms offer full-semester, and sometimes even longer, internships, Tom Schulte's Los Angeles firm, RBZ, brings in students for a one-week externship. The shortened time gives students a taste without long-term commitment, and saves the firm from spending thousands.

Michael McNee, CPA and partner at Marks, Paneth & Shron LLP in New York City, advised CPA firms to not treat interns as gofers who sit around the office making photocopies for partners all day, but as budding professionals.

"In my program, we try to get them out to clients. They are like paraprofessionals. They want to be out in the field, not just at the office," said McNee. "You have to be careful how you put them out there and how much responsibility you give them, but surprisingly, I have found that they catch on very quickly."

Another big factor in attracting new talent can be online presentations. A fun, yet professional, Web site with detailed goals, client service niches and biographies can lure top talents to at least remembering the name of firm.

BKD LLP, a large regional CPA and advisory firm in the Midwest and Texas, posts on its Web site, under the heading "Recruiting Profiles," employees' tales of how they became accountants, the recruiting process with BKD, and advice to accounting majors.

Every month, two CPAs are chosen at random from any one of the 27 BKD offices for a short profile on their experience at the firm and in the accounting profession, and how they were hired at BKD.

What they want

"What's important to new accountants has changed slightly," said Leslie Murphy, 2005-2006 chair at the AICPA and group managing partner at the firm of Plante Moran. "The No. 1 thing that contributed to, or was important to them, was the ability to advance in an organization. This is the first time that work/life balance was equal to being able to move up."

Mentoring and "buddy" programs are one way that some firms like Plante Moran try to make their new hires feel more comfortable.

Of course, great pay is also a key factor in choosing a firm, said Doug Carmichael, accounting professor at Baruch College in New York and former chief auditor at the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. But being flexible and feeling "at home" is just as important. "I try to find out what students are interested in doing. I tell them a personal chemistry with a firm is important," he said. "If you go somewhere and you have a sense that you feel at home, that's definitely the place to go."

While certainly the Big Four, and a large number of Top 100 CPA firms, still look at grade point averages as a sure indicator of ability and achievement, a number of mid-level and smaller firms are focusing more on characteristics such as attitude, personality, leadership ability and ethics to weed out potential candidates.

"One big factor is that all firms come into public schools thinking you need to have a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA," complained Ali, an accounting student in his last year at Baruch College, who preferred not to give his full name. "I work full time and go to school full time. I sleep for five hours, six hours, and get up and go back to school. Firms should see that factor, not just GPA."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access