Employers are changing their hiring patterns for accounting staff, according to one expert, increasingly looking for permanent staff or bringing in temps that they hope to convert into full-time employees.

Jodi Chavez, senior vice president at Accounting Principals, a company that recruits and places accounting and finance professionals, has noticed a definite shift in the market in terms of how employers are hiring.

“I would say this is pretty much across the country,” she told me last week. “A year ago, we were still seeing a great deal of temporary positions, where companies were hiring temporaries and leaving them on that assignment or in that space for months and months and months, and then we weren’t really sure if that would convert to a permanent position or not. Fast forward to today’s market, and we’re seeing a great deal of temp-to-perm positions, or temp-to-hire positions, as well as permanent positions.”

The majority of companies are now hiring with full-time accounting positions in mind, at least after a tryout. “They’re bringing people in on a temporary basis, with the expectation that it will go full-time permanent,” said Chavez. “That speaks volumes about the confidence in the economy, in terms of employers wanting to add full-time headcount, whereas last year that comfort level might not have been there. They would call in and want somebody temporary, but were not really sure what the outcome would be. In today’s economy, the majority of our positions are temporary to full-time.”

She has seen a slight bump in salary, but not a huge increase in the past year.

“We haven’t seen a great deal of an increase in salary, but what we have seen over the last 12 months is an increase in additional retention tools for companies,” said Chavez. “There’s more awareness of what the company culture is, primarily because the hiring push to bring in Millennials is a piece of it. We’re also seeing resources brought back to training teams and training committees. Perhaps the focus may not be so much on an increase in salaries, but really identifying and working toward a more employee-friendly corporate culture as a means of retention.”

Staff accountants and assistant controllers are among the hottest jobs at Accounting Principals. “The majority of companies are looking for staff accountants with three to five years’ experience,” said Chavez. “We’re also seeing assistant controllers are in demand.”

Middle management is also making a comeback, in addition to clerk jobs, particularly in certain industries. “In 2008, 2009 and 2010, we saw middle management within the finance department merge and be blended into CFO or controller positions, and we’re seeing a drive to bring that level back, depending on the size of the organization,” said Chavez. “We’re also seeing great demand for AP specialists and AP clerks within a variety of industries, which was really interesting for us to take a look at. Education is an industry that’s driving the need for growth in AP clerks and AR clerks. We’re also seeing a lot of vendors that support the commercial building industry, such as lighting companies and fixture companies that are really focused toward commercial growth and commercial development. Those companies have been hiring pretty steadily for the last six months.”

The hiring trend appears to be nationwide. “We’re seeing from the West Coast through the mid areas, Chicago, Denver, all the way to the East Coast, from Florida all the way up to New York has been pretty steady across the country,” said Chavez. “I can’t say there’s a hot market, whereas a year ago, it was pretty industry driven as to where the hot markets were. But there seems to be such an array of industries hiring today that one market isn’t incredibly hotter than another. One area where we have seen growth where I don’t think any of us perhaps expected was the Pacific Northwest. We’re seeing a lot of hiring going on in the Portland and Seattle markets. California is coming back. They’ve done some great growth in the last year. They were slower to respond to hiring, but California has been very strong, as well as Texas, and also the Midwest and the East Coast, so it’s pretty strong across the country.”

Chavez hasn’t seen the market heat up to the point that many employers are resorting to signing bonuses and retention bonuses for accounting staff, although a recent survey from Grant Thornton and the Financial Executives Research Foundation indicates that many companies are offering such bonuses to high-level finance executives (see Financial Execs See Increase in Salary and Benefits).

“We’re not back to the days of retention bonuses and signing bonuses just yet, but with the unemployment rate for accountants and finance professionals being below 2 percent across the country, I don’t think it will be a long time before we start to see those come back,” said Chavez. “Employers are still of the mindset to some degree that there’s a lot of talent in accounting and finance, so they’re not hiring as quickly as perhaps we would like them to be. There is a shortage of finance and accounting professionals, but we’re not seeing salary wars at the end of the hiring process like we did in ’08, where a counteroffer would be made and then the company that wanted to hire the accountant was willing to increase the salary just to get them to join their firm. We’re not there quite yet. I think employers are on the verge of understanding that the marketplace has shifted and that these highly skilled employees are not as easy to find as perhaps they once were.”

Both employers and employees need to be savvy in social media if they want to succeed in the current job market.

“I think the biggest trend worth noting is just the way to find employees is becoming much more vast with social media,” said Chavez. “Companies really understand the importance of social media within their own corporate branding, and employers are looking to social media to find the right candidates as well as firms like ours. If you don’t have a good social media presence, then now is the time to make sure that’s in place.”