Experts Advise CPAs in a Recession Job Market

Hang on. It could be a bumpy ride.

May 21, 2009
by Sukanya Mitra

This article was originally published in the AICPA Corporate Finance Insider.

Either way you slice it, the options aren’t the greatest. And yet, in this recession as many laid-off professionals will tell you, it’s better to have a job with any salary — frozen or reduced — than nothing.

And as it turns out, despite the recession, the accounting industry has not been hit as badly as other industries. A recent joint survey compiled by the AICPA and the University of North Carolina found more corporations following President Obama’s lead and retaining qualified talent through compensation or hiring freezes compared to layoffs.

Of the nearly 1,200 respondents, most of whom were CFOs or Controllers, more than half (51%) said they were opting for compensation freezes, while a little under half (47%) said they had decided against hiring. Only two out of five (43%) said they were considering layoffs.

How long will this trend last? “It’s tough to say how long this trend will last,” said Brett Good, district president for Robert Half International. “Firms need to constantly review their staffing strategies to determine what approach will be most effective for them both in the short and long term,” he added.

Blake Christian, Tax Partner at Holthouse, Carlin & Van Trigt, LLP and a regular contributor to our sister publication, Corporate Taxation Insider, expects the industry [to] remain conservative in hiring and raises for at least the remainder of 2009, and likely into the first half of 2010.” Jim Barnhill, Managing Partner of The Lucas Group’s Atlanta-based Accounting & Finance division agreed. “I believe likely until this summer and possibly next fall. Some companies will continue to be reluctant to hire until the financial markets settle down. The compensation freezes will likely extend through 2009.”

Looking at the whole perspective of compensation freezes, hiring freezes and layoffs in today’s recession, Barnhill said that his firm has “seen some accounting firms still recruiting and hiring for certain skill needs such as restructuring and turnarounds.” According to Good, some firms that have placed hiring freezes realize that work still needs to be done and are using project managers to get that work done. “Businesses cannot afford to see service levels fall. For firms that have implemented hiring freezes, bringing in project professionals is a sound strategy to ensure key initiatives are completed and deadlines met. This also alleviates some of the burden on full-time employees,” Good advised.

Talent Retention

Overworked and underpaid are possibly two words that cross many financial professionals’ minds these days with all the layoff and freezes. We thought it was about time managers got a nudge about how to keep their talented staff loyal.

Barnhill summed it up in a three short bullets:

  • Promote culture and stay positive;
  • Rewards & Recognition – it’s not always about money when it comes to why people stay; and
  • Incentive — try to give some tough but reasonable goals that can reward monetarily based upon production or obtaining a new piece of business.

When money is tight, how else can you reward or recognize employees? Often managers forget to do the simple, everyday mannerisms. A simple “thank you” is all it takes reminded Good. He also advised keeping an open communication flow including letting employees know when compensation is an issue. “Remain in communication with your team about what is going on at your firm, which is even more critical during times like these when people are looking for information and grow increasingly concerned when they don’t receive it,” said Good. Keeping with the notion of little things, Christian advised, providing employees with lunch or dinner during the busy season, as well as treating employees to “periodic rewards such as gift cards keeps morale high.”

Another suggestion? “Controlling overtime and overall payroll via shortened work weeks (especially during off-busy season periods) can be bundled into a “Flex-Schedule” program, which is often viewed favorably by the younger employees,” advised Christian. “We are looking at developing programs to attract employees, such as working mothers who prefer to take off periods when their kids are out of school — which can match up with our slower post-busy season periods,” he added.

“When compensation is unavailable as a retention tool, make sure your staff is challenged with a new experience or type of client or industry,” pointed out John Benson, founder and CEO of eFinancialCareers.com. “Managers tend to underestimate how important a fresh challenge is for employees to keep them engaged, learning and satisfied with their position.”

Words of Wisdom

Has anyone gifted you with a pink slip lately? Are you wondering if it’s even worth applying or how to go about landing a job in this market? “Unfortunately it is a Buyer’s Market — just like the real estate market,” said Christian. “Therefore, laid-off workers need to first develop a thorough and unique résumé (most I see show little creativity) and a well-written cover letter briefly explaining the circumstances of why they are unemployed.”

Following the spider-and-the-web tale, in these trying times, to survive, you must believe at first if you fail, try, try again. Good says you must persevere. “Businesses need good accountants and are turning to them to identify ways to increase profitability and reduce costs. You can enhance your career marketability by demonstrating to potential employers your ability to accomplish this,” he said. “Also consider project work, which will help you keep your skills and résumé current, enable you to meet new business contacts, and can lead to full-time opportunities,” he advised.

And if you’re skeptical about online recruiters, this is the time to put skepticism aside and take that leap and get web entangled. “From a job hunting perspective, candidates tend to underestimate the importance of posting their résumé,” said Benson. “Employers who may be reducing staff in one division, but in another need a senior accounting or finance professional, can’t be seen actively hiring. So, the job may never be advertised and the position is filled through searching the database and if you aren’t in there, employers may not be able to find you.” He also advised catching up on the necessary continued professional education.

But Barnhill summed it up best. “Network like hell and be flexible. Accountants should be fine as there is still a strong need for the accounting side. Higher-level financial execs will have a longer cycle to find new jobs. Either way, they will need to be flexible on compensation, re-location and working contract-to-perm in some cases.”

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Sukanya Mitra is Managing Editor of the Insider™ e-newsletter group.