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How to Re-enter the Job Market

Top CPA career trends and skills set you on the right path.

December 15, 2008
by CPA Insider™ Staff

Here’s the equation for today: Recession + Financial Meltdown = X. What does this mean for CPAs and financial executives? To help you understand both the challenges and rewarding opportunities of a career in finance and accounting, CPA Insider™ invited thought influencers from both sides of the fence, i.e., both job recruiters as well as career coaches to share their insights on this hot button topic. Joining us this week (listed alphabetically) are: Debra Feldman, Executive Talent Agent, JobWhiz; David C. Hisey, EVP and Chief Financial Officer, Fannie Mae; John Hudson, CPA, President, Hudson Consulting LLC.; Denise Probert, MPA, CPA, Vice President of CPA Education, Kaplan Schweser; Thomas Vucinic, CPA, President, Becker Professional Review; Deborah Walker, Career Coach, Alpha Advantage, Inc.; and Carl Wright, CEO, Stephen James Associates. Last week, our panelists revealed how globalization was affecting CPA hiring trends and useful career resources.

Welcome back, panelists. We’d like to start this session by asking: Compared to CPAs of previous generations, are today’s CPAs more likely or less likely to encourage their children to enter the profession?

David Hisey (Fannie Mae): I believe that CPAs are more likely to encourage their children to enter the profession. CPAs are in very high demand. There are countless opportunities in today’s marketplace and I do not foresee that need diminishing any time soon. As new financial reporting models are introduced to the market, interest in CPA careers will continue. And, as the accounting industry and our overall financial climate evolves, I think you’ll see even greater integration of the technical skills and the soft skills. Accounting is a solid career choice and will continue to be an attractive option for today’s incoming workforce.

Denise Probert (Kaplan Schweser): I think that CPAs of the younger generations will encourage their children to enter professions that meet their needs for job satisfaction as well as compensation. This is no different than past generations. Job security is very valuable today. That could motivate parents to encourage their children to select the CPA profession.

Thomas Vucinic (Becker Professional Review): Without a doubt, much more likely. The profession has evolved well beyond the stereotypical green eye-shaded gentleman that sits at a desk working with “figures”. There is true excitement and job satisfaction within the profession that may not have existed in the past. Additionally, many companies and firms understand that flexible work and job share arrangements are critical to retaining staff, especially women. Because of these arrangements, individuals are much more likely to recommend the profession to their children.

Carl Wright (Stephen James Associates): Just as likely. The profession took a hit during the dot-com boom marked by the rise of IT professions. However, our profession has proved to be highly resilient and able to withstand economic fluctuations.

CPAs are also in high demand and with it comes strong compensation, prestige, advancement potential, and the solid foundation the CPA credential provides even when one changes careers or moves toward general management in running a business.

For CPAs who haven’t been in the job market for a while, what changes and challenges should they be ready for in today’s job market?

Debra Feldman (JobWhiz): Lots of competition from those who are already successful and looking to make a change, who have undoubtedly kept up their skills and knowledge, who have a recent track record of accomplishments, and have maintained their networking connections.

Hisey: We are in a period of great change. It is essential that those looking to come back into the accounting job market should be ready for many new standards and new emphasis on being ahead of the curve, not to mention an increased work pace and the need for flexibility.

John Hudson (Hudson Consulting LLC.): I think that is going to be specific to the actual opportunity the CPA pursues. There are, however, certain things that are more common that all CPAs must possess. Certainly, a very in-depth understanding of how to personally use technology. The days of the professional who isn’t completely comfortable using common applications like email, web browsing, and Microsoft Office-like applications (word processing, spreadsheets, Power Point, etc.) have long passed. This is the 21st century equivalent of knowing how to read and write.

Beyond that, however, CPAs have to have a more contextual understanding of the markets in which they operate. Detailed textbook knowledge of a deeply technical topic just isn’t enough without understanding the broader strategic & tactical implications. CPAs must understand the context in which their services are delivered — not just the best detailed technical solutions.

Probert: The job market demands strong computer skills. Those who’ve been in one position for more than 15 years may find themselves a bit behind the younger generation who can maneuver software and hardware as if they’ve been doing it their whole life. Truth is, the younger generations don’t know a life without technology.

Vucinic: Speed. Remember the old “waiting for a fax” days. Those days are over. With e-mail/Internet/instant messaging/PDAs, sharing information is instantaneous and accessible 24/7. My advice to those that have been out of the profession for some time is to not only stay current on “technical” accounting topics but keep current with “technology” as well. Although many courses are available for purchase, there may be a more cost effective way to stay current … find out what your teenage/college children are embracing and that will give you a good idea as to what technology is “hot.”

Deborah Walker (Alpha Advantage, Inc.): CPAs will find the job market much more competitive as more and more professionals vie for top positions. Resumes must demonstrate excellence. Interview skills must be top-notch sharp. CPAs must understand how to communicate their accomplishments or get left behind in the pile of candidate rejects.

Wright: It may not be as easy to find a permanent job as they think. Though CPAs are still in demand, most employers are looking for employed candidates that are moving into a lateral or career progressing position. CPAs coming back into the market should consider marketing themselves as consultants with a wealth of knowledge and a get-it-done attitude.

Some very senior financial executives need to be prepared to take compensation cuts with there being a more balanced supply and demand of talent, particularly at the most senior levels. They also must prepare for the challenge that some employers will not be willing to allow them to take a reduced compensation package, and, therefore, will pass on the person as a candidate for the position.

The most frequently cited CPA career trends according to our reader surveys are:

a) Work/Life Balance
b) Mentoring/Gentoring
c) Telecommuting (even for top execs)
d) Getting Back on Partner Track even after taking time off

Please comment on any or all of the above.

Probert: Continued discussion and action on work-life balance issues is needed. Attracting and retaining talented human capital is vital to the profession and to CPA firms. Alternative work environments will continue to be explored as the creative “Millennials” search for alternatives to the current environment. Telecommuting will continue to be a viable solution to attracting and retaining our brightest talent. It allows the worker to be productive and contribute to the organization in a manner that is inexpensive to the firm. The internet has enabled the expansion of the home office from being an extension of the work office to a replacement of the work office.

Vucinic: The public accounting profession has been talking about these initiatives for years so I hope readers perceive these to be trends. What we must realize is that less than half of the CPAs are actually working in public accounting so the equally important question is “what sort of career trends or initiatives” exist for CPAs outside of public accounting.

Wright: I see these items being important to CPAs I meet. Often, the CPAs are willing to adjust their high compensation requirements in order to get the desired work life balance. I also find that CPAs desire general management career tracks (as opposed to strictly financial management) and continue to seek equity opportunities in the corporate world, in lieu of strictly cash compensation.

Do you have any final takeaways for CPA Insider™ readers?

Feldman: The watchword for career management is networking. It is not only what you know but who knows what you know that will determine the type of career opportunities that you’ll attract and that will come to you. Proactively seek out introductions to individuals likely to be connected to job leads that you want and cultivate relationships with these contacts on a regular basis offering them something, rather than asking for help. Networking is not a transaction-based activity but governed by trust and credibility meaning that connections should be valued for their long term value not just as a way to open a door immediately to an open position.

Hudson: I feel VERY strongly that the CPA profession needs to perform a zero-based look at how we allow new professionals to enter and ultimately practice within the profession. Then we need to reengineer ourselves for that new reality without worrying about maintaining a death grip on the past. CPAs collectively need to adopt a mindset of continuing to change and adapt to the changing realities rather than fighting to hold on to a nostalgic view of what worked in the past. I find it scary and not too comforting when I see how many CPAs are performing the same services they were performing 20, 30 or 40 years ago and wondering why there standard of living may be declining.

Vucinic: Accounting is a wonderful profession that opens many (different) doors. There is a high level of pride within the community. When the profession was rocked by the scandals of the early 21st century, we didn’t despair. We recognized deficiencies and took immediate action to restore the credibility of the profession.

Wright: I would like to see our profession continue to strongly discipline those CPAs who violate public trust. I also would like to see the Big 4 firms push people out, or at least not promote public accountants to the senior or in-charge level prior to passing the exam.

So there you have it. Whether you are a practicing accountant or someone who wants to break into the financial field, you now have all the ammunition you need to not only enter the field, but enjoy a long-lasting spot on the top rung.

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