No industry was immune to the near-devastating effects of the recent recession. Virtually all fields, including accounting and finance, were forced to make serious cutbacks. Fortunately, the economy seems to be on the road to recovery.
My name is Eric Buckland. Previously an auditor, I also have over five years of audit and accounting experience and for the past five years I’ve been a finance and accounting recruiter. This past summer, I noticed an upswing in hiring activity among local CPA firms. Below, I’ve compiled some of my observations and insights after speaking with current and new clients.
High-tech Job Boards: Blessing or Curse?
Although technology has revolutionized modern communications by making it easier than ever for people to connect, there’s a flip side to the phenomenon: smartphones, social networks and other gadgets have, in a way, made our lives more complicated. This is especially the case for employers, who are now faced with learning new technologies in order to attract new talent. With the abundance of options and information, it’s essential to have intelligent filtering tools in place.
As job portals have transitioned to the web where it’s easy for anyone to post a listing or apply for a position, the number of candidates has increased by leaps and bounds — although that doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the candidates has improved. There are more people seeking work, but a majority of them are not qualified for the jobs for which they’re applying.
Loopholes in the Screening Process
Many public accounting firms today use automated screenings, in which candidates answer a set of initial questions to filter applicants who don’t meet the requirements. Anyone can apply, but if someone fails to meet the basic core criteria, their information is not passed along.
Résumés that pass the initial screening are generally reviewed by a human resources (HR) professional. In the interviews I conducted, some public CPA companies took the time to review each and every résumé, while others admitted there may be a bit of a “black hole” in the screening process: some résumés simply can’t be reviewed due to limited resources and time constraints.
When a number of qualified candidates are identified, the review process is sometimes slowed down — or stopped altogether — due to staff shortages and busy schedules. While HR professionals do screen qualified résumés, it should be noted that most HR employees are not tax and finance experts. Most aspects of your job — from the vocabulary you use to the informed assumptions you make on a day to day basis — are uncharted territory to most non-CPAs and even some HR professionals. While they may have an understanding of what the position entails, there are some cases in which a qualified résumé may be ignored. For instance, if you apply for an SEC reporting manager position and talk about your audit skills, assuming the reader knows you’ve produced Qs and Ks, your résumé may be overlooked. The same is true for CPAs applying for analyst positions, who talk more about picking samples and less about reviewing account reconciliations.
Getting Face Time for Your Résumé
As a CPA, what’s the most effective way to apply for jobs and make sure your résumé doesn’t get filtered out? It’s important that you custom-tailor your résumé to the position you are responding to, use the same buzz words that appear in the job description and don’t assume that the person reviewing the résumé will be able to read between the lines. You could be the most qualified in the sea of candidates, but if another applicant does a better job of customizing their résumé, you run the risk of missing out. Also, if you see a job posting that seems like a good fit, time is of the essence — be sure to respond as quickly as possible.
CPA Salaries: Falling Short of Expectations
As CPA hiring has picked up, I asked these same public companies what other changes they are noticing. One of the biggest trends they mentioned is that candidates seem to place a greater value on compensation increases. This is understandable, especially after a period during which most CPAs experienced salary freezes or reductions.
In spite of this focus on salary, today’s CPA firms are usually unable to provide large offers or increases, especially when their current staff is or has experienced salary cuts or freezes. This may come as a shock to many CPAs who have come to expect generous compensation and large raises for each job change. Most of them assume that the longer they stay in public accounting, the larger the pay off will be. The truth is, most of the lucrative salaries go to the people who leave after three years when they enter into an internal audit rotation, which is common among Fortune 1,000 companies. After two years, they are promoted into another area within the company.
So when a managerial position becomes available in a CPA firm, who is more qualified? The person with three years of public experience and two years of private experience with the company or the candidate with five years of audit experience who isn’t familiar with the company or their operations? The answer is obvious and although many people do well leaving at the managerial level, there are just as many who unhappily remain in senior management roles because they have been unable to find the opportunity they believed existed.
More Than Meets the Eye
Another trend today’s public companies are noticing is the importance of having a good story. The story of the CPA firm’s history, how they handled the recession, their innovations, the opportunities they have created for their employees and their future plans for growth — all of it is highly important in attracting suitable and qualified candidates, especially in light of the compensation restrictions. The CPA who places equal value in a company’s background, benefits and future opportunities will achieve better short-term and long-term success than when focusing purely on compensation.
The Social Media Knowledge Gap
The final trend I found — and, in fact, had experienced myself — is that HR professionals are generally unsuccessful at using social media. While they may be reaching a large number of people, they need to determine how many recipients are actually reading their messages and whether they are targeting the right audience of qualified candidates. A high volume of responding candidates means nothing if they don’t have the required skill set.
The Last Word
So, how are CPA firms finding the candidates the need? Although no one I spoke with was able to produce any specific percentage of each source, the main sources are internal referrals, recruiters and job postings.
If you are a candidate looking for new opportunities, customize your résumé for each position before responding. Keep in mind that even if a new job doesn’t offer a hefty salary increase, additional value may lie in the company’s future success, so listen closely to their story.
Social media and high-tech applications aside, your own personal network of former colleagues and recruiters could be your best source of leads, as personal referrals and relationships can act as natural filters. Even with all of our cutting-edge technology, there is simply no substitute for the confidence and impact created by the human touch.
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Eric Buckland is a former auditor who has been an Audit & Tax Recruiter for six years working nationwide for Fortune 1,000 companies.