What Smaller Firms Expect From New Accounting Grads

Strong academics, work-readiness, and plans to achieve licensure top the list.

by Sarah Ovaska-Few

July 18, 2017

While accounting graduates are often drawn to the glamour of the Big Four and other large firms, many also find small and medium-sized firms excellent places to work. At smaller firms, new hires often have more access to firm leadership than they would at larger ones. Leaders of smaller firms say they can offer new hires exposure to different aspects of accounting, and career paths that can rise rapidly.

In smaller firms, new accountants often “get a lot more experience working hands-on with clients and senior people” than they would at larger employers, said Jeff Solomon, CPA, a managing shareholder in the Massachusetts firm Katz, Nannis + Solomon, which has 55 employees.

Solomon, who spent years working at Big Four firms before founding his own, said larger firms have such huge volumes of work that new associates sometimes end up specializing in one area and are not able to explore the different sides of public accounting.

At his medium-sized firm, though, young associates often end up working alongside senior associates on projects ranging from processing the personal taxes of newly minted millionaire CEOs to helping a company prepare for a merger or acquisition event.

To succeed at smaller firms, accounting graduates will need certain skills and characteristics. We spoke with leaders of small and midsize firms to learn what they look for in new hires. Here’s what they expect to see on day one:

A solid academic background. Ideal applicants should finish their collegiate careers with strong GPAs, typically earning a 3.0 or above, and be well-versed in programs such as Excel, several firm leaders said.

Erin Roche, CPA, a team leader at the 17-employee Elliott CPA Group in Santa Rosa, Calif., expects job candidates to have taken introductory tax and intermediate accounting classes. Stronger candidates may have taken classes in analyzing tax returns and financial statements, as opposed to just learning how to prepare them, she said. Her firm uses Intuit software, and, though it’s not required of new hires, she said it can be helpful when they are familiar with QuickBooks or Lacerte. 

Work readiness and realistic expectations of the job. Leaders said they expect new hires to be able to adapt to basic workplace expectations—showing up on time, meeting deadlines, and engaging with clients and colleagues in a professional manner.

New associates at small firms will encounter a work culture that can be demanding in the busy season and that will require them to dive in and tackle projects as they come their way.

Amanda Colgate, CPA, co-owner of the five-employee firm Godshall Colgate with offices in Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C., said that the busy season is a given in most public accounting firms and that students need to be aware that 9 to 5 doesn’t apply in tax season.  

“If you’re going into public accounting, you’re going to have weeks that are really challenging,” she said.

Problem-solving ability. Problem-solving skills are a must-have for Roche, the Santa Rosa firm leader. She often asks applicants to the small firm to talk through how they approached a complicated class project to gain insight on how they approach challenges.

“We are looking for the ability to think through a problem rather than having someone lead you to the answer,” she said.

Ability to multitask and meet deadlines. Associates at smaller firms frequently juggle multiple types of work, and that means deadlines can often overlap.

Solomon said he expects his staff to be able to easily manage multiple deadlines and to talk with colleagues clearly about the status of projects. “You’re not coming in and doing the same thing day in and day out,” he noted. “You need to multitask and be able to communicate what’s going on efficiently.”

Thoroughness. It’s also important for new hires to pay attention to details.

Colgate said her ideal job candidates are thorough and wouldn’t pass on subpar work. “We like someone who is focused on quality and takes pride in their work,” she said. “We’re not necessarily looking for the fastest person; we’re looking for someone who gets it right.”

Faculty can help by emphasizing how important it is to make sure completed work is free of errors, she said. 

Plans to achieve licensure. Recent graduates should plan on obtaining their CPA licenses within a few years of graduation, Roche and Colgate said.

Professors at accounting schools can help by emphasizing the advantages of having a CPA license, as well as explaining how much time is typically needed to study for the exam, Roche said. “We’re finding that a lot of new hires have intentions of taking the CPA exam but haven’t prepared themselves fully for what that means,” she said.

Colgate said young hires should seek licensure before other demands on their time begin to pop up. “It’s better to get it sooner rather than later because life only gets busier,” she said.

Smaller firms often offer assistance to new hires pursuing licensure, just as larger firms do, Roche said. Some offer bonuses to associates who get their CPA license within a few years of being hired. Smaller firms often have more flexibility in scheduling than large ones do, and many allow associates to study for the exam during work hours in the slow season, Colgate said.

Promoting the profession

Small firm leaders said that accounting professors need to continue advocating for the profession and emphasize how accounting can be a satisfying and challenging career.

Solomon said the stereotype of the profession being dull is misleading and that accounting can offer interesting and lucrative career paths.

“We have to show these kids it’s a great life to be an accountant,” he said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.