Shortages in the field making accounting the hot place to be

  • Article by: HILARY BRUECK
  • Updated: February 25, 2008 - 12:27 AM

Tougher auditing regulations, higher salaries and a wave of retiring baby boomers should fuel a bull market for CPAs.

Danny Abrams, a student at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, is also an accountant.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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In the throes of tax season, Danny Abrams says he has "never seen a nine- or a 10-hour day go so fast" as it does when he's on the job at a local accounting firm.

Abrams' enthusiasm for filing tax returns -- even working Saturdays to get things done -- comes at just the right time. And Abrams isn't even finished with school. With accountant salaries rising sharply, university programs full and many baby boomer accountants nearing retirement, accounting may just be today's dream job.

"You can't really go wrong; it's a sure thing," said Abrams, 23, who is finishing his master's degree at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "The big thing was that [the degree] was clearly applicable to anything that I would want to do."

The talent shortage in accounting is partly the result of new regulations, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which imposed new financial reporting requirements for public companies. The act was passed in 2002 in response to massive accounting failures related to the scandals at Enron, Tyco and WorldCom.

"I've seen some estimates [that] that single piece of legislation might have increased accounting expenses by 50 percent or more" for public companies, said Georgia Fisher, director of the undergraduate business program at St. Thomas' Opus College of Business.

But Sarbanes-Oxley does not fully explain the shortage, experts say. During the go-go 1990s, interest in accounting waned, which means today there are fewer qualified certified public accountants (CPAs) to go around.

Now, as baby-boomer accountants at the top of their firms are set to retire, there are fewer Generation Y accountants in the pipeline to fill mid- and upper-level positions.

"It's the perfect storm," said Jim Kwapick, regional vice president for employment firm Robert Half in Minneapolis.

Abrams said he has seen firsthand the effects of market demand. Big-name accounting firms come on campus "gobbling up" students in record numbers -- so much so that smaller firms have a hard time finding anyone to work for them.

Rachel Henderson, another U of M graduate student, estimated that around 75 percent of students are already locked into jobs in their senior year.

"With demand from CPA firms, there's such big turnover," Henderson said. And that drives firms to recruit students before they graduate.

A survey by SALO, a local staffing firm, points to explosive demand for CPAs that's expected to peak in 2014, when the Twin Cities market is projected to be short some 3,622 faces to count the beans.

Robert Half, a leading employment firm, estimates an 18 to 26 percent increase in accounting jobs during that same period, based on statistics by the U.S. Department of Labor.

While need continues to skyrocket, the number of registered, active CPAs statewide dipped slightly, to 7,467 in 2007, from 7,483 in 2006.

While traditional accounting conjures images of green eyeshades, pencils and mind-numbing routine, in reality the field is more dynamic. Today it requires a more investigative and analytical breed of number-cruncher.

Jane Saly, associate professor and chair of the accounting department at St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said accountants need to understand financial controls, apply them effectively, analyze underlying trends and perform checks-and-balances to prevent another Enron, WorldCom or an American version of the current scandal in France, where a rogue trader at Société Générale is alleged to have cost the bank $7 billion by making bad stock-index trades.

Frank Beil, a senior accounting lecturer (and one of Abrams' professors) at the Carlson School of Management, said his new wave of students seems more capable than ever of rising to the challenges of accounting in the 21st century.

"These standards are not easy to apply," Beil said of new regulations. "That takes a different kind of person."

Beil compared his students today with the field 20 years ago, saying students are "actually interesting" nowadays.

So how much do accountants earn? According to the 2008 Robert Half salary guide, the fastest-growing careers inside corporations are in some of the most senior accounting positions, such as internal auditing managers, or managing tax accountants. Salaries for those positions have climbed from between $68,750 to $101,500 in 2007 to between $72,000 and $109,500 for 2008 -- increases of 5 to nearly 8 percent.

Entry-level CPAs can expect to make anywhere from $34,000 as a cost or tax accountant working inside a small company to $ 57,500 doing external auditing for large firms.

With enrollment numbers at record highs for both undergraduate and graduate-level accounting programs, professors are in high demand and short supply nationwide.

Students in Minnesota now are required to take an additional, fifth year of study before receiving their license. When it comes to turning out more accountants, "the limiting factor is the number of accounting professors that are out there," said Betsy Adrian, president of the Minnesota Society of CPAs.

New graduates can afford to be picky in this market. Because they are in such high demand, candidates for accounting jobs have "very little patience to work for organizations that don't provide the type of work/ life balance they're looking for," Adrian said.

A national survey by Robert Half found that in the Twin Cities market, employers rated benefits packages as even more important than high salaries in successfully recruiting job candidates.

Abrams is typical: "I don't think there's any amount of money in the world that could get me to do something that I don't enjoy doing."

But even with employers doling out enticing benefits, nontraditional hours and insurance packages to retain skilled workers, it's hard to get accountants to stay put.

John Folkestad, an accountant and co-founder of SALO, said temp agencies such as his do well in a market where financial analysts are in such high demand.

"[Many people] don't really want a direct-hire job, they want contract work," Folkestad said.

Hilary Brueck is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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