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Hiring good at accounting firms

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February 1, 2008

NEW YORK—While U.S. markets are getting squeezed and Wall Street firms hand out pink slips by the hundreds, accounting firms are expected to buck the hiring trend.

The Big Four accounting firms plan to hire roughly the same number -- or more -- of interns and entry-level employees for 2008 as they did last year. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' 2008 job outlook survey, accounting is the No. 1 bachelor's degree in demand by employers.

Fortunately for these firms, the number of undergraduate and graduate-level accounting majors keeps rising.

"It's often the case that accounting hiring is countercyclical to the strength of the economy," said Ira Solomon, head of the department of accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"It's not the case that as the economy goes down, the demand for accountants goes down," he said. At Solomon's school, ranked second among college accounting programs by U.S. News & World Report, the number of undergraduate and graduate accounting students rose 27 percent in the past two years to 653 students.

"Whether firms are prospering or in distress, they must file reports, such as financial and tax," said Stephen T. Limberg, director of the professional accounting master's program at the University of Texas at Austin, which won U.S. News & World Report's top ranking for accounting programs. In 2007, the university had 310 undergraduate- and graduate-level accounting students, up 15 percent from five years ago.

The firms and top colleges cited the need to retain interns for future leadership positions, growing tax and consulting practices, and increased demand for students with global knowledge as some reasons for the growth in hiring. In fact, projections released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in December projected an 18 percent increase in employment growth for accountants and auditors from 2006 through 2016.

All the firms said interns are a key to their success.

"Interns are your best channel to filling your full-time positions," said Diane Borhani, Deloitte & Touche's U.S. campus recruiting leader.

"The way the labor market is, with the boomers retiring, it's imperative companies hire. By 2010 we think that half our work force is going to be Generation Y," said Dan Black, director of campus recruiting at Ernst & Young LLP.

Of course, the accounting scandals at Enron Corp., Tyco International Ltd., Adelphia and WorldCom earlier this decade paved the way for new regulatory reforms such as Sarbanes-Oxley, FIN 48 and FAS 109. Firms are under greater scrutiny to be clearer with financial statements, audits and tax reports, and "quality reporting is as, if not more, important during periods of distress and uncertainty," Limberg said.

As a result, each of the firms cited their tax practice as one of the fastest-growing areas in the business, since the new rules place more demands on tax departments. According to Black of Ernst & Young, the firm expects to hire 1,100 employees for its tax division, up from 350 five years ago.

Amy Thompson, director of campus recruiting for PricewaterhouseCoopers, agreed, saying her firm has seen an uptick in tax hiring.

"With the refinement of regulations, it's allowed for tax practices to improve," she said.

The firms also said their advisery/consulting areas are also hot among interns and new hires. This includes advising companies on crisis management, performance improvement, governance, risk and compliance, and financial or technological effectiveness.

"These may be nontraditional areas when you think of accounting, but the skills you gain are very applicable," said Black.

Borhani of Deloitte & Touche said, "Our consulting practice will grow the most. We're going to meet our hiring goals this year. But we don't want to relax because the market is very challenging, and we're continuing to do more to meet demands of the consulting practice because there are very high standards for the types of people we hire."

As for recruiting, all four firms said it's more competitive than ever.

"For the very best candidates, there's a lot of interest from the Big Four but also beyond, and more than ever, candidates have multiple offers," said Black.

Firms are putting an emphasis on the need for candidates who have an understanding of international finance and cultures, and those who speak foreign languages.

"There's a lot of activity abroad and it's important to think more broadly rather than domestically," Limberg said.

KPMG said there's a huge interest in global assignments, and the firm recently expanded a new-hire training program, sending 900 employees overseas during their first two weeks with the firm.

"Global skills are really important to us," said Blane Ruschak, national director of campus recruiting at KPMG. "Knowing another language, previously working, studying or living abroad is important because we need people comfortable moving around the world."

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