Public Accounting Remains a Haven

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If you have a CPA license but despair of getting employed or re-employed on Wall Street, here's good news: there's a decent chance that one or another CPA firm will welcome you back.

While it may appear that all jobs in the financial markets are evaporating or experiencing severe reductions in compensation, public accounting continues to be healthy, with salaries increasing at high levels for experienced tax and audit professionals.

The recently released 2009 Salary Guide from Robert Half International concluded that despite the economic downturn, demand for accountants remains steady, with public accounting firms continuing to seek highly skilled practitioners to assist clients with fundamental accounting, tax and audit issues.

In addition to a general need for accounting expertise in a difficult economic period, demand for public accountants is being fueled by an overall shortage in qualified, candidates and a large number of current and anticipated retirements of CPAs.

Shortage of CPAs

"There continues to be a shortage of public accountants CPAs," says Kathy Downs, Recruiting Manager at Robert Half Finance & Accounting. While some corporations do not require their in-house accountants to have the CPA designation, it's generally required in public accounting.

"We're seeing demand in certain areas of accounting, especially in audit," says Scott Ruoti of Harmer Associates, an executive recruiter in Minneapolis. "Firms seem to be paying a premium for audit, as well as candidates who have experience with SEC issues."

Downs says employers are also seeking forensic accountants and professionals who are familiar with International Financial Reporting Standards.

Salary Increases Across the Board

Salaries are increasing across the spectrum of public accounting jobs, particularly for senior professionals with over five years of experience. According to Robert Half's salary guide, senior manager/directors can expect to receive increases ranging from 4.1 percent in midsize firms to 4.5 percent in larger firms. A mid-level professional with one to three years of experience can anticipate an increase between 3.3 percent and 4.2 percent, with the higher range in the audit and assurance services area. Audit professionals at large firms are slated for the highest increases at 4.5 percent.

Public accounting professionals with up to a year of experience can also anticipate receiving growth in their base pay of around 3 percent. Paraprofessional/bookkeepers will likely receive starting salary increases of 3.2 percent on average, across all firms.

Salaries vary somewhat depending on the region, and tend to be higher in metropolitan areas, Robert Half says. Demand is also regional, Downs notes, and the firm is seeing growth especially in smaller and regional firms. This could be the result of clients switching accounting firms, Downs says. "With a slowdown in merger and acquisitions and IPO activity, firms may not require the same high level of specialization, or may be seeking cost savings."

Communication and Leadership Skills Important

While the right designations, degrees and experience remain critical hiring considerations, employers recognize the importance of softer skills and leadership ability. The Robert Half survey asked CFOs, "Would you be willing to hire someone with fewer technical skills if the candidate had stronger soft skills, such as communication and interpersonal abilities?" The majority - 53 percent - said "Yes." (Eight percent didn't know and 39 percent said "no.")