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Calling All Prospective Accountants

Local firms are reaching back to the high school level in their recruiting effortsBIZ SPOTLIGHT – Accounting

Faced with a shortage of fresh college graduates, New Jersey accounting firms have had to come up with ways to coax the best among the meager ranks with new accounting degrees.

“Not only are we competing for a limited supply of graduates, we are also competing amongst ourselves in the accounting industry,” says Alan Sobel, managing partner of Livingston-based accounting firm Sobel & Co. His firm never had a formal recruitment program until four years ago. “It’s very competitive, and it causes you to go outside the box,” Sobel says.

College accounting enrollment slipped in the mid- to late-1980s, when the upsurge in Wall Street drew the finance-minded to the field. At the same time, the Certified Public Accounting Board raised the college-credit requirement for those who wanted to take the CPA exam to 150 hours from 120, raising the bar considerably.

Then, passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2004, which tightened internal accounting controls for public companies, heightened demand and exacerbated the shortage.

In response, accounting firms are getting more aggressive, going after candidates instead of waiting for them. For Clifton-based Sax Macy Fromm & Co., recruitment season starts at the beginning of the new school year, months before the traditional spring interview frenzy.

“We’re putting a stronger focus on college on-campus recruiting,” says Kerva Esposito, the firm’s human resources representative in charge of recruiting. “Recruiting now has become an all-year-round thing.”

Sax created Esposito’s position two years ago to assure that recruitment received enough attention.

As a mid-sized firm, Esposito says Sax must reach prospects before the giants. “While we do want to grow, we also look at our aggressive recruitment as what we need to do because of the competitive nature of the industry,” says Esposito. “We really have to focus on bringing in more entry-level candidates.”

Sobel & Co. has gone back to school, also, holding on-campus recruiting events where prospective employees can meet representatives of the firm. It has also set up a college-intern program.

“We work with colleges to develop a relationship with the accounting professors on campus to help not only to get a name for the firm, but also to let the students know that there are other accounting-employment options out there other than national firms,” Sobel says.

Besides meeting students, many accounting firms now also hold meet-and-greet events at their offices. “We make selections and bring everybody back to our office and have a group session—almost like a mini-orientation program,” Sobel says. “It’s to give them an introduction into public accounting and also an introduction into the firm so they can see hands-on.”

In the past two years, some accounting firms have also broadened their intern programs to focus on juniors rather than seniors. “Who would have thought that there’d be firms making job offers to juniors?” asks Sobel. “But a lot of the larger firms are doing that.”

Some public accounting firms are aiming even younger. “They’ve even started as early as the high school level,” says Alexander J. Sannella, associate professor of accounting and information systems at Rutgers Business School in Newark.

PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2004 gave Rutgers-Newark a three-year, $40,000 grant to help fund an Accounting Career Awareness Program that allowed 20 high school students to live at Rutgers for a week attending “Accounting Camp.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers is also funding other high school initiatives with Rutgers in which college staff members visit surrounding high schools. “This year we went out to Emerson, Union Hill, Beringer High School and Malcolm X. Shabazz in Newark,” says Sannella. “We’ve set up a program where we select 20 high school students to take a regular three-credit college accounting course with tuition and fees waived by Rutgers and the books purchased by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

Unfortunately for public accounting firms, those heightened recruitment efforts will likely be needed for years to come.

However, there is a bright note: many New Jersey colleges report that their undergraduate accounting program enrollment is on the rise. At Rutgers, the number increased from 469 in fall 2004 to 534 in fall 2005.

“Since Enron, we’ve been up there,” says Sannella.

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