The CPA Job Market: Opportunities and Obstacles
By Melissa Hoffmann Lajara
Posted on 2/5/09

NEW YORK -- A combination of economic recession, stock market tumult and elaborate fraud is quickly changing the face of financial services. For many CPAs working in finance, what was once a reliable paycheck has become a question mark.

In the securities industry alone, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli estimates that 19,200 New York City jobs were shed in the last two months of last year. Could 2009 actually be worse?

New York City is expected to lose 181,000 jobs in the next 12 months, with 50,000 of those disappearing from the financial services sector, according to Bruce Friedman, associate director of recruiting for KPMG. Overall unemployment is expected to rise above 10 percent in dozens of metropolitan centers.

It may not be surprising, then, that more than 65 people braved wintry weather conditions to come to the NYSSCPA’s offices Jan. 28 for a discussion of opportunities in this very limited job market. Even more participated in the panel discussion, organized by NYSSCPA Banking Committee Chair Victor Valdivia, via a live webcast.

And despite what one might expect, it wasn’t all bad news.

“In this current climate, the CPA designation is highly respected by corporations, regulators and investors alike,” said Tom Waldron, head of the executive search division for the recruiting firm Michael Page International. “CPAs are more resilient to market downturns than operations and technology professionals.”

“CPAs definitely tend to buck the national trend,” agreed Friedman. He noted that on Forbes and BusinessWeek’s list of the top recession-proof jobs, accounting executives hold the number four slot, followed by accounting staff at number five.

But with the marketplace -- especially in New York City -- flush with unemployed accounting talent, Waldron recommended broadening both search horizons and skill sets. He said many opportunities may arise “in less traditional positions.”

While relocation is “one of the least popular options,” Waldron said the competition is less intense outside of the tristate area. In such a seller’s market, recruiters and employers get to be choosy.

“In general, we have witnessed our business make a dramatic shift … to more selective recruiting,” Waldron said.

NYSSCPA Chief Financial Officers Committee Chair Michael F. Rosenblatt concurred, noting that it’s a simple illustration of supply and demand.

“They can be highly, highly selective,” he said, “and look at every little aspect.”

Opportunities Do Exist

Specific, specialized skill sets are necessary tools for the new job market. But what should a CPA specialize in? Waldron said that the planned shift to International Financial Reporting Standards presents one opportunity for CPAs to shine in an area still unfamiliar to most.

Hedge funds currently in dire straits will recover -- but most likely with a new regulatory structure to satisfy the “very nervous investor community,” Waldron said. They may be taking a “tough ride” at the moment, as Waldron put it, but a new regulatory structure may also yield new opportunities. Waldron noted “increasing pressure from investors” for funds to perform accounting valuations.

Rosenblatt had a different take on hedge funds: “There will be a market … it will come back, but with fewer positions.”

Another fairly new area for specialization is fair value accounting, which recently gained approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), despite claims that it forced companies to take excessive write-downs and contributed to the financial crisis.

And the recent rash of fraud -- most notably, Bernard L. Madoff’s alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme -- has created both a new focus on regulation and a host of job opportunities in forensic accounting and anti-money laundering. Jobs will grow from more prudent internal control requirements, Rosenblatt said.

And, of course: “People still have to close their books.”

Waldron said that in the industry sector, energy -- especially alternative sources of energy—will likely see growth in the years to come. Some companies currently hiring include outsourcing firms, CPA firms, consulting firms, law firms and temporary agencies, Rosenblatt said.

What to Look for in a Recruiter

Those looking for work in financial services generally have two choices: do the job hunting on your own or hire a recruiter.

“Do you find that CPAs like to go to [recruiting] agencies more, or look for jobs on their own?” asked attendee Crystal Santiago.

An employer will usually vet a potential employee completely before making a commitment, and the same should be done when looking for a recruiter, Waldron said. It’s best to have a single recruiter, for the duration of your career, who knows your resume well and has a personal stake in your success.

You can get recommendations from colleagues and human resources professionals, but it’s important to choose wisely, Waldron said. Meet the recruiter in person and check their track record.

“It will quickly become clear if they have a lack of experience in the industry,” he said.

Having a recruiter, Rosenblatt said, can smooth over small misalignments in the interview process.

“Sometimes, something very silly can blow a deal,” he said. “We really study the process and we like to know everyone involved.”

Getting a recruiter also provides a “negotiation barrier” that can simplify things. But if you find a job you feel you are truly qualified for, sending a resume to the firm directly is still a good idea, Waldron said.

Selling Yourself

It may sound obvious, but networking is probably one of the most important things a job seeker can do, according to Rosenblatt.

LinkedIn, a networking Web site that allows you to make connections with people in your industry and at your company, has big fans in both Waldron and Friedman. They heavily promoted the site during their presentations, and Friedman called it “the single most robust recruiting tool.” He said about 34 million people use it, including about 900,000 recruiters who use it to find job candidates. He noted that every Fortune 500 company has a presence on the site.

A show of hands indicated that most in the room were already at least familiar with the tool.
Friedman offered some tips on using LinkedIn to its full potential:

  • Make sure to create and maintain a comprehensive profile.
  • Join groups.
  • Get endorsements and recommendations.
  • Search LinkedIn jobs for opportunities.
  • Find people from past jobs and schools to network with.

Whether on a resume or in a LinkedIn profile, don’t inflate numbers or hide gaps in employment.

“Everyone’s extremely conscious about integrity,” Rosenblatt said.

Waldron said some employers are now asking for W-2 forms to prove salary claims.

“It is pretty standard,” he said. “It’s not because they don’t trust you.”

And if you decide to use other social media, such as Facebook or MySpace, be careful that the information you put out there is what you would willingly admit to a potential employer. Rosenblatt said many human resources departments routinely check these public profiles.

A webcast of the event is available on the NYSSCPA’s Web site at www.nysscpa.org.

Melissa Hoffmann Lajara is associate editor of The Trusted Professional. She can be reached at mlajara@nysscpa.org.



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