Bouncing Back

The economy may be on the mend, but for financial executives, the job opportunities aren't so great.

Is this a jobless recovery or what? As economists debate the matter, finance executives are learning firsthand that for them, anyway, opportunities aren’t what they used to be.

While there are no figures on how many CFOs are unemployed at any given time, Financial executives International Executives International (FEI) reports that nearly 800 members are participating in its career-transition program, up a staggering 224 percent from July 2001.

Meanwhile, finance hiring remains limited, with a March study by Robert Half International showing that 90 percent of the 1,400 CFOs surveyed anticipate no change in hiring.

It’s Business, Not Personal

The good news for CFOs in transition, though, is that losing a job has lost its stigma. “Companies are more open to candidates who have lost jobs than they used to be,” says Diane Albergo, director of career services at FEI. “Since the dot-com boom and bust, people have gotten used to it.”

Employers also realize that rÉsumÉs are bound to reflect corporate failures. As Engage Inc., an Andover, Massachusetts-based enterprise-software firm, entered bankruptcy last summer, CFO and treasurer Lisa Pavelka McAlister knew that she would soon be unemployed. Yet she found that the bankruptcy was not a deterrent to potential employers. “People looked at it as one more piece of experience,” says McAlister, who is now CFO and treasurer of Nexaweb Technologies Inc., a start-up software firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Michael F. Nemser, former finance chief at AEI Resources Inc., a coal company in Kentucky, also left his post following a bankruptcy. After deciding he didn’t want another full-time job, in January Nemser began to search for consulting assignments, and is now serving as a consultant CFO at one company and consulting for two others. He used his connections from nearly 20 years in the energy industry to land the work, despite the less-than-successful conclusion of his last job. “People started calling me because they were interested in my expertise,” he says.

More Scrutiny

But however understanding employers may be about abbreviated tenures and company failures, the selection process itself has become much more rigorous, due in part to the recent corporate scandals and the ensuing pressure for improved governance.

As Rodney Carter, the new senior vice president and finance chief at Petco, a $1.5 billion pet-supply retailer, explains: “Employers need to confirm not only technical competence, but also integrity, personality fit, cultural fit, reputation, and experience with governance affairs.” Carter, who spent six months looking for a new job after leaving CEC Entertainment, the $655 million owner, operator, and franchiser of Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors, notes that in this environment, candidates may be held up to a predetermined checklist of characteristics—a CPA, an MBA, and public-company experience, for example—and eliminated from contention if they do not meet every standard. Thanks to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, past experience in instituting internal controls and a strong financial-reporting track record may also be on that checklist.

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