The People Who Count

With too few accountants to go around, companies are grabbing people wherever they can find them.

If there is one bright spot, it may be that the turnover rates at public accounting firms remain high, averaging about 17 percent annually at large companies and 15 percent at smaller ones, and approximately four out of five people who leave those firms do so to work in corporate finance. That may already be changing as companies ranging in size from the Big Four to modest regional firms address everything from compensation to corporate culture in an effort to win the talent war. “There’s so much more need for experienced managers, it’s become clear to us that we can’t accept the kind of turnover we used to have,” says Jennifer Allyn, a director in the office of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Money is certainly one way to get people’s attention. Entry-level annual salaries now average $45,000, according to career-oriented Website Vault.com, a 9 percent increase over last year’s rate, and accounting salaries are rising faster than the typical 5 percent increase in other professions. Once in the door, recent grads can expect to see raises of 5 to 10 percent a year. “If you’re three years out in public accounting, you’re making $60,000 easily,” says Michael Assaad, vice president of permanent placement for Ajilon Finance. Add to that retention bonuses — $20,000 to $50,000 for midlevel managers — and impromptu midyear raises and the stakes get high quickly. Such increases make it “pretty much impossible for us to hire anyone but the most junior-level people” from CPA firms, says Larry Trachtenberg, CFO of Tempe, Arizona-based Mobile Mini Inc., a portable-storage-unit provider.

Those who do leave public accounting for the corporate world often cite “work/life balance” as a prime motivator, so accounting firms are fighting back on that front as well. Many are trying to give people more time off, and making sure they use it. PwC, for example, closed its offices to give its entire U.S. staff a paid vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The firm is also trying to get people over the idea that “losing vacation is a badge of honor,” says Allyn, by having managers encourage staff to take time off and otherwise manage their professional and personal lives to avoid burnout.

Public accounting firms are also leaving no stone unturned in their search for talent by, for example, paying close attention to their alumni network. Nearly 25 percent of Ernst & Young’s experienced hires are “boomerangs,” people who have left the firm and come back. PwC’s Allyn says the firm is in the early stages of actively recruiting (or, one might say, re-recruiting) alums, and has recently started holding events targeted at specific groups of former employees, such as a group of women in the Dallas area who had left to become stay-at-home mothers. “We said, ‘Come back, even on a reduced basis,’” says Allyn, an offer that at least two of the women accepted.

Smaller firms are following suit. Newton, Massachusetts-based Braver Accountants & Advisors PC maintains alumni contact information on its company intranet and is considering inviting former employees to its summer outing this year. When Beers & Cutler PLLC, based in Vienna, Virginia, faced the prospect of losing a class of potential hires to Virginia’s new “five-year” (academic) requirement for CPA certification, the firm offered to pay students’ additional tuition if they agree to work part-time or commit to joining the firm after completing their schooling. “We couldn’t wait another year for those people to be available,” says the firm’s managing partner, Ed Offterdinger.

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