On campuses, the top students can hardly mistake the strong message that their services are greatly in demand. At the University of Alabama, recruiters at the top audit firms take an intense interest in “who went where,” treating the competition for talent “almost like a fantasy baseball draft,” according to Richard Houston, a professor of accounting and director of the university’s master of accountancy program. As part of their recruitment efforts, the firms are prominent caterers of tailgate parties for potential accounting hirees at Crimson Tide football games. While university-related events must be alcohol-free, “at restaurants and bars, all bets are off,” says Houston. “I don’t know what’s going on there.”
The need for auditors driven by the immense compliance requirements created under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act over the last five years may also be driving the current seller’s market for corporate finance talent. “What’s happened is that SOX hasn’t been bad for the accounting industry. We need a lot more accountants,” says John Brausch, controller of Edens and Avant, an owner of retail shopping centers. However, he adds, “more hiring shrinks the available pool” for corporate accounting and finance.
But sea-changes in the way young accountants and finance folks feel about such things as commitment to a single employer and the need for job security seem to be playing an equal role in current turnover. “If the environment turns down, they’re less apt to stick it out today than [we were] 20 years ago when I was in their shoes,” says the 50-year-old Kurtz.
While they grant that stereotyping by age can obscure key differences among individuals, finance executives from their late 30s to their mid-50s agree that the new crop of hirees share certain characteristics that mark them as a distinct breed. To their older supervisors, “they seem like a different species,” says Jay Jamrog, senior vice president of research for the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a firm that tracks workplace trends. (For a discussion of the attitudes of the new generation of finance professionals, tune into CFO.com’s video interview with Jamrog.)
Although they resemble Generation X — the cohort just preceding them — in their cravings for interaction with their bosses, the new millennials’ traits are “magnified” in comparison to Gen Xers, according to Jamrog. “They want feedback at the touch of a button today,” he adds. “If you don’t answer their e-mails and give them some positive reinforcement, you just dissed them.”
And if they feel dissed, they’re likely to walk. Houston says that he often hears from former students, toiling away during the first weeks of their first audit jobs in small hotels in remote outposts like Dothan, Ala. Based on the experience of a single grim week, they might well declare their desire to change jobs. “People nowadays are just more likely to focus on ‘I hate this, if I go across the street things will be better’ without really focusing on what’s wrong about it in the first place,” he says.
Following similar short-term thinking, many would-be corporate finance executives may mistakenly be shrugging off the hard slog of acquiring basic accounting skills because they see accounting as boring and lacking in glamour. Of the 140 or so accounting majors that graduate from Villanova University each year, 95 percent to 100 percent are sure to have jobs immediately, notes Michael Peters, an assistant professor of accounting and information systems.
Yet many seek to become finance majors and enter a much more competitive job market on Wall Street, where firms end up hiring only a handful of graduates. “It’s like a high school basketball star who’s got his eyes on the NBA,” he says. “It’s the money that attracts them.”
Next time: how some senior finance executives are bridging the generation gap.