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Graduating With a CP-Yay

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

Katie Piniuk got a lot of yawns from friends when she chose accounting as her major at Virginia Tech.

But two weeks into her final year, she had lined up 15 interviews with the biggest firms in the country. Recruiters treated her to trendy happy hours and fancy steak dinners, wooing her with impressive salaries, free Cancun vacations and irresistible sign-on bonuses. She got three job offers in one afternoon.

"I had no idea it would be that easy to find a job," said Piniuk, 23, who will start at Ernst & Young's McLean office in October.

Accounting isn't typically considered to be the most thrilling course of study, but number-crunching students have become hot commodities on college campuses as firms try to keep up with the exploding demand for financial workers.

Increased scrutiny of public companies coupled with the impending retirement of thousands of baby boomers have driven accounting firms to snag the next generation of auditors, bookkeepers and tax experts as early as possible with promises of plump paychecks and tempting perks. Some firms are grooming potential interns as early as high school.

"These firms are so crunched for workers that they've become really aggressive in their recruiting," said Lindsay Terry, who works in the office of career management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "Students are getting serious internships by the time they're sophomores. The top seniors have had jobs lined up for years -- and that's after deciding between 12 offers."

The supply of accountants dropped off in the late 1990s as high-tech professions grew more popular. Yet the need for people with a knack for numbers has soared in recent years. In response to a raft of corporate scandals, Congress enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, requiring companies to keep much closer tabs on their books.

"Ever since Sarbanes-Oxley, the demand for accountants has exploded, and it hasn't slowed down," said Charles Ingersoll, principal at Korn/Ferry International, a recruiting and staffing firm. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies have also been affected by the shortage, making the Washington market especially tight, he added. "Every single sector is struggling desperately to fill these slots."

In the Washington region, workers providing financial and business services make up the largest professional talent pool, outnumbering legal and information technology workers by nearly 3 to 1, according to a recent Greater Washington Board of Trade report, sponsored in part by The Washington Post Co.

But area universities are not churning out enough graduates to keep pace with the growing demand. According to the report, about 1,060 local students graduated with a bachelor's or master's degree in accounting in 2005, leaving about 700 jobs in the region unfilled. The same year, the Washington area had 1,240 openings for employees with an associate's degree in accounting, yet local community colleges graduated only 100 people with the skills. Accountants and management analysts make up half of the 58,000 business and financial workers the region will need to hire over the next seven years.

As a result, recruiters often use extravagant perks to lure students into the field -- and into their companies. Last semester, PricewaterhouseCoopers threw a beach party on the University of Maryland's College Park lawn, giving away embroidered lawn chairs, beach balls with logos and $3,000 spring-break trips. Ernst & Young threw an ice cream social, and KPMG held a lavish party at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Washington for new recruits and their professors. On the first day of the fall semester, Deloitte & Touche plans to be on campus to welcome the new class of students.

In the Washington region, entry-level salaries have risen 10 to 20 percent a year for the past four years, to amounts 130 percent above what is available elsewhere in the country, said John Owen, regional vice president of Robert Half International, a staffing firm. An entry level salary typically is $58,000 to $70,000 a year; people with master's degrees generally start in the range of $63,000 to $80,000.

Last fall, days after starting his senior year at Maryland, Mark Kaufman, 22, of Silver Spring got eight job offers. He decided on a position at Beers & Cutler, an accounting and consulting firm in Vienna where he had interned the previous summer. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the firm is paying part of his tuition for graduate school, which he will start in the fall. (Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, require a fifth year of school or a graduate degree before students are eligible to become certified public accountants.)

"When I was a freshman, all the seniors told me how great the market was for accountants," said Kaufman, who graduated in May. He was president of the school's accounting and business association, which held meetings that became a popular venue for recruiters looking to promote their firms to top students. Slots filled up within the first month of the semester.

"Companies are on a year-long waiting list to get in front of students at those meetings," he said. "It got to the point where we had to schedule a career fair just for accounting students."

To reach students like Kaufman, firms have tried to figure out what today's college students, dubbed the millennial generation, are looking for in a career. The Big Four -- Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG -- have nearly tripled the size of their recruiting teams and budgets over the last three years, partly to finance youth-oriented seminars, campus leadership programs and edgy marketing campaigns. Some firms have posted jobs on Facebook, a social networking Internet site popular among college students.

Beers & Cutler hired a consultant to get inside students' heads. Last year the firm gave $250,000 to the University of Maryland and George Mason University to provide scholarships to accounting students. Partners at PWC now spend part of their week on college campuses to teach classes and chat up students. Argy, Wiltse & Robinson, with headquarters in McLean, promotes a generous reward system, including 20-percent bonuses and rapid promotions. Grant Thornton, a firm with a major office in Tysons Corner, offers sign-on bonuses to interns and sends welcome letters to their parents.

Jean Wyer, head of PWC's recruiting, said the firm hires about 3,500 students, or about 80 percent of its workforce, directly from 200 colleges every year. Connecting with students as early as possible is key to successful hiring, she said.

"If you don't reach them by their sophomore year, you've kind of missed out," she said, adding that the firm is considering starting recruiting efforts at the high school level. "We'll probably be in fifth- and sixth-grade classes soon."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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