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Go Figure: Accounting Is Hot Job

Slow Economy, High Demand Add Up to Big Career

July 29, 2001|RONALD D. WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking for a hot career? Think number crunching.

That's right. Even in this rapidly slowing economy--and in part because of it--accounting and related services are very much in demand, with graduates getting multiple job offers and accounting firms competing with technology and entertainment companies for the brightest bean counters.

And accounting is no longer confined to just calculators and spreadsheets. The profession requires regular interaction with top-level management.

"I've worked on traditional audits, business plans, an initial public offering for a company," said Julie Chassagne, a 23-year-old senior accountant at KPMG in Orange County. "I've had a chance to work with high-tech companies, the entertainment industry, financial services clients, traditional manufacturing, health care. And I'm getting to work with senior management at those companies."

Wary of the dot-com fallout, executives at many firms are beefing up their staffs with people with strong accounting backgrounds to make sure that their business plans are on sound footing.

"Everyone has to be more concerned about [their company's] bottom line, and they need the people who understand that," said Tammy DeMell, corporate communications manager for Headhunter.net. "You are going to need people who can help manage costs and show your investors that you're serious. And even when companies are downsizing, the accountants are the last to go. We have been seeing a steady increase in job postings for accounting positions."

In the midst of nationwide belt tightening and continuing layoffs, for example, Washington-based Friends Financial & Accounting, a temporary staffing agency that specializes in placing senior accountants, opened three new offices this year.

"Every company has to have accounting employees," said Nan Kimber, general manager of Friends Financial. "They have a payroll. They have to be able to go to investors or banks or stockholders and have an audited financial plan. We'll hit $4.5 million in revenue this year, up from $500,000 four years ago."

College and university accounting programs report strong interest in their students and graduates.

"If we could produce 40 graduates, businesses would hire 40. If we could produce 100, they'd hire 100," said Jacques Rioux, associate professor of actuarial science at Drake University.

Professor Alan Cherry, chairman of the accounting department at Loyola Marymount University, said that 34 out of 40 members of the class of 2001 had jobs before the Memorial Day weekend, with 23 of those finding work at one of the major-league accounting firms: KPMG, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche, and Andersen. Cherry said the trend is continuing with this summer's interns, with 10 of 12 working at Big 5 firms.

"Our top students are getting three to five job offers," said Betty Chavis, chairwoman of the accounting department at Cal State Fullerton. "The demand for students seems to be getting stronger, and the supply is smaller."

Many in the field are concerned about the supply issue. Between 1995 and 1999, bachelor's and master's degree awards in accounting dropped by 20%, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The main culprit: image.

"This image is something that we battle," Cherry said. "Accounting is still seen as boring. Some of the people who teach it are boring and unenthusiastic and that doesn't help either."

The AICPA is so concerned with that image and a steep decline in students seeking accounting degrees that it is planning a $25-million direct marketing campaign, set for September, to try to reverse the trend.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Management Accountants is championing an entirely new designation for the job that the AICPA says will complement, but not replace, the venerable "CPA."

This new designation would attempt to incorporate a better "real world" explanation of accounting and its importance in business law, information technology, engineering and business administration, according to the AICPA.

What's keeping college accounting programs alive, said David Ravetch, director of the undergraduate accounting program at UCLA, are students who get hooked on the subject even though they had no interest in becoming accountants, or had planned to use the skills in other professions.

Those students are surprised to learn that accounting students "have so many options now," Ravetch said. "It's not just accounting anymore. They can work for investment banks. They can work as consultants. They can see how the knowledge fits into every aspect of the financial world."

Eric Rasmussen, 27, now a downtown Los Angeles resident and a staff information systems auditor for Ernst & Young, was a prime example of a student who discovered accounting by accident.

For Rasmussen, it was a choice between the lesser of two high school evils. Rasmussen had to take an elective, and the choice was auto shop or accounting.

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