Last August, accountant Crystal Moran moved to southern Florida from New Jersey, where she had worked for a small accounting firm. After three weeks of...
MIAMI — Last August, accountant Crystal Moran moved to southern Florida from New Jersey, where she had worked for a small accounting firm. After three weeks of interviews, Moran received offers from three companies.
Ultimately, she accepted a package from Goldstein Schechter Price Lucas Horwitz & Co., a Coral Gables, Fla., firm.
“There were a lot of counteroffers,” Moran said. “The firms were very aggressive in compensation packages and benefits.”
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The bean counters have arrived. After years of operating under the shadow of the legal and investment-banking industries, the plain-vanilla world of accounting suddenly has more sex appeal.
Though high-profile corporate-fraud cases such as the too-cozy relationship between Enron and Arthur Andersen — the accounting firm hired to review Enron’s books — tarnished the image of the accounting industry, they also sparked new regulations that have increased demand for auditing services. That, in turn, has led to higher fees and more corporate clout for accountants and auditors.
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Community colleges, business schools and major universities offer training for accounting careers. Here are some of them:
University of Washington: http://bschool.washington.
Seattle University: www.seattleu.edu/asbe/acct/default.asp
Seattle Pacific University: www.spu.edu/depts/sbe/
Central Washington University (Lynnwood branch): www.cwu.edu/lynnwood/
As the industry basks in its newfound glory, auditors and accountants are in short supply nationwide. It takes longer to find and hire them, and salaries in a number of specialties have moved up briskly.
“The business is out there. The bigger issue is finding good people. We’re always looking for qualified people,” said Richard Preston, a managing partner and a certified public accountant at a Miami Beach CPA firm.
Much of the increased demand results from provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which created tougher bookkeeping and watchdog standards for public companies. Corporate audits — for public and even private companies — have become more time-consuming and therefore more expensive.
As national accounting firms allocate more time and energy to larger audit clients, they are increasingly passing up assignments from smaller corporations. Castoffs from these national firms are trickling down to regional and independent firms, which also have dramatically increased their fees and reshuffled their rosters of clients.
Historically, auditors and CPAs were the wallflowers of the professional industries. While lawyers and investment bankers thrived during the initial-public-offering and dot-com-investment parties of the 1990s, auditors and accountants earned far less than their Wall Street counterparts and enjoyed less status.
A new lawyer, for example, could earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year in the world of corporate law, compared with a starting salary of about $32,000 for an accountant, according to Richard “Jody” Moore, a partner at a recruitment and consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Hollywood heightened the allure of the legal profession with such high-profile shows as “LA Law,” in which lawyers were shown in expensive suits driving luxury cars with vanity plates.
“There was a flood of people going into law school and forgetting about accounting,” Moore said.
The dot-com boom also drained the pool of potential accounting talent. Straight out of college, computer-science majors attracted annual salaries of $80,000 to $90,000, and those with glossy business plans were often instant or paper millionaires during the Internet boom.
In contrast, an accountant’s salary was less than attractive to young, ambitious job seekers.
“It was viewed to be sexier to be a finance major going to Wall Street than a CPA auditing the books,” said Chuck Landes, the director of auditing standards for the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants, a New York-based industry organization.
But during the 1990s, dramatic change was also under way in the accounting sector. Larger CPA firms — hoping to generate higher revenue — placed less importance on corporate-audit assignments and greater emphasis on providing glamorous consulting services in information technology, project management, business valuations and other profitable niches.
The string of accounting scandals prompted lawmakers and regulators to add layers of federal requirements and oversight under Sarbanes-Oxley, which was designed to promote public faith in the accuracy and integrity of corporate financial statements.
It’s also created career opportunities, said Stephen Bangs, a spokesman for the University of Washington’s Business School.
“Enrollment in undergraduate accounting classes and the one-year professional-accounting programs at the UW Business School is strong, and so is employer demand,” Bangs said.
The number of UW students getting a master’s degree in accounting has more than doubled in the past few years, from 40 in 2001 to 88 last June and nearly all had jobs by graduation, according to UW figures.
“There are opportunities for undergraduates, but many students stay an extra year to earn a master of professional accounting, so they can complete educational requirements for certified public accountants and net better salary offers when they leave school,” Bangs said.
On several fronts, the new regulatory environment created business opportunities for smaller, independent firms across the country. For example, in addition to preparing financial reports for federal regulators and public investors, CPAs are also creating internal-audit procedures designed to prevent and detect rogue employees or fraudulent practices. To enhance the integrity of audits, many companies have hired one team of auditors for external documentation and a second to examine internal controls.
Some companies also have developed a rotating schedule of auditors, according to Darryl K. Sharpton and Anthony Brunson, principals at an independent CPA firm in Florida. “Sarbanes-Oxley has opened doors for firms like Sharpton Brunson,” Sharpton said. “It’s not business as usual.”
Due to the industrywide hiring shortage and the increased workload related to Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, many national firms are eliminating smaller and less profitable clients to concentrate on audit assignments from Fortune 500 companies, according to principals at regional firms.
In a typical scenario, national firms — known as the Big Four — are cutting smaller corporate clients that pay annual audit fees of $100,000 or less. Kaufman, Rossin, for example, has picked up such clients as Forward Industries, a Pompano Beach, Fla., public company that was formerly audited by a national CPA firm.
As a professional courtesy, national firms are passing smaller clients on to independent accounting firms through a referral network based on personal relationships and industry contacts.
Meanwhile, the industry’s imbalance between clients and staff may soon end.
After a decline during the 1990s, enrollment in accounting programs has increased, according to national and local industry watchers.
Higher salaries and assorted bonuses have increased the allure of the profession for students, said Jerry Price of Goldstein Schechter Price Lucas Horwitz & Co. And industry professionals expect that after years of glamorizing the legal and the investment professions, even Hollywood will soon turn its attention to CPAs.
“Now it’s becoming a little more sexier to be an auditor and to find fraud in companies,” said Landes, of American Institute for Certified Public Accountants.
“We need our own TV show to point out the great importance of the work that the CPA does.”
“CPA: Miami,” anyone?
Seattle Times Job Market editor Bill Kossen contributed the information about the University of Washington program to this report.