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Firms focus on college grads to fill accountant shortage

Austin Business Journal (03/17/2006)
By Marissa Fajt

When Rebecca Fieler, an intern with Maxwell Locke and Ritter LLP, finishes her master's degree in the professional program of accounting at the University of Texas this December, she feels confident that she'll be able to live in Austin and do what she wants -- tax accounting.

Accounting experts say students are the future for the job market in Austin and the rest of the country, which is feeling the effect of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Since the act passed, accounting firms have faced an increased demand for professionals with accounting skills, on-the-job experience and a solid education.

While accountants of all experience levels are in demand, recruiting people with three to five years of experience is a struggle for firms everywhere, according to Jerry Love, chairman elect of the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants.

"The common theme is, 'I need more people, and I need more experienced people,'" he says. "Pretty much the answer is you are just going to have to wait a few years. Right now we are just trading people."

Good news and bad news await the accounting industry.

More accountants are in the pipeline, as accounting students increased 19 percent across the nation from 2000 to 2004. And the number of accounting degrees granted increased 8 percent from 2003 to 2004, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The bad news: The aging baby boomer population, which will be nearing retirement age in the coming years, will create even more strain to fill accounting positions.

While companies continue working to find experienced professionals, some recruiters are tapping into the student population. UT and Texas State University-San Marcos report that the number of recruiters visiting campuses has more than doubled.

Historically, one of the Big Four firms -- Deloitte & Touche, KPMG, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers -- has recruited at Texas State University each year.

According to Roselyn Morris, interim chairwoman of the Department of Accounting, all four firms have been on campus the past few years, along with dozens of regional and local firms.

Morris says Texas State's accounting program has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in students over the past few years.

"Based on what we are seeing, I bet we grow another 10 to 15 percent over the next three years," she says.

UT is attracting recruiters, too. Rachel Brown, director of the master's of public accounting and professional public accounting career services, says typically the big-four accounting firms would meet students every fall.

Last fall, 27 employers visited UT's campus to meet with accounting students. Brown says 93 percent of the 2005 accounting graduates from UT had accepted job offers before graduation.

The demand for accounting professionals, especially auditors, is driving salaries higher each year. Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a financial recruiting division of Robert Half International Inc., reports that accounting salaries have continued to climb since 2002.

Higher salaries aren't the only measures firms are using to entice employees. Deloitte & Touche LLP is taking a proactive approach to recruiting.

According to Leslie Van Sant, a campus recruiter with Deloitte, the Big Four firm is contacting students as early as high school who have an interest in accounting.

Van Sant says Deloitte has increased its standards for inexperienced hires and hasn't had problems filling jobs. The firm has increased its Austin staff from 128 in 2002 to 195 last year.

Maxwell Locke and Ritter has grown from 45 accounting professionals in September 2004 to 65 today. Kyle Parks, a tax partner with the Austin firm, oversees interns at the firm and says the company often uses internships as a chance to recruit new hires.

"If the pieces fit and there is a good match after two or three months together, there is a good likelihood we would want them to come back when they are out of school," he says.

Lace Archibald, owner of ML&R Personnel Solutions LLC, which does hiring for Maxwell, says second-tier accounting firms such as Maxwell have seen an influx in customers needing services. One of the incentives Maxwell offers experienced professionals is flexible schedules, she says.

So far, the firm hasn't offered signing bonuses, but salaries have increased.

"The biggest shift that we've seen, which tells me there is a shortage, is counter offers," Archibald says. "A lot of counter offers are being given by the existing employer."

latform for management of commercialization project applications. The counties included in the CenTex RCIC are Travis, Hays, Williamson, Caldwell, Bastrop, Lee, Fayetteville, Milam, Burnet, Bell, Falls, Lampasas, Mills, Hamilton and Coryell.

The CenTex RCIC is one of a few that have recently been added to a list of six areas designated by state lawmakers as RCICs. They include: the South Texas RCIC, Gulf Coast RCIC, the Rio Grande RCIC, El Paso/Trans-Peco RCIC, West Texas RCIC, North Texas RCIC and a statewide Bio and Life Science RCIC.

CenTex RCIC's board is made up of representatives from the chamber, Sematech, the University of Texas' office of technology commercialization, Texas State University, the Austin Technology Council and Temple College.

Earlier this year, Perry and state lawmakers approved the $200 million Emerging Technology Fund to attract and encourage projects in high tech arenas such as biomedicine and nanotechnology. The fund will focus on three areas of investment: research and commercialization collaboration between the public and private sector to create RCICs; matching research grants provided by federal and private sponsors for innovators; and attracting research teams from other universities around the nation.