ANALYSIS: Recruiting Accountants - Enron excites some futureaccountants - others flee

The Enron mess has made waves in the field of accounting, scaring away some, and bringing needed excitement to others. Either way, accountants need to promote the profession to potential recruits, finds Robin Londner.

The Enron mess has made waves in the field of accounting, scaring away some, and bringing needed excitement to others. Either way, accountants need to promote the profession to potential recruits, finds Robin Londner.

Seniors in college stereotypically approach their professors with the fine concerns of career choice: this job offer or that, this pay scale or that benefits package. But accounting students at Seattle University, associate professor Susan Weihrich says, have taken the Enron bankruptcy so seriously, some are questioning their decision to become accountants.

"Issues related to reputation also affect recruits into a profession," says Weihrich. "Because of the Enron scandal highlighting the accounting profession, in the past few weeks I've had several students in my office questioning public accounting as a career choice and, specifically, a career with one of the Big Five."

Michael Weiser, chairman of The Weiser Group, says Enron is a hot topic as it relates to all areas of accounting, including recruiting. His firm was hired to represent the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) when the scandal first broke. Now, he says, the entire industry is paying special attention to students and their concerns.

"This is something every accounting firm is actively engaged on - making sure today's students realize they are invited to join the hard-working 330,000 members of the accounting profession,

says Weiser. "(Enron) has got their attention; now we have to make sure they understand the true importance of accounting."

The high-profile bankruptcy was a blow the profession did not need. According to the AICPA, the number of students majoring in accounting is already down 20%-25% over the past four years. Plus, within the next few years, 48 states will require 150 hours of education to qualify for taking the CPA exam. This means an entry-level accounting position will require the equivalent of an additional year of study over other majors.

Entrants into the accounting profession inversely follow the economy, explains Bea Sanders, director of academic and career development for the AICPA. In good times, students choose seemingly more exciting majors.

In the last boom, students wanting a piece of the soaring equity markets chose jobs in e-commerce and finance. But the AICPA aims to flatten that peaked and troughed recruiting curve by changing student perceptions of accounting as dull.

Because of this decline in recruits, in the mid-1990s the AICPA approved a five-year, $25 million budget to market accounting to high school and college students. Research found that students thought accounting was boring, so the AICPA created classroom materials, and sent information to guidance counselors and professors showing the dynamic careers available in the field of accounting.

In October 2001, when James Castellano gave his inaugural address as chairman of the AICPA, he said the two priorities of his term would be student recruitment and image enhancement, adding, "Without talented young people, we cannot fulfill our public protection mandate.

A letter Castellano sent to members on February 2, 2002 assured them that Enron concerns would not delay his recruitment effort because "the profession's heightened visibility makes this an opportune time to convey our messages regarding its viability, dynamism, and high standards."

Going straight to the schools

The AICPA stands in contrast to the American Accounting Association (AAA).

The latter has decided to discontinue the benchmarking program it offered during the past two school years to help faculty and administrators differentiate their accounting programs from others, conduct program assessment and evaluation, and develop improvement strategies.

Meanwhile, the newest part of the AICPA's recruitment effort will launch this week or next. Continuing its plan of not just relying on guidance counselors and teachers, a website, startheregoplaces.com, will be marketed directly to students. The site will contain a section for high school students, a section for college students, and will include an interactive business game pitting students' skills in a real-world scenario. However, no section will mention what some call the white, bankrupt elephant in the room: Enron.

"Young people these days are not shy about telling us what they want to know,

says Geoff Pickard, the AICPA's VP of communications and PR. "If they want (Enron information), we'll add it."

Some AICPA executives, however, say the Enron situation has (admittedly dubious) positives. The fact that accountants played a pivotal role proves that the profession interacts with managers at the highest levels of a company - contrary to the perception AICPA research showed students previously had of the profession: backroom ledgers and calculators. Stephen Asare, the Deloitte & Touche professor of accounting at the University of Florida, agrees that Enron just may be a positive to a profession long stereotyped as boring. He claims his students are more excited than ever about becoming accountants.

"Enron makes the students realize the importance of accountants,

says Asare. "The reporting decisions accountants make significantly impact the wealth of many, many people, and affects the capital markets - as everyone can see with the Enron incident. So students can now see that accounting makes an impact on people, and students are attracted to that kind of profession."

Seattle University's Weihrich describes a slightly different interchange between student and teacher. Weihrich says she is encouraging concerned students to enter the accounting profession because it sorely needs their help.

"As a faculty member, I can advise students that this situation has shown how important accounting is to the functioning of capital markets,

says Weihrich. "Ethical accountants with strong critical-thinking skills will be even more important in the future, because the capital markets are now demanding more transparent accounting of transactions."

Answering faculties' concerns

While he says he has had to answer some pointed questions from students, Grover Wray, Andersen managing partner for people in North America, says soon-to-be graduates continue to accept Andersen jobs and internships at normal rates. The positions were offered pre-Enron, in November or December of last year, and most have start dates of summer or fall of this year.

But to further reassure the people who guide his potential workforce, two weeks ago, Andersen CEO Joseph Berardino held a conference call with over 1,000 professors. He answered their questions about how Andersen's multimillion-dollar accounting and consulting deals with Enron might affect the accounting profession and, more specifically, jobs offered to college seniors.

Another top firm sent faculties a letter outlining the company's response to student and teacher concerns. One question the letter addressed was what to tell a student who might want to change his major from accounting.

Students should know, the response said, that auditing is important, and "despite the current news coverage, accountants are known for their hard work, integrity, and good judgment."

However, Wray says that in his travels, students have not changed. He explains that collegians are still mostly concerned about the same things they always have been: themselves.

"They want to make sure the opportunities they expect from Andersen - our hallmarks of work experience and dynamic projects - will remain," says Wray. "And they will."

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