Graduates with an accounting degree are better poised than most of their peers to land a rewarding, well-paying job, whether they have developed a specialized niche or not.
Demand is high and competition is fierce. The U.S. Labor Department predicts that the number of accounting jobs will increase by 18 percent to 26 percent from 2004 to 2014, with some of the growth in finance-related jobs and forensic accounting.
Ernst & Young LLP, for example, planned to add 10,000 new jobs this year alone, mainly in tax and transaction- and accounting-advisory services. RSM McGladrey Inc. aimed for 1,800 new positions in 2007.
Specialized CPAs - those who went into compliance and auditing work sparked by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example - have been snapped up in recent years. Forensic accounting, risk management, internal auditing, financial analysis, and international accounting are hot niches, but generalists are always needed, observers say.
When CFOs were asked which specialty they would recommend to someone just beginning his or her accounting career, the most popular option was general accounting (49 percent of the responses) followed by internal auditing (17 percent), according to a Robert Half International survey of 1,400 U.S. CFOs.
"Being a generalist isn't necessarily seen as a good thing," Diane Albergo, director of career services for Financial Executives International, told JobsintheMoney.com, a career website for accounting and finance professionals. "But businesses are still in need of those folks, and they are becoming harder and harder to find."
While an accounting degree practically guarantees a job offer these days, to succeed in accounting, finance and audit, a much wider range of skills is needed. Good communication skills, knowledge of technology, and the ability to analyze data are highly valued, according to the new Robert Half International Financial Leadership Council report, "Charting the Future of the Accounting, Finance and Audit Professions."
"The old thought of what accounting used to be has changed," Mark Brostoff, associate director for undergraduate career services at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, told the Indianapolis Star. "It's not just poring over numbers alone in a room."
Work in accounting and finance increasingly requires a "real, broad, and deep" knowledge of technology, says Dennis Reigle, the AICPA's director of academic and career development. "Accounting isn't done in ledger books any more. It's all electronic," he told JobsintheMoney.com. "You're sitting in front of a screen, and you've got to be able to navigate through fairly complex financial documents to find what you're looking for." He advises students majoring in accounting to take additional technology electives if they can.
Good communication skills are also key. "It's one thing to come up with the right numbers. It's another thing to communicate the importance of those numbers to senior people in the organization," says Bruce Pounder, president of Leveraged Logic, which delivers professional development seminars for accountants. "Unless you marry communications skills to your technical skills, you're not going to have a successful career in finance and accounting. There is clearly an emphasis from the employer's perspective on needing people with good communications skills."
Students now see accounting as a high-profile profession that can have an enormous impact on organizations, and the rewards and challenges are readily available, with a specialty or not.