A Conversation with the Next Generation of Accounting Professionals

Laura Holmes was so sure she wanted to emulate her father and be an accountant when she grew up that she donned one of his suits and identification badge to go trick-or-treating.

She was just 10 years old then. These days, the accounting major at California State University in Sacramento, remains true to her aspirations. But what is less certain is the career path Holmes will take following graduation in December. Will she choose public accounting or the corporate world, or maybe try both?

Because she wants to keep her options open, Holmes became involved in the university’s student chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). Holmes will serve the fall semester as chapter president of the New Jersey-based IMA, a global organization representing 65,000 accounting and finance professionals employed by companies instead of public accounting firms.

“I’m hoping to gain awareness into different areas of accounting,” Holmes said of her interest in IMA. “Right now [the profession is] focused on public accounting and the Big Four, but there are opportunities everywhere. You don’t have to work 70 to 80 hours during busy season to be an accountant.”

Indeed, many accounting graduates may not be interested in putting that much time in at the office during the first three months of the year preparing taxes for clients. For those who don’t, the IMA offers an alternative.

The IMA states on its Web site that the organization is well-positioned to restore shareholder confidence by working with companies of all sizes to better understand the accounting process and recognize the important role of management accountants.

The profession certainly took a hit following the Enron scandal and the implosion of Arthur Andersen. But the extra attention has brought benefits as well. Youngsters who viewed an accounting career as stale and boring are attracted to the profession more now than they have been in years.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot more publicity,” Holmes said. “There was a stigma to being an accountant. Nowadays it’s really not like that. It’s one of the hottest majors.”

As for Holmes, she joined the IMA chapter, that has roughly 75 members, in the fall of 2004. Her plans to introduce students to the other side of accounting include working with the chapter’s vice president of programs to get professionals from the corporate world to speak at the chapter’s meetings.

In addition, she wants to expose students to those office settings by promoting tours.

Following graduation, Holmes wants to obtain her CPA certificate; she has more than 150 hours so she only needs one year of auditing experience to sit for the exam. She hopes to get a job with a regional accounting firm to accomplish that and move to San Diego.

If she does relocate there, Holmes hopes to pursue her real interest—working as an accountant at a microbrewery. She would then take the IMA’s Certified Management Accountant test to receive that designation, which can be taken following graduation. No minimum number of hours or auditing experience is necessary.

Holmes’ interest in working at a microbrewery stems from an internship she had at a hard cider startup. She helped build the fledgling company’s accounting system, which was the most fun she had ever had at a job.

“Right now it’s just a possibility,” she said. “It depends on where I go.”

Regardless, her term as IMA chapter president should provide her valuable experience as she ventures out into the real world. The IMA, however, already has proven worthwhile to another student in the Midwest.

IMA prospers in Midwest

Colleen McDonald is entering her senior year at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill, and served as that chapter’s IMA leader last year. She’s working a summer job at the Chicago office of the Accenture consulting firm, where she renews contracts for clients and ensures their financials are up to date.

McDonald enjoys working at a publicly traded company because it puts her in a public atmosphere without having to be a public accountant. The former Arthur Andersen spun off Accenture, which has 126,000 employees in 48 countries.

She may return to school later to obtain a master’s degree and then take the CPA exam. Wherever she may land, accounting remains her true passion.

“I like the numbers aspect of it, and I’m a people person,” McDonald said. “You’re not going to get stuck behind a desk. You can socialize and talk with people.”

The combination of skills most likely helped her earn a spot on the university’s student case competition team that was one of four to make it to the finals. A duo from North Carolina State University ultimately won the contest, culminating at the IMA’s Annual Conference in June.

In its 16th year, the IMA event challenges teams of accounting students from across the United States to respond to a hypothetical case study appearing in Strategic Finance magazine. Students analyze the case, develop a solution and submit a videotaped presentation.

The four final teams, including WIU’s, were each awarded a $3,000 cash prize and invited to make personal presentations before judges at the conference in Las Vegas.

Finalists analyzed the accounting systems of a manufacturing company which had adopted a lean environment. The teams evaluated the company’s current practices and made recommendations to move from traditional cost methods to lean accounting. The new system would increase employee and product productivity, reduce production time to market and provide better decision-making information to management.

McDonald and her four teammates got started on the project during the fall semester and heavily researched the topic during Christmas break. Their work proceeded into the first two months of the year, in which the group sat around a table for hours plotting their strategy. They then transferred their thoughts to videotape, which was edited multiple times.

“It was a great experience,” McDonald said. “We were able to apply what we learned in the classroom. It was a real-world setting. It was like you were at a consulting firm.”

While WIU had fielded a team for the competition before, McDonald had never participated. Maybe there’s a correlation between her partaking in the endeavor and the team’s strong showing.

McDonald had this to say about the renewed interest in the accounting profession among students:

“The Internal Revenue Service came [on campus] and students said, ‘ooh, the IRS.’ They want what is exciting; they want what is new. It’s a growing career. They want a job where they know they can get placed right away.

“If you get a degree in accounting you can [pursue] business, management or finance. But if you have a degree in any of those [areas], you can’t get a job in accounting.”

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