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A Bull Market for CPAs

February 25, 2008

Thanks in part to Sarbanes-Oxley and the public education system, the US is facing a shortage of bean counters. Much has been said on this topic in recent times, and indeed, it is true. There are several explanations for this.

While government has diverted resources from a variety of bean-countering activities to SOX and internal controls specialties, the result is that financial analysts, tax managers, internal auditors, financial reporting specialists, and even accounting Professors are in high demand. Make no mistake, Sarbanes-Oxley has made it so that SOX/internal controls specialists are in huge demand, even overseas in the case of foreign companies that are listed on a US exchange. Coupled with that is the fact that skill sets are becoming noticeably mediocre, and the quality of students/degree programs is shrinking. Thus public education is taking its toll on an industry that requires some significant ability. One thing I notice is that dedicated people with a solid work ethic and high level of skills are becoming more in demand, but have become less available. Those who are employing accountants in corporate accounting and finance groups are faced with staffing their departments with a few high-end professionals who are supported by many lower-skilled, non-CPA  staffers. As a result, CPAs have developed resume power that is very robust. They have become upwardly mobile and are poised to position themselves comfortably in the employment market.

Looking back, a series of accounting scandals rocked the world, and corporate America - especially large, public companies - began to seek out something beyond mid-level accountants and bookkeepers. They began to look for employees with greater skill sets and a more professional aptitude. Then as the market became squeezed for jobs due to economic conditions (especially in the Midwest), employers started setting the terms, and a new standard began to prevail. Job descriptions went from noting "CPA helpful" or "CPA preferred" to "CPA required." Two years ago, I was offered a position at Delphi's WHQ in its Corporate Controller's Group, and I was told the new hiring policy - in the post-accounting scandal world - was to hire CPAs only in the areas of the company where pure accounting and analysis skills were needed. Thus, in areas where finance degrees used to be acceptable, the accounting-CPA route has become the new standard.    
Another point is that CPA education programs moved into the 5-year realm a few years ago, making the choice to become a CPA slightly less desirable for young people looking to advance rapidly through the ranks. On the flip side, the CPA exam has been watered down to accommodate the masses of accounting students who couldn't otherwise pass the program. Until recently, a CPA candidate had to take all (4) parts of the exam in one sitting, pass (2) of them, and there were stringent minimum grade requirements for the one or two parts you didn't pass -- otherwise your passing grades on the other parts were tossed. Right or wrong, this forced potential CPAs to actually learn, not merely cram for each piece of the exam, one at a time. Now the exam has been computerized, you can sit for each part one at a time, and, I believe the essay portions - with key word scoring - are no longer a part of the exam.

Therefore, while the profession once worked to keep people out and drive up salaries, it is now faced with the problem of supplying enough talent to fill the needs of corporate America, while government is busy intervening and diverting resources and changing the profession's needs via legislative-regulatory actions.

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