When the economy was contracting a few years ago and a crisis struck the nation’s largest financial services companies, some public accounting firms responded by cutting jobs while many others pulled back on hiring interns, typically their largest pool of new accountants.
As the economy has begun growing again, albeit slowly, executives from some of the area’s largest public accounting firms said they are back in the hiring mode, especially when it comes to interns.
But as with the law of supply and demand, those executives said that the competition for hiring the best and brightest interns is also showing signs of tightening.
“I think our appetite (for interns) going into the busy season this year was high,” said Bob Schuster, general practice leader for Kennedy and Coe’s Wichita and Topeka offices.
“Two years ago the competition kind of fell off. Last year we started to see it come back. This year it’s become a little more competitive to find the right people.”
Lori Davis, Grant Thornton’s Wichita office managing partner, said the competition for interns of late has been more intense. Her office missed out on hiring a couple of interns it wanted to add.
“We can definitely feel it shifting again, even throughout the region,” Davis said. “It’s definitely shifted from an employers’ market to an employees’ market.”
Many public accounting firms use internships — typically lasting three months — as an evaluation period for new hires. Most internships occur during the “busy” season, which roughly runs from mid-January through mid-April. A few firms also hire interns for the summer months.
If firms like what they see from the intern, they generally will hold a position for them until they graduate, said Bill Pickert, managing partner of BKD LLP’s Wichita office.
“We had six people start with us last week,” Pickert said.
A ‘good position’
Two of those six people — all interns — will be coming to work for BKD when they graduate later this year.
Kori Zey, a senior in accounting at Wichita State University, said she is doing her second internship at BKD.
“It’s definitely like a test trial for you and the firm,” she said of her internship. Zey will join BKD as a full-time public accountant when she graduates.
Luke White, also a WSU senior in accounting, is doing his first internship at BKD. Like Zey, he will join the firm full time after graduating.
Both of them said they had opportunities to intern at more than one firm.
“I had one opportunity (to intern) with a private company and two other firms,” White said.
Added Zey: “It’s a good position to be in.”
Interns also afford public accounting firms an option when the economy is in recession but more manpower is needed for the busy season.
“You control your payroll dollars” by having that temporary help in down times, said Jean Lysen, vice president of human resources for Allen, Gibbs & Houlik. But that’s not the circumstance this year, she said.
“We hired quite a few interns this year,” she said. “We actually hired quite a few people this year.”
Priming the pipeline
The recession may have put some public accountants temporarily out of jobs, but it didn’t stall the need to make sure there are enough new accountants in the pipeline.
Mary MacBain, president and chief executive of the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants, said the pipeline continues to need priming. She said more than 60 percent of her organization’s male members are 50 or older.
“Females are different because they really started entering the profession in the ’80s,” she said.
MacBain said KSCPA has been a financial supporter in recent years of the Accounting Pilot and Bridge Project. The program is aimed at creating interest among high school students in the accounting profession and pushing an accounting curriculum in high school that prepares them for more rigorous accounting courses in college.
Nationally, one of the concerns with the supply of future public accountants is with the capacity of schools to train them. The number of students enrolling in bachelor’s and master’s accounting programs reached the 225,000 mark last year, according to an American Institute of CPAs report.
That same report, 2011 Trends, said that 13 percent of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business-accredited schools turned away an average of 165 qualified students in 2011. That was up from 6 percent of AACSB-accredited schools turning away an average of 134 qualified students in 2009.
The AICPA report said the increase in rejections was likely due to “the economic conditions currently facing universities and the shortage of academically qualified professors.”
That wasn’t identified as a problem in Kansas – yet.
MacBain said in order to keep the pipeline primed, her organization will continue to provide annual funding support to the bridge program. It also plans to develop new programs and services, including the association’s “20 up to 40” leadership program, which is aimed at developing young CPAs as leaders.
“The unemployment rate for accountants is something like less than 4 percent,” MacBain said.
White, the intern, acknowledged that the profession’s resiliency in tough economic times was an attraction. He actually graduated with a finance degree, but returned to school for an accounting degree when he couldn’t find a job.
“I knew the career opportunities out there, and I am a numbers guy, so it fit,” he said.