Renewed Interest in Accounting Programs

Until recently, no college student looking for a hot, exciting career would pick accounting. It was dry. Dull. Intimidating.

But a few years ago, that all started to change. The corporate scandals at WorldCom and Enron drew international attention. They made a field that once seemed uptight appear interesting and even a little dangerous.

"Enron and other corporate scandals have made accounting sexy again," says Sue Miller, a certified public accountant in Virginia. "These incidents have brought accounting to the forefront. They have put a real face to accounting."

As a result, she and others in the accounting field have seen interest in the career blossom in recent years.

"College students see it as interesting," Miller says.

"They want to catch the bad guys or the more nefarious college students want to help the bad guys. They see it as a job that involves investigation and searching for fraud -- putting puzzle pieces together and determining if your client has done something right or something wrong."

Jason Stevens, president of a career website, agrees that perceptions of accounting have changed. "I think the scandals have changed the accounting profession forever," says Stevens.

"Our society is infatuated with criminals and gangsters. I think there used to be a lot more people who were interested in an accounting career but were turned off by society's view of it. Now that has changed. The IT profession went through the same fundamental perception change a few years ago. These careers have gone from being nerdy to cool."

In the wake of the high-profile scandals, the United States government signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act into law in 2002. The act puts a number of controls in place to regulate the accounting firms that regulate public companies. One of those controls is requiring different firms to do auditing and accounting for these firms.

"That has created a tremendous need for more accountants," Miller says. "It has reinvigorated the profession."

A new image and increased demand have made accounting an "in" career, a status it hasn't enjoyed in a long time -- if ever.

"I think over the past 10 years or so, fewer and fewer people were becoming accountants," Miller says.

"The number of college credits required for a degree in accounting increased from 120 to 150, so fewer college students were getting accounting degrees. Also, the technology boom impacted the number of college students going into the accounting profession. They saw they could get a computer science degree and make a lot more money in their first job than if they went into accounting."

Now that accounting is hot, how can you properly position yourself for a job in the field?

Most accounting and auditing jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field. It helps to have a good educational base, says John Freear. He is a professor of accounting and finance at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics.

"The advice here is probably the same for any student," Freear says.

"Graduate from a good program and university. Technical competence in accounting and a good GPA are important, but they are not enough. Students should be well educated, not narrowly trained, possessing adaptability and potential for strong career development, and should be persons of integrity and professionalism."

The good news is that most colleges have accounting programs that allow students to meet the 150 credits required to become a CPA (certified public accountant), says Shawn Harter. He is the senior director of national recruiting at an accounting firm.

Some universities have even adapted to the new climate by adding courses on internal controls in accounting "to better educate students on what life in the profession will bring," he says.

But like Freear, Harter says a good GPA at a decent school will only go so far in impressing potential employers. "Many firms will also consider extracurricular activities, leadership positions within campus organizations and a strong presence among their hiring factors," he says.

Miller says that when her firm is hiring, it strongly considers candidates who have some kind of accounting experience. But that doesn't exclude recent college graduates who have never held a full-time accounting job.

"It can be someone who has interned in an accounting firm or someone who has volunteered to help a small organization or charity with bookkeeping," she says.

Stevens agrees that some sort of experience is crucial in getting your foot in the door. "I would suggest that, as early as possible in their studies, anyone looking to prepare for a career in accounting should do whatever they can to try to get an internship, summer job, part-time job or volunteer [position] in an accounting firm," he says.

"This will provide them with a true view of what it is like to work in that career. This will also give them an advantage over any other applicants to the firm because they have experience not only in that industry but with that firm."

To find those kinds of internships and volunteer opportunities, Miller suggests looking right on your college campus. Most colleges and universities have career centers that can help you polish your resume and offer information on potential networking opportunities, such as college job fairs.

"Go to these events, dress professionally and introduce yourself," says Miller. "It is important to get your face in front of the firm you have an interest in possibly working for one day. You need to take advantage of these opportunities and show the firms that you will be a good representative."

But hot or not, accounting may not be your cup of tea. "Accounting is not for everyone," warns Freear. "It is a demanding discipline and a demanding profession, not least in terms of its requirement for ethical behavior and integrity."

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