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CPA supply tries to keep pace with demand

John Seelmeyer

When certified public accountants in northern Nevada finally dig themselves out from the stacks of tax returns they’ll complete in the next week, they can take some comfort in knowing that more help is on the way.

The good news is tempered, however, by the knowledge that the profession continues to face a challenge in retaining experienced accountants those with four or five years experience.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants says that recruitment and retention of staff is the biggest issue faced by firms nationwide. Some 18 percent of the firms nationwide surveyed by the institute last year ranked staffing as their top issue and fully 37 percent listed staffing as one of their five hottest issues.

The issue is even stickier in Nevada.

In 2001, the state joined the push to require accounting students to complete 150 semester hours of coursework before they sat for the CPA exam, says Jeanne Yamamura, who teaches accounting at the University of Nevada, Reno, and serves as chairman of the Nevada Society of CPAs.

That essentially required students to take another full year of classes, sharply reducing the number of graduates earlier in this decade. Supply was further tightened,as some students decided to stay in school just a bit longer yet to complete the master’s degree that was within reach once they finished 150 hours of classes.

“It was certainly slow for a number of years,” she says.

Today, the pipeline is beginning to refill UNR has about 100 accounting majors these days but demand is growing just as quickly.

In northern Nevada, Yamamura says, the fast-growing economy creates plenty of job opportunities for accounting graduates. And nationwide, growth of the profession has been encouraged by the Sarbanes-Oxley reporting requirements for publicly held companies.

“It’s a good time to graduate with an accounting degree,” Yamamura says, noting that UNR’s graduates typically leave school with a degree in one hand and multiple job offers in the other.

Even before they graduate, the students are in demand as interns. UNR, Yamamura says, can’t find enough potential interns to fill all the requests it receives.

Like college basketball coaches who scout schoolyards for talented youngsters, accounting firms in northern Nevada begin recruiting early.

Marla Hummel, assurance practice leader at the Reno office of Grant Thornton, says the firm begins building relationships with undergraduates as part of its heavy recruitment of UNR graduates.

Grant Thornton provides opportunities through the school year for underclassmen to meet representatives of the firm, it supports the accounting honorary society on campus, and executives of the firm stay close to professors to learn about soon-to-graduate talent.

And the firm relies on its recent hires to help recruit graduates a year or two younger than themselves.

But even while newly minted CPAs are coming through the front door, experienced help continues to leave the profession through the back door after a few years.

“It can be demanding,” Yamamura says. “It can require excessive overtime.”

The crunch is particularly difficult in the weeks leading up to the April 15 deadline for federal income tax filings.

As a result of the demands of working in a CPA practice, there’s been a steady migration of accountants out of public accounting firms into private companies, says Christine Brame, an executive recruiter at Accountants Inc. in Reno.

At the Reno office of the CPA firm Kafoury Armstrong & Co., retention efforts focus on providing a good work environment, says Todd Ferguson, the managing shareholder of the office.

And a key element of a good working environment, he says, is helping CPAs keep their work life and their personal life in balance.

In a study last year, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found that smaller CPA firms may have more flexibility to provide work-life balance.

“Staff accountants at smaller firms get a lot of exposure to clients and often have the option of flexible work hours. Small firms should use these factors as a selling point in attracting and retaining talented staff,” says James Metzler, a vice president of the institute who specializes in the interests of small firms.

Hummel said executives of Grant Thornton believe retention is a complicated process.

“The main thing we need to do is keep our people happy,” she says. “There is no single right answer. We need to treat them right and with respect.”