Professional trends in accounting for 2003

A number of important developments will affect accounting professionals in 2003. New regulations, changing job responsibilities, emerging technologies and specialties, and a more moderate hiring climate are a few of the key issues. Individuals who adapt quickly to these trends will be in the strongest position for career advancement this year.

Accountants continue to assume broader responsibilities, undertaking more of an advisory role with their clients. They are expected to think big-picture and understand how financial data impacts every aspect of a business. As a result, public accounting firms will increasingly seek staff that possess solid analytical abilities.

Many certified public accountants (CPAs) will become information managers as their roles expand. Some will become investment or asset managers, and others may move into consulting services.

To succeed professionally, accountants need to be strong oral and written communicators who can convey complex information to people outside of the financial field. Foreign language skills will be valued as businesses continue expanding internationally.

Technology expertise is also a key hiring criterion in public accounting. Firms look for employees proficient with the latest financial software applications, particularly those who can support their clients' e-commerce initiatives. In addition, there is growing demand for systems security experts, as well as accountants who can design and implement Web-based strategies.

The need for a broader skill set in accounting is reflected in current certification expectations. In addition to being a CPA, accounting firms seek candidates who have a certified internal auditor (CIA), certified information technology professional (CITP), certified financial specialist (CFS) or accredited in business valuation (ABV) designation.

According to our research, a number of specialty areas in public accounting are expected to enjoy solid growth in the coming years. They include:

* Forensic accounting. Experienced professionals will be relied upon to identify and track computer fraud, and solve problems related to systems integrity and security.

* Assurance services. Accounting professionals will put business intelligence into a financial context by analyzing a company's past performance and present conditions.

* Personal financial planning. Firms will hire financial professionals to assist clients with debt reduction, investment and asset allocation plans, controlling expenses and minimizing tax burdens.

* International accounting. There will be demand for accountants who understand foreign laws, tax structures and business practices.

* Environmental accounting. CPAs will help clients with everything from environmental compliance audits to managing and preventing claims and disputes.

While there may be competition for accountants with the most highly sought after expertise, starting salary levels at small- and mid-size public accounting firms this year will reflect moderate overall hiring activity. Following are some specific forecasts by position, according to the 2003 Salary Guide by Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Accountemps.

Small Public Accounting Firms
Accounting managers/directors at firms with less than $25 million in sales will see a 3.1 percent increase in average starting salaries. Base compensation will range from $64,000 to $85,250 annually. Accounting managers can expect to earn 2.6 percent more in 2003, with starting salaries between $52,250 and $66,750. Base compensation for senior accountants is forecast to rise 3.5 percent to the range of $41,750 to $53,750. Accountants with one to three years' experience will be paid 1.6 percent more, with starting salaries ranging between $34,250 and $43,000 per year. New hires with less than one year of accounting experience can expect base compensation in the range of $30,000 to $36,500.

Mid-Size Public Accounting Firms
At firms with annual sales of $25 million to $250 million, average starting salaries for accounting managers/directors will increase 0.9 percent to the range of $68,250 to $93,250. Accounting managers will see a 0.6 percent gain in base compensation to be between $52,250 and $66,750 per year. Senior accountants can expect starting salaries 3.5 percent higher than in 2002, with base compensation ranging from $41,750 to $53,750. Accountants with one to three years of experience will be offered between $34,240 and $43,000 – a 1.6 increase over last year. Base compensation for those with up to one year of experience will rise 2.3 percent to the range of $30,000 to $36,500.

Large Public Accounting Firms
Starting salaries for accounting managers/directors at large firms – more than $250 million in sales – are projected to increase 4.1 percent, in the range of $78,500 to $116,500. Accounting managers are expected to see an increase of 3.4 percent, with base compensation averaging $62,500 to $81,500. Salaries for both senior accountants and those with one to three years of experience are expected to rise 2.8 percent, to $48,500 to $61,250 and $41,000 to $50,500, respectively. Accountants with less than one year's experience can expect base compensation to be in the range of $36,000 to $42,000.

The starting salary ranges mentioned will vary based on factors including region, specialty area expertise and training. For example, in major metropolitan areas where the cost of living is considerably higher, base compensation typically exceeds these ranges.

The professional trends forecast for 2003 will bring new challenges and opportunities for accountants willing to embrace change. If you diversify your skill set, pursue additional certifications, and gain experience with emerging specialties, you'll be ready to move ahead in your career and position yourself for continued growth.

Max Messmer is chairman and CEO of Robert Half International Inc. (RHI), parent company of Robert Half Finance & Accounting(R), Accountemps(R) and Robert Half Management Resources(R). RHI is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a full-time, temporary and project basis. Mr. Messmer's most recent books are “Motivating Employees For Dummies(R)”, “Managing Your Career For Dummies(R)”, “Job Hunting For Dummies(R)”, 2nd Ed., “Human Resources Kit For Dummies(R)” (Hungry Minds, Inc.); and “The Fast Forward MBA in Hiring” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

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