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Sell Yourself: Mid-career CPAs tackle job search challenges.

Perception is reality.

For the experienced CPA, that can mean the difference between landing a key position or getting stuck in job-search oblivion. Today, many CPAs find that to switch industries or land a new job after a lengthy stay with one company, they must overcome misperceptions about themselves--that they are not adaptable, command too high a salary and aren't trainable.

Add a slow economy too the mix, and mid-career CPAs face a test as challenging as CPA licensure.

UP AGAINST A WALL

"I had never been up against anything like this," says David Shealor, CPA, a manager at Leslie Accountancy LLP in Los Angeles who reentered the job market five years ago after an extended illness. Initially, he received no response to the nearly 100 resumes he sent to firms. Despite his 30 years of combined experience in public practice and private industry, solid CPA credentials and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he was turned away from jobs.

"I wasn't even able to get in the door. I went from being able to just write my own ticket to not being able to even get an interview," Shealor recalls, adding that he thinks his age and lack of current experience didn't help. "Being 50 years old was like the kiss of death."

Gary Bachrach, a CPA in Culver City, says he has contended with similar obstacles, but thinks there are other reasons why there have been few job offers. "I'm sure age is a factor," he says. "It may just be a perception, but I was told not to put the years I was in school or when I worked for Coopers & Lybrand, particularly in a soft market. But the main factor is a lack of good jobs. It's a buyer's market."

EMPLOYERS HAVE THE UPPER HAND

When Bachrach was out of a job in the early 1990s after spending seven years in manufacturing accounting, he found consulting work with relative ease and eventually made a transition to the high-tech industry. But when the dot-coM bubble burst, he was laid off. Consulting work has been scarce during the past year and the competition fierce for open positions. When he interviewed for a position in January, he had to compete with more than 300 other applicants.

"Right now employers can be very specific about what they're looking for," says Rita Steel, director of western operations for Menlo Park-based Robert Half International. "A couple of years ago, there was such low unemployment that it was much easier to switch industries.

"Now, if you have a tech background and want to get into manufacturing cost accounting, you're not going to be at the top of the list. Employers are going to look at all the candidates with manufacturing experience.

Aggravating the recession's impact is a limited number of open mid to senior-level accounting positions and a greater need for staff accountants with two-to-three years of solid accounting experience. "There are fewer positions at the higher end," says Steel.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that although growth in accounting will be "about as fast as the average for all occupations, competition will remain keen for the most prestigious jobs in major accounting and business firms."

BREAKING THE STEREOTYPE

Mid-career CPAs now must prove that they are just as flexible, trainable and savvy as their younger and less-experienced counterparts, says Laurie Eppler, a former recruiter with Accountants Inc. in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"A lot of hiring managers have a certain mind-set that an individual who has been with a company 10 to 15 years may not be adaptable to other scenarios and situations," Eppler says. "They believe that their skills aren't as sharp if they've been in the same pattern, in the same job and with the same company."

So a CPA who has held the same title for more than 10 years will need to show that they've worn different hats, can change course and have kept up with changes within the company and industry.

"Every company changes and evolves over time," says Eppler. "CPAs need to show on their resumes that they've adapted and continued to impact the company positively. Then they need to back that up with real-life examples in the interview, whether it was a change with a new manager, new software or when the company went through an IPO. They need to show that their duties evolved, even if their job title didn't."

Elaine Soost, a senior tax accountant in Menlo Park, says it's been difficult using just a resume and job titles to get doors to open wide enough to show employers her adaptability, diversity and desire to learn. "Too often, job titles don't tell the whole story," Soost says.

It's critical that job seekers not depend on a job title to define their potential value to a company. Instead, you need to spell out your abilities and former job responsibilities in your resume. Soost, who had been a tax specialist in the real estate industry with the same company for 15 years, says, "At smaller companies, you may wear many hats, and although your title may represent one position, you may actually handle the work for various positions."

That's when redesigning your resume becomes crucial, says Eppler. "The key thing on your resume is to indicate the different types of scenarios in which you've adapted to change. The resume needs to get your foot in the door."

What about competing with lower salaries? Soost argues that employers are apt to hire a less-experienced candidate to reduce costs. According to a 2002 Accountants Inc. compensation survey, salaries in the San Mateo area for junior or staff accountants range from $37,000 to $55,000, while salaries for audit or tax managers range from $75,000 to $100,000.

"Sure, a high salary may not be something that's attractive to many hiring managers," says Eppler. As a result, she emphasizes that presentation is key when trying to land a job within the salary range a mid-career CPA wants.

Although some candidates have taken lower salaries, like Shealor, who took a cut in pay when he accepted a position with Leslie Accountancy LLP five years ago and eventually worked his way up again, Steel says most companies will not try to fill a slot according to salary. "We'll show them a couple of candidates with varying salary requirements, and they'll pick the best candidate. They don't skimp."

TARGET YOUR SEARCH

Job boards, Web sites and e-resumes aren't making job searches easier, especially when job titles and keywords are used to search for candidates, says Steel. Mid-career CPAs need to target their search and do their homework.

"Make sure your resume goes to a specific person," she says. "Customize each resume accordingly."

If a job title doesn't tell a story, mid-career CPAs should highlight specific skills and abilities that show they not only handled the job but did so in a way that helped contribute to the company's success. And when possible, quantify the results. "If you helped implement new billing procedures, show how the new procedures affected the company," says Steel.

Also be sure to highlight awards, recognitions and any continuing education that can illustrate how trainable you are.

Keeping your resume up-to-date is crucial. If you have been with the same company for more than 10 years, your resume may not be current. When it comes time to spruce it up, you may forget about some of your accomplishments.

"It's a good idea to update your resume on an ongoing basis, noting key accomplishments during the year so you won't forget about them," says Steel.

THE POWER OF NETWORKING

Bachrach landed a job as vice president of finance and administration with a Los Angeles startup in February and credits networking for his success.

He is a member of the Financial Executive Network, CalCPA's Los Angeles Chapter Members in Industry Committee and the Los Angeles Cash Flow Association. He also attended a few meetings of the Professionals Network Group and All Cities Resource Group--an organization that sponsors a series of business networking groups that meet monthly.

Networking didn't secure the position for him, but it allowed him to connect with other CPAs, keep up with the industry and hone his interviewing skills.

"I went to the meetings to sell my CPA and CFO skills, but I had minimal success. Still, it was good for me to practice my 'pitch' and meet other out-of-work CPAs who were doing the same thing. And, I met good people and had fun."

Vince Chin, CalCPA associate director of member relations, says that networking is the first step to getting your name out. "The first thing to do is go to a chapter meeting," he says. "You can find out times and locations of chapter meetings in your chapter Bulletin. It's a real and tangible thing that CalCPA provides--a forum to meet your peers and potential employers."

Steel agrees. "CalCPA is a great source for networking events, which allow CPAs to get more involved from different levels and industries."

TALKING YOUR WAY IN

In a recent Robert Half survey of 1,400 CFOs, strong communication ability is the second-most important skill CFOs will look for in financial professionals. And for those looking for a job, communication can be the key to unlocking the door.

In many cases CPAs must first deal with the human resources department before they talk to the OFO. Learning how to relate to someone in human resources, who most likely doesn't have an accounting background, is a crucial step in the job-search process, says Eppler. "You may have to sell yourself to HR in a way that's different once you're in the interview."

She suggests CPAs attend seminars in communication and interviewing techniques. These skills can go a long way, from learning how to relate to human resources, to closing the deal during the interview and making lasting impressions on the job.

"Communication and people skills are more of what get you promoted today in accounting and finance, because the roles involve managing people, communicating with systems people and with other departments," Andrew Kaufman, a senior recruiter in the Bethesda, Md., office of Creative Financial Staffing, told the Los Angeles Times.

THE FUTURE

Although entry-level accountants, requiring two-to-three years' experience, are in the greatest demand, accountants with advanced degrees will have an advantage, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupation Outlook Handbook. "Applicants with a master's degree in accounting or business administration, with a concentration in accounting, also will have an advantage in the job market."

Proficiency in accounting and auditing software or expertise in international business, specific industries or current legislation, also may be helpful in landing a job, the report states.

But Bachrach thinks general experience is on the side of the mid-career CPA. "I'm much more of a generalist," he says. "There are experts out there, but that person may not know HR stuff. If you're strictly an auditor, where are you going to go? Most companies want to see someone with some breadth."

And Steel says, companies will pay for that experience.

"I don't think that most employers are going for lower salaries," she says. "If they have to pay a little more for a truly high-quality individual, they will."

RELATED ARTICLE: Resume Content Tips

* Be accurate and truthful.

* Describe your significant contributions at each job and, if possible, how they impacted the bottom line.

* Summarize the technologies, including hardware, software and databases that you have used in your career.

* Customize your resume by focusing on your specific skills and qualifications as they relate to the job opening.

* Focus your resume on your experience and education. Include activities with professional, trade and civic associations, recent courses taken and special skills if they relate to the job opportunity.

* Remember to maintain a permanent file of your achievements, work samples and letters of recommendation--no matter how inconsequential--as a basis for future resumes.

* Don't list references or state, "References available on request." The interviewer will assume that you will provide these contacts when asked.

* Don't include your phone number or e-mail address at your current job unless your boss is aware of your intent to leave.

* Don't provide salary information in the resume. If an ad requests a salary range, include it in the cover letter. Otherwise, wait until the interview to discuss compensation.

Source: Robert Half: For more tips go to www.roberthalf.com and look under Resources.

InternetFriendly Resumes

To send your resume via e-mail. you'll need to save the document in ASCII (plain text) format. Here are some tips:

Line Length--Set line lengths in your text editor at 80 characters or less to make them less likely to wrap prematurely. Tip--If you're using Word for Windows, use 10-point Courier and set the page width at 4-3/4". Save the file as "Text with Line Breaks" to put a hard return at the end of each line.

Vertical Alignment--Achieve alignment vertically by using an equal number of spaces from the left-hand margin. Tip--Be sure to convert all the text in your resume to 10-point Courier or another suitable fixed-width font. Fonts like Helvetica or Anal have different widths for different characters and should be avoided. Using spaces with the correct line length will make the text align properly.

Other Issues--If the design of your hard copy resume includes columns, bullets or bitmapped graphics, adapt a less complex layout for your e-mail version. Take advantage of ASCII characters like dashes (-), asterisks (*) and arrows (>) and limit the use of bold and italics.

Source: Robert Half; www.roberthalf.com

Sharon Ross is a freelance writer.
COPYRIGHT 2002 California Society of Certified Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ross, Sharon
Publication:California CPA
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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