The CPA credential carries immense weight in the eyes of the public. So it’s no surprise that those who have done what it takes to become a CPA — and those who work with them every day — place a high value on getting the credential.
That trust and value was reiterated at the VSCPA’s 17th annual Educators’ Symposium, held Thursday at the CPA Center in Glen Allen, and nowhere did it resonate louder than in the roundtable discussion “Job Ready — The Recruiters’ Perspective.” Coming on a heels of a presentation about the future of the CPA Exam, panelists Pete Bartok, CPA, Kelly Hardy and Mandy Nevius shed light on firm recruitment priorities and how accounting professors can best position their students to get ahead in the job market. First and foremost: Students should do everything possible to get those three letters after their name.
As Bartok, a VSCPA member and a manager with KPMG in Richmond, put it: “The way KPMG and the other Big Four firms look at it, first and foremost, whether you have a master’s degree or just 150 hours doesn’t matter that much. We care that you are a CPA.”
That endorsement was part of a larger discussion on the way students can position themselves to land their desired job by getting the 150 credit hours required to sit for the CPA Exam.
“We need to know a plan. We need to know, before you start your first day as a full-time associate, that you have that 150 hours,” said Hardy, a human resources generalist at Johnson Lambert LLP in Raleigh, N.C. “On some occasions, we may hire someone who may be in evening classes. So we have some flexibility, but it’s on a one-off basis.
“It’s the first question I ask. How are you going to get to the 150 hours? What is your plan? When they don’t have a plan and they’re a late junior or a senior, that pulls some flags for us.”
Ideally, that plan should go back even further — right to the beginning of college, if a student is prepared enough to shoot for an accounting degree from Day One. Bartok pointed to the age-old metric of grade point average (GPA), even early on, as a potential differentiating factor for those all-important internships.
“The GPA is one thing that you can do to really build your brand, particularly when you consider how early we start the recruiting process,” he said. “Getting off to a good start and having a good, solid GPA is going to open so many doors for your students.”
The Educators’ Symposium draws professors from all levels of Virginia colleges and universities, from the major programs at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University to smaller schools like Lynchburg College and Bridgewater College to the state’s community colleges. And that diversity can be a major indicator of where a student will be happiest. Just as not everyone is cut out to sit in giant lecture halls at major universities, not all young professionals will fit best in a Big Four firm or a major market — or even in public accounting.
“Not everybody is going to go the Big Four route, and not everybody is going to go public,” said Nevius, a human resources manager at Keiter in Glen Allen. “Culture is so important, and they’re going to be happiest when they find the right culture. Everybody is so focused on public, or big city, or big firm. Remind them of choices they made in the past and why they made their choices.”
Personality is a major factor not only in choice of market and employer, but in how well a potential employee will be able to handle the non-accounting aspects of the job. Educators can help their students get a leg up in the profession by focusing on those soft skills that are crucial to success.
“It’s the crossroads of communication skills and maturity. It’s the ability to handle different people situations,” Bartok said. “I’m looking for somebody who can carry on a conversation at lunch with a client. That’s not something I see in everyone. You need to be able to sit down with the client and say ‘You made a mistake’ in a nice way.”
Hardy added: “Is this person going to be positive or negative? We look for a positive attitude, a willingness to learn and a focus on the opportunity.”
And yes, some of that can be demonstrated in the way students use social media. But that doesn’t just mean “Take down those keg-stand pictures before you start applying for internships.” It extends to showing initiative in the way you interact with potential employers.
“We may look at their LinkedIn account, or see if they’re following us on LinkedIn or Twitter, to see if they’re trying to find out who we are,” Hardy said. “That resonates with our partners.”
Of course, that varies from firm to firm. Johnson Lambert is more proactive when looking at prospective employees’ online presence, while Keiter doesn’t even glance at social media until after the interview process has started. But the panelists offered a bit of salient advice for students that’s relevant far beyond the accounting industry.
“One thing I would encourage all of you to say — I’m teaching this to my second-grader — is ‘Don’t put it up there if you don’t want it to get out later,’” Nevius said.