Student accountants primed to enter a recession-proof job market

By Katelyn Polantz

With the economy spiraling downward and the unemployment rate rising, post-graduation plans are… With the economy spiraling downward and the unemployment rate rising, post-graduation plans are a headache for many outgoing college seniors. But accounting students in Pitt’s College of Business Administration aren’t reaching for the aspirin this spring. Major accounting firms haven’t reduced the number of students they recruit from CBA, the undergraduate college of Pitt’s Katz School of Business, despite a 2 percent rise in the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania since January 2008. In fact, accounting is the best industry for students to enter right now, said the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In the association’s analysis of top degrees in demand for 2009, accounting ranks as No. 1 on the list, above other career paths like mechanical engineering, computer science and marketing. And Forbes magazine recently named accounting one of the ‘most recession-proof jobs.’ PricewaterhouseCoopers is one of the largest American accounting firms and one of the largest recruiters of CBA students. Of the 3,000 graduating students it hired from around the country last April, 12 were CBA students. Spokesman Kelly Howard said he expects the company will hire the same number of newly graduated students this year as last year. ‘It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the future as it relates to the economy,’ he said. ‘But, we do believe that the accounting industry is going to enjoy a bright future.’ Pitt accounting undergraduates learn the basic techniques of external financial reporting ‘mdash; or how to prepare and analyze a company’s financial statements, said Professor Vicky Hoffman, who teaches an undergraduate course in auditing. In addition to financial accounting, students learn internal accounting practices ‘mdash; or ‘managerial accounting,’ such as how to analyze costs to determine pricing and management decisions. ‘The jobs are still out there. They’re not going away,’ she said about the state of the accounting industry. ‘Even if companies are having a really hard time, they have to do their financial reporting.’ The national unemployment rate, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, rose from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent during January. Analysts are predicting that unemployment will only get worse during the rest of the year. Unemployment statistics for students are consistent with this trend. The National Association of Colleges and Employees predicted this month that the unemployment rate for young bachelor’s degree holders will jump from 3.4 percent to 4.1 percent in 2009. Many companies, particularly in industries like finance and manufacturing, froze their hiring and recruitment this year for the most part, said Hoffman. But those businesses still need accountants, she added. Pitt senior Ali Nicholson, who’s working on a degree in finance from CBA and a bachelor’s degree in economics, has felt the economic change. This past August, she had a job ready when she graduated this April. Lehman Brothers, a New York-based financial-services firm, wanted Nicholson to work in investment banking. The company went bankrupt two months after Nicholson accepted the offer. ‘That was some pretty extreme uncertainty right then,’ said Nicholson about how she felt in September after the markets crashed. ‘I’ve come to expect that there’ll be difficulty in finding a job.’ Nicholson was lucky, though. The British company Barclays acquired Lehman’s investment-banking branch, and Nicholson will move to New York City after graduation to work in Barclay’s office there. Big-name firms like Lehman Brothers often whisk away Pitt graduates once they don their caps and gowns. The Bank of New York Mellon and Pittsburgh’s PNC take a total of about 30 students each year, according to CBA data from last April. J.P. Matychak, CBA’s director of career and leadership development, said that most CBA graduates are recruited into the marketing or accounting fields. The ‘Big Four’ accounting firms ‘- KPMG, Ernst ‘amp; Young, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers ‘- all recruit students from Pitt. In fact, 91.5 percent of CBA students looking for jobs found them within three months of their graduation last spring. CBA students who enter the accounting industry make up about a quarter of those graduates. Marq Stankowski works as the director of career management at Marquette University’s College of Business Administration in Milwaukee. He has tracked job placements since August for an employment database for the college. He said that many businesses have taken hits from the recession. ‘It’s becoming a more challenging job market for students,’ he said. ‘What students need to learn is to approach the market not from the mindset of the student, but from the mindset of the hiring manager.’