Uncertain Future Overshadows Excitement Of Graduation; New Grads Enter Marketplace With Guarded Expectations

Kayla Shelburn, a senior finance major at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., landed a full-time job here at IPA prior to graduation, but many of her classmates weren’t so fortunate. IPA asked Kayla to share the mood on campus as fellow seniors with accounting majors graduate into an uncertain job market.

It’s no secret that today’s graduates are facing a markedly different and more competitive employment environment than just a few years ago. Armed with this knowledge, many college seniors are entering the public accounting workforce with low expectations.

The promise of landing that “big” opportunity post-graduation is waning in the aftermath of the country’s worst recession in recent history. Students face employment prospects with trepidation amid a barrage of reported corruption and public outrage surrounding some of the very financial institutions that many students once aspired to join.

During this slowly rebounding economy, students are dealing with ever-increasing costs and academic requirements. After five years of study and a constant focus on launching their careers, they are reluctantly considering any job to pay their mounting educational and living expenses.

In talking with accounting students, the overall feeling is that both students and accounting firms are being challenged by the economy, but they are facing the challenges in different ways. The perception is that many accounting firms are unwilling to evolve through, and with, the recession.

One student says, “What perplexes me is that I know the mechanics of accounting, and I know the role accountants will, and can play, in rebuilding the economy. This isn’t an industry we [graduates] should be struggling in, but making a difference in. The problem is moving forward and innovating which sometimes means ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ ”

Another student shares, “I think the reason firms are not hiring is because they don’t have the money because they’re losing too much business. This is a career choice that I made because of all the struggling industries in today’s economy, accounting firms should have the answers on how to stay ahead. I’m finding out that’s not necessarily the case.”

“In my opinion, firms need to find ways to make clients feel like their services are just as important as dinner on the table that night. I’m not saying that hiring me or any other recent graduate is necessarily the answer, but I do know that I have been going to school during this economic recession learning ways to survive and prosper in uncertain times, yet I’m finding it hard to find a firm where I can apply that knowledge,” another student says.

Perceptions of what to expect – accurate or not – are also turning some accounting graduates toward other areas of concentration.

“When I think of an accounting firm’s leader, I immediately think of an old man, maybe a very talented old man, who I know I could learn from…but I also associate that [old man] with outdated ideas, stereotypes, and a lack of innovation and progression,” a student on the West Coast shares.

“Sitting in the classroom with this older professor crunching numbers didn’t do it for me; it did not seem like the lifestyle I wanted to aspire to. I would be setting myself up for no life, a dry environment, and people who are not ready for the changes and challenges the economy is facing,” says an accounting major in his junior year.

“It’s so hard,” one student laments. “When I was offered an entry-level position at a Top 100 accounting firm, I was so pumped and ready to start my career. And then, four months later, I received a call that they were no longer hiring and rescinded my offer. It felt like I had the air kicked out of me. Now I am back to square one.”

Obtaining a degree at any reputable college is comparable to having a full-time job. With intense competition for internships and entry-level positions, and the need for many students to work part-time to pay college expenses, some are simply overwhelmed. More than ever, students feel they need to enhance their resumes with extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, volunteering etc., to show potential employers what they can and are willing to do.

But with such a tight job market, firms are putting more emphasis on academic achievement and less on outside qualities and achievements, seniors say.

One student says: “I have put all my effort into my class curriculum and have gone to class daily. I’ll admit my involvement in extracurricular organizations and part-time work took some study time away, but I was pursuing those activities to enhance my resume. I’m a good student, not a 4.0 GPA student, but I enjoy my major [accounting] and want to pursue a career in this field. I don’t want to be denied an opportunity to pursue my career goals because the year I graduate happens to be a terrible one to enter the workforce.”

“My advice to a firm that does not have the budget for new grads would be to create an unpaid internship program with a learning program attached. I still do not know what I want to specialize in; I just want to apply the work I have done to the real world. I want to be an owner one day,” a student says.

Firms have long understood the value of college recruits. Fresh ideas, idealistic thinking, boundless energy and a strong desire to succeed all characterize the current generation of graduates. Many observers believe public accounting remains a promising career with the potential for a good salary, opportunities for advancement, stability and the chance to make a difference – all good reasons to keep the faith.