Bean counters wanted: Why the Big 4 are in a hiring frenzy

March 31, 2011, 10:00 AM UTC

Millions of jobless Americans are bracing for the next unemployment report, due out this Friday. Despite the rebounding stock market and improving economic indicators, the unemployment rate, currently at 8.9%, has remained stubbornly high as U.S. companies maintain their “wait-and-see” stance on hiring.

But there’s one unlikely place where the help wanted sign is up, big time: Accounting firms.

Deloitte plans to hire 17,000 professionals in the U.S. and India in 2011, according to Cathleen Benko, its chief talent officer. It’s seeking accountants, auditors, consultants, and IT staff. Hiring is split evenly between experienced and entry-level applicants.

Like Deloitte, Ernst & Young has stepped up recruiting. It’s looking to hire 7,000 employees from college campuses — 4,500 full-time and 2,500 interns — and 6,000 experienced staff, totaling 13,000 people in 2011, says Dan Black, its director of Americas Campus Recruiting. Experienced staffing is up 80% from last year and campus recruits are up 20%.

Both firms compete for talent against PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, and large consulting firms such as McKinsey and Bain. The hiring confirms a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report that predicted employment in accounting and auditing would spike 22%.

What’s behind this surge in demand for number crunchers? The firms cite growth in the economy for their hiring uptick — there are simply more beans to be counted. Technology markets are proliferating, mergers and acquisitions are picking up, and audit and accounting services remain steady.

Deloitte is hiring to make up for its lower headcount growth during the last few years, says Patty Pogemiller, its national director of talent acquisition. Tax advice remained steady over the economic slowdown, but now clients are looking for consulting services. At Ernst & Young, specialty practices such as climate change and sustainability and intellectual capital are also growing.

This industry is strictly a services-based one, so ultimately their growth is directly influenced by client demand. “Their prospective clients had pulled back for a couple of years and now are spending money again on services,” says Roxanne Hori, director of the Career Management Center at the Kellogg School of Management.

Of the 330 accounting and finance majors graduating in 2011 from the Masters of Professional Accountancy (MPA) program at the University of Texas-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, 90% have already landed jobs, says Jim Franklin, director of the program. He says 80% were scooped up by Big Four firms (a moniker that refers to Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young and KPMG).

Franklin attributes the uptick to three factors: 1) Financial services and health care are growing and those firms turn to accounting and professional service firms for assistance; 2) Mergers and restructuring require additional staff to perform due diligence; and 3) Turnover stemming from experienced staff leaving the firm for new job opportunities creates open positions.

But it’s not just the Big Four expanding. Franklin says in-house accountants are wanted at other companies in industries like financial services, health care and consumer goods. Indeed, a search on (MWW) revealed thousands of openings for accountants of all levels at firms like Exelon (EXC), Aflac (AFL), Comcast (CMCSA) and Staples (SPLS).

The influx of new financial regulations is also driving the engine, says Marc Cenedella, author of You’re Better than Your Job Search and founder and CEO of TheLadders, a website that specializes in finding jobs for people earning $100,000 or more. “From early 2008 to 2009 it was dead and in 2010 you started to see a comeback,” Cenendella says. Now his leading clients say, “We need to hire twice as many people [compared to the last few years] since we don’t have the staff to do the work.”

The Big Four are competing for a limited pool of talent in accounting, finance and management. Pogemiller of Deloitte says that many candidates are fielding multiple offers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 78,000 bachelor’s degrees in finance and accounting were awarded in 2008-09 (the latest year numbers were provided) compared to 168,000 social science and history majors and 101,000 education majors. The supply can barely meet the demand.

So what exactly should aspiring accountants focus on in order to land one of these jobs? Pogemiller says that Deloitte seeks staff with technical skills and “demonstrated leadership, strong analytics and critical thinking that can apply problem-solving at a fast pace.” Black says that Ernst & Young prefers staff with a global outlook — it has also recruited Mandarin speakers to meet the growing Chinese market and Portuguese speakers for the burgeoning Brazilian market.

Despite the stagnating unemployment rate, a recent Brookings Institution report cited that 60% of all new jobs require skills possessed by 20% of the workforce. Hence the highly qualified are pursued and the unemployment rate of the unskilled remains high.

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