Tax accountants and those who recruit them say that poaching, turnover and burnout were at relative lows during the recent downturn, as jobs became dear. With an economic recovery on the horizon, that could be changing soon.
The profession does not lend itself to 30-years-and-a-gold-watch tenures. In 2006, annual turnover at tax firms hovered between 20% and 30%, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. By 2008, when flurries of pink slips fell through the finance ranks, that figure had dropped by roughly half, with 9% to 15% of CPAs leaving their jobs.
Turnover had been further tempered by an influx of new blood. In the past four years, AICPA membership has increased by almost 5%, to 334,635. And in each of the past five years, the number of people taking the Certified Public Accountant exam has surged 16.4% on average, from 61,884 in 2005 to 93,200 in 2009.
But 43% of tax professionals are hoping to change jobs when the economy evens out, according to a survey by the large U.S. finance headhunter Ajilon Professional Staffing.
"That's a large number -- one of the largest numbers than we've seen in years," said Jodi Chavez, a senior vice president at Ajilon.
The accounting industry typically lags the economy at-large by about six months and recruiters expect the labor market to become much more fluid this summer, typically the hottest time of the year for job jumping among CPAs.
Charles Eldridge, a senior recruiter at Korn/Ferry International, encourages young CPAs to stick it out at big tax firms, in order to garner experience and boost earning power later in life. His message is not always well-received.
"I've made presentations on college campuses on this subject and they kind of boo me," Eldridge said. "The attitude is two years and then move on."
The financial incentive to move on and move up is a big motivator. An entry-level tax accountant earns between $41,250 and $60,000, while salaries for more senior workers approach $165,000, according to the Robert Half 2010 Salary Guide.
Smaller firms have better retention records than larger companies and more senior employees are less likely to bolt, on average.
However, the stress of the job does not change with economic cycles. "Everything is deadline driven. Everybody wants something yesterday and it doesn't ever seem to get easier," said Tom Riley, a career tax accountant and former president of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants "We joke: 'What kind of occupation is this? You work hard all year and then during busy season you work harder.'"
Companies now go to great lengths to lower turnover, or at least keep workers from cracking before April 15. Holtz Rubenstein Reminick LLP, a Long Island-based tax shop, subscribes to a toll-free service that provides around-the-clock phone counseling for its stressed-out employees. The firm also has a "no yelling" policy and closes the office April 16.
"That's pretty expensive when you think about it," said Alan E. Weiner, a partner emeritus in the firm.
Caturano and Co., one of the largest tax companies in New England, has kept annual turnover below 8% by focusing on culture. The company's sole office in Boston features an art gallery and a commercial kitchen that cranks out gourmet dinners for employees from February until the April 15 deadline. CEO Richard Caturano makes a point to meet with every new employee within two months of their start-date.
"It's about how you can be a 400-person organization and feel like a 40-person organization," said John Micalizzi, the firm's vice president of human capital.
It does not hurt that Caturano knows how to cut loose. The firm boasts monthly cocktail hours and on April 15th it rolls in pool tables and organizes game-show style competitions to help its CPAs shake off massive tax hangovers.
Intuit Inc., the Silicon Valley-based maker of TurboTax and other accounting software, marks the filing deadline with "the tax Olympics," a company-wide party featuring sumo-wrestling and a chance to soak top executives in a dunk-tank.
As the economy improves, demand for CPAs is climbing, a dynamic that will increase job-jumping in the coming months. Ajilon has seen requests for new workers surge 17% since December, compared with the same period a year ago. Korn/Ferry is also reporting an uptick in requests, specifically for more senior accountants.
"Even in today's economy, it often becomes a bidding war for top talent," Chavez at Ajilon said. "It never really switched from an employee-driven market to an employer-driven market."
Why Accountants Resign*
-- Desire for change: 32%
-- Salary/Benefits: 19%
-- Work/Life balance: 18%
-- Opportunities for advancement: 16%
-- Working conditions: 12%
-- Degree of challenge: 3%
* Based on exit interviews
Write to Kyle Stock