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New Research Underscores Duality of Job Market

Despite stubbornly high unemployment, some firms report difficulty in finding qualified candidates.

December 5, 2011
Sponsored by Robert Half International

Despite all the discussion about “the job market,” as though it’s a single, uniform entity, new research by Robert Half International continues to point to what is best described as a tale of two job markets. While the general hiring outlook remains relatively conservative, companies are eager to hire professionals with specialized skills, and competition for workers with certain specialties, backgrounds and experience levels has intensified.

This trend has been taking shape for several years, but it remains pronounced, even in an unsteady economy. And the accounting and finance fields are no exceptions.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics sheds light on the situation. While the overall U.S. unemployment rate remains around nine percent, for college-educated workers it is roughly half that. (The unemployment rate is 4.4% for college-degreed workers age 25 and older, according to payroll numbers released in early November). Highly sought-after professionals have an even lower unemployment rate, reflecting a market in which demand for these workers exceeds supply. In the third quarter of 2011, for example, the unemployment rate for financial analysts was 0.6 percent and for compliance officers, 1.7 percent.

These numbers go a long way in explaining why firms say it’s increasingly difficult to find candidates who meet all of their requirements. The situation has caused the hiring cycle to grow longer — seven weeks to hire suitable candidates for management roles in 2011 vs. five weeks in 2010, according to Robert Half research. This is not to say, however, that companies can take their time. Some employers are losing out on the best applicants by moving too slowly or failing to promptly extend their best offer, while top performers are receiving multiple offers and counteroffers in some specialties.

Most Salaries to Rise Moderately

Not surprisingly, compensation trends are reflective of demand patterns. According to Robert Half’s 2012 Salary Guide for accounting and finance professionals, starting salaries in these fields are expected to rise an average of 3.5 percent in the coming year, but certain in-demand positions are projected to see even higher increases. For instance:

  • Assistant controllers at companies with sales up to $50 million, are projected to see a 4.3 percent jump in starting compensation to a range of $56,000 to $78,000. In general, controllers are expected to see slightly higher-than-average increases in starting pay in the year ahead.
  • Strong demand for financial analysts is pushing starting salaries upward for these professionals. A senior financial analyst hired at a midsize company can expect a 4.2 percent increase ($62,500 to $81,250 salary range) and analysts with one to three years of experience at the same size company can expect a 4.4 percent rise in starting pay ($48,500 to $64,500).

As noted, salaries reported in the Salary Guide are based on starting compensation only. Continuing or ongoing salaries are not reported because external factors, such as seniority, work ethic, job performance and training, impact the salaries of full-time professionals as work histories develop. Proven top performers are likely to receive above-average salary increases, and professionals with in-demand skills also may see higher gains in base salary, especially if they change employers.

Where the Jobs Are

Besides those positions mentioned above, other roles in demand include accountants and auditors at various levels and in specialties such as tax and cost accounting. Also there has is an increased hiring of internal auditors, business systems analysts and professionals, especially those who can fill core operational roles in accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll and collections. Much of this hiring activity is being driven by companies’ efforts to better position themselves for growth or to refill positions cut during the recession. Some replacement hiring to address attrition and turnover is also occurring.

After a significant pullback in recent years, hiring in public accounting has picked up for positions at all levels, but especially for senior accountants. The uptick in demand for experienced accountants has led many public accounting firms to review their compensation packages to remain competitive.

Public accounting raises have been gradually restored but remain about average. For instance, a senior accountant in audit/assurance joining a midsize firm ($25 million to $250 million in sales) can expect an average increase in starting compensation of 3.5 percent for a range of $64,250 to $84,500. A senior manager/director starting at the same size firm can expect a pay range of $98,500 to $147,000, which represents a 3.4 percent increase over 2011.

With the market for skilled professionals becoming increasingly competitive and skills shortages emerging, businesses will want to ensure their compensation and benefits are competitive and that valued team members understand the opportunities available to them with their current employer. In addition, firms may need to realize that it may take more than a moderate pay increase to keep their best people.

For more detailed information on salary and hiring trends, consult the 2012 Salary Guide for accounting and finance professionals. The guide, as well as salary calculators that compute starting salaries in local markets, can be accessed at http://www.rhi.com/SalaryGuides.

This article is provided courtesy of Robert Half International, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is one of the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.