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For today's college students, accounting a rising field

Brandon Sabetta got his first taste of business when he was 12. His father would call from work, asking Brandon to check the status of a few stocks on CNBC.

Sabetta graduated from Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake and entered Radford University, set on a career in the field but not knowing exactly what.

Then he took principles of accounting as a sophomore. “Two weeks in, I knew that was the side of the business I wanted to do,” he recalled last week.

“You get to know everything about a company,” Sabetta said. With enough experience and strong management skills, “you could end up running it.”

The rosy job prospects – and pay estimates – didn’t hurt, either.

Sabetta graduated in May 2012 and has worked at Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer in downtown Norfolk since January 2013. Salaries for new accountants at the firm start in the low 50s, managing shareholder Marty Einhorn said.

Despite its stolid reputation, accounting is exciting more and more students. The number of U.S. graduates with accounting degrees jumped 20 percent – to more than 61,300 – from 2010 to 2012, according to the American Institute of CPAs. Virginia has experienced a nearly 60 percent increase in accounting graduates in the past decade.

As rapid as the output of young accountants has been, the demand for them – fueled by laws that add layers of financial regulations and reporting – exceeds it.

The number of available positions grew by more than 13,500 to 82,200 during the same two-year period, the CPA association said.

Audit that image of accountants as solitary number-crunching nerds hunched over tax forms, say young accountants and their professors and bosses.

“It’s not about math; it’s about what the numbers are telling you and what you do with them,” said Melanie Hicks, an accounting professor at Liberty University, which awarded 212 bachelor’s degrees in accounting last year, second only to George Mason University in Virginia. “As long as you know how to use a calculator – how to add, subtract, multiply and divide – you can do accounting.”

And you do need people skills, Einhorn said. “You can’t be successful in this business nowadays if you just want to stay at your desk and work. You have to interact with people in a positive way. You have to work in teams internally, and you have to work with clients.”

One stereotype, though, still holds true for many accountants: This is a grueling time of year, with tax deadlines bearing down.

Sabetta estimated he’s working 55 to 65 hours a week.

At Dixon Hughes Goodman’s office in Norfolk, accountant Maxim Urenev, who graduated from Old Dominion University in 2012, estimated he worked 68 hours one week this month and 80 the week before.

“I did 72 the week you did 80,” piped in Gabby Briggs, an intern who will graduate from ODU in May.

Einhorn said: “Every year, it gets worse. The more complex it gets, the harder it is to do the things you need to do. They talk about tax simplification all the time, but they never do anything about it.”

Which actually helps accountants. “When Congress gets together, it’s usually bad for taxpayers, but good for business,” said Stephen Jones, president and CEO of Strickland & Jones in Norfolk.

 

Accounting’s appeal rests heavily on the ease of securing well-paying positions. “You’ve got to do something major wrong in school to not be able to find a job after you graduate,” Urenev, 31, said.

A native of Russia, Urenev first majored in international business at Old Dominion. He was set to graduate in 2010 but found only sales associate jobs, which weren’t to his liking.

Urenev switched to an accounting degree. He received an offer from Dixon Hughes Goodman three months before he graduated in 2012. Some firms even promise jobs to juniors.

In return, most new accountants are expected to pass the four-part certified public accountant exam within a couple of years. Sabetta plans to take the exam this summer.

The median salary for an accountant in the United States in 2012 was $63,550, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency predicts 13 percent growth in jobs in the field over the next decade.

In a report estimating average salaries this year, the staffing agency Robert Half said most accountants with less than one year of experience fall in the $38,000 to $67,750 range.

And the jobs carry a high degree of security.

“Even if an organization is going through rough times, an accountant is one of the last people to leave,” said Scott Moore, director of student and professional pathways for the CPA institute. “You’ve got to keep the lights on and the bills paid.”

Sanket Patel, 21, a senior from Virginia Beach majoring in accounting and information systems at George Mason, sees accounting as a “gateway to the corporate world.”

“You get to understand the entire business as a whole,” said Patel, 21, a graduate of Ocean Lakes High School. “You see what’s profitable and what’s not profitable.”

He has a job lined up with Freddie Mac, the mortgage agency, in Northern Virginia. His long-term goal: to own a business.

The list of hugely successful former accountants includes J.P. Morgan, the 19th century financier, and Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team.

They’ve also risen in the political world. Arseniy Yatsen­yuk, the 39-year-old acting prime minister of Ukraine who recently met with President Barack Obama, has a master’s degree in accounting and auditing. Closer to home, the late Owen Pickett worked as an accountant before he was elected to represent Norfolk and Virginia Beach in the House of Representatives.

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POP QUIZ

Which famous rock star studied accounting?

A. Bruno Mars

B. Mick Jagger

C. Lady Gaga

D. Jimmy Buffett

Answer below

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An accountant’s job need not be limited to filing tax returns. It could include, for example, preparing and reviewing budget statements, monitoring internal controls and advising companies engaged in mergers and acquisitions.

In Norfolk, KPMG’s accountants offer services in three areas – tax, audit and advisory. The one that’s growing fastest, managing partner Chris Xystros said, is advisory, which might entail reviewing costs or overseeing information technology.

Another emerging specialty is forensic accounting. It’s not just to uncover white-collar fraud, said Moore, from the institute. “You might want to employ a forensic accountant to follow the money trail of both spouses to make sure a divorce is as equitable as possible.”

When Urenev first switched to accounting, his mind focused on the job possibilities. But “my heart was saying: Don’t do this.” The reason: He hated math. In fact, “we don’t do any complex math,” Einhorn said. “You talk to most accountants, and they’ll say, ‘I was good at math, but not the really complicated stuff.’ ” More important, he said, are an accountant’s computer skills: “You’ve got to learn very quickly how to use 20 different software applications.”

Sabetta said: “You can be great with the numbers, but if you don’t have good people skills, you can only take it so far. You have to be able to do the numbers and have the client understand the numbers, as well.”

As for the “boring” stereotype, Briggs, the intern at Dixon Hughes Goodman, said she’s found the profession “very fast-paced. … I’ve been challenged every day since I walked in the door.”

The long hours and weekend demands of tax season exact personal sacrifices. Last year, Sabetta decided, without telling his bosses, to forgo a cruise with his father because he was afraid it would conflict with his accounting obligations.

However, Sabetta said he expects a much lighter workload in the summer. Accountants enjoy other rewards that make up for the long haul through April 15. At KPMG, 24-year-old accountant Meagan Smith, a Notre Dame graduate, will get five weeks of vacation this year.

Strickland & Jones prohibits accountants from working on weekends, even during tax season, Jones said. He, however, works 55 to 60 hours six days a week these days.

“People that succeed in our business don’t let themselves get overwhelmed,” he said. “When they look at 20 returns on their shelf, they don’t think about them all at once. They take them one at a time.”

Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864, phil.walzer@pilotonline.com

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Pop quiz answer: B.

Mick Jagger studied accounting and finance at the London School of Economics before he decided he’d get more satisfaction in music.

Posted to: Business Jobs

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