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Firms court accountants with nice incentives

LAWRENCEVILLE

For almost two years, Eric Heuett has been wined and dined like a multimillion-dollar pro athlete testing the free agent market.

Steak dinners at Chops in Buckhead, tickets to Atlanta Hawks games - the University of Georgia student and Shiloh High School grad lived the good life.

But it wasn't sports franchises wooing his services. It was accounting firms.

Companies courting soon-to-be accounting graduates is nothing new. But now, because of an ongoing shortage of accountants, firms are dipping into the college talent pool even earlier.

"I had an internship after my junior year, and once I finished that summer I could have had a job," said the 22-year-old Heuett, who recently completed his master's degree and later this year plans to join Ernst & Young.

Accounting, once thought of as a conservative industry filled with suits and number crunchers, has spent the past several years becoming sexy. The makeover is linked to a spate of accounting scandals several years ago that felled big companies such as Enron Corp. and spurred new federal legislation known as Sarbanes-Oxley.

Sarbanes-Oxley's stricter accounting standards created the need for more internal company audits, more detailed bookkeeping - and more skilled accountants to do the job.

"It's definitely revived the idea of accounting as an absolutely essential part of a company's business - one they have to place a great deal of faith in," said Ben Ayers, director of UGA's JM Tull School of Accounting.

The school cranks out 150 undergraduates a year, but the accounting industry needs more. So the program is increasing undergrad enrollment by at least 40 students annually.

Across the industry, demand is creating better incentives.

Entry-level pay for CPA-certified staff accountants has jumped from $38,363 in 2001 to $48,125, according to the staffing firm Robert Half International.

Meanwhile, companies are contracting with aggressive staffing agencies to snare the top accountants in the field.

Dan Campbell, CEO of Suwanee-based Hire Dynamics, says his staffing agency promises to cover the bill for the $1,000-plus certification classes accountants need.

His firm also holds accountant-exclusive job fairs and invites several hundred at once to local sporting events, picking up the tab for what amounts to both a networking and social event.

"We've had to get creative," Campbell said. "No one was prepared for Sarbanes-Oxley. It's clearly changed the industry."

At A Glance

Accounting salaries have been on the rise in the past two years as the stricter bookkeeping and auditing methods required by Sarbanes-Oxley legislation put beancounters in high demand. The following is entry-level pay for staff accountants with a CPA:

•2004: $35,887

•2005: $41,662

•2006: $48,125

Source: Robert Half International