Tracy Baisa of Chicago isn't out to save the world. She aspires to get married, have children, and make a decent living at a stable job with plenty of flex time. For all those reasons, and because she's good at math, she became an accountant.
Little did she know when she began training, however, that a world fed up with corporate scandals might one day look to the likes of her for brave rules enforcement on the front lines of business. Since the 2001 collapse of Enron, the formerly sleepy world of accounting has become a place to get noticed - and maybe make a memorable mark.
"You definitely feel like you do need to be a little bit more on the ball," says Miss Baisa, a University of Texas graduate student with two job offers from PricewaterhouseCoopers. "I know with my old [accounting] job, I would go there on a couple hours of sleep, not a big deal. But I would never ever do that now. There's just a lot more at stake getting involved in this job now."
All that pressure to get every number right isn't scaring folks away. On the contrary, accounting has become a magnet for job-seeking students. Enrollments in accounting programs climbed 17 percent between 2000 and 2003, according to the latest report from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Before that period, enrollments had seen a steady decline since 1994.
The job market hasn't disappointed. New federal requirements helped create 49,000 new accounting jobs between March 2004 and 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And pay for entry-level jobs climbed more than 10 percent from 2004 to 2005, as the inexperienced now command as much as $47,000 per year at large firms, according to a survey by Robert Half International.
With accountants both in demand and in the news, the profession is getting a makeover in more than image alone. Those once regarded as bean counters in green eyeshades are becoming corporate leaders in areas of compliance and business planning, according to John Rieger, director of accounting at the Association for Financial Professionals in Bethesda, Md.
That means accountants are being called upon to muster qualities, from assertiveness to gregariousness, that don't always come naturally. "We tend to be quieter people. We're not out there, we're not boisterous, screaming from the rooftop," says John Morrow, vice president for business and industry at the AICPA.
But, he adds, maintaining a solid presence is not optional: "We say, 'It's difficult to stand up to people, but you need to do that. It's part of the commitment you make as a CPA to stand up to ethical challenges.' "
With Enron, MCI/WorldCom, Tyco and other recent scandals, deceptive accounting practices proved catastrophic for employees and shareholders. To safeguard against repeat episodes, in 2002, Congress legislated reforms in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, creating a torrent of work for in-house accountants as well as external auditors and those hired to do audits and check up on other auditors.
Students are lining up for those enforcer jobs. At the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, for instance, the nation's second-largest accounting program saw 80 percent of its students this year choose the audit track.
Meanwhile, as companies look to accountants to play ever more vigilant watchdog roles, lower-level accounting jobs involving lots of repetition are disappearing - at least from US shores. Major companies now routinely outsource payroll functions and other tasks to accountants in Eastern Europe, Scotland, and India where wages are lower, according to Brad Bays, director of the MBA program at Miami University of Ohio.
As such "back office" functions begin to disappear from the US, prospects are brightening for those willing to take on detective work.
"Before it was, 'If you see it, do something about it,' " says Don Forrest, director of permanent placement for Robert Half International in Chicago. "Now it's, 'We need to specifically look for this.' "
Whether they're attracted to the security or the chance to make a difference, a young generation of accountants is saying 'yes' to a chance at reshaping the landscape. "I like to say accounting is sexy again," Mr. Rieger says. "Or maybe it's sexy for the first time."