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Job Recruiter Interview: Accounting Certifications Can Help Job Seekers' Chances

By Dave Abrams
January 13, 2010

Lewis Dittelman is the founder and president of Executive Access Inc., located in Grafton, MA. He began his recruiting career in 1982 and for 15 years was a branch manager for Robert Half International, a leader in the placement world for accountants. Upon opening his own firm in 1997, Mr. Dittelman committed himself to matching outstanding individuals with companies that are leaders in their industry. A Bentley University graduate in Accounting, he worked for a large international CPA firm in Boston and then moved to controllership positions in industry before entering the recruiting profession. He is a past president of the Worcester, MA chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and is a guest speaker at business meetings and Chamber of Commerce events.

Dave Abrams spoke to Mr. Dittelman about the outlook for accounting jobs, how candidates can best present themselves to prospective employers and maximize their opportunities in the accounting job market.

Dave Abrams: How long have you been a recruiter, and how do you get involved in the field?

Lew Dittelman: I have been a recruiter for over 27 years. When I was a candidate looking for a job, I went to a well known agency in the accounting field, which was my background. Although they placed me in a job, it didn't really work out. So the next thing, they offered me a position working for them to run their temporary placement division in their Rhode Island office.

"[Accounting] jobs are out there...and there are companies that are hiring at all financial levels."

Dave Abrams: So you actually had experience as a candidate represented by a recruiting agency, they placed you in a job that didn't workout originally, and then they found another way to take advantage of your background?

Lew Dittelman: Exactly. It was something that I had thought about, but I didn't know how to necessarily touch base with them. They came to me because they liked me, so they hired me. I decided to give it a try.

Dave Abrams: During your career, have you been primarily placing consultants on a temporary basis or people in permanent positions?

Lew Dittelman: I started in the temporary services division, and during my three years in Providence I won the National Award for Percentage Increase of Sales. I was hired to be the branch manager of the newly opened office after three years with the company, so I actually transitioned to placing people into permanent positions with the ability to still jump into the temp side, and eventually I had a responsibility for all divisions.

Dave Abrams: So you've overseen both permanent recruiting, and temporary recruiting primarily in the field of finance.

Lew Dittelman: Accounting and finance, along with all the fields that cross over into credit collections, including human resources and some information technology placement.

Dave Abrams: Do you find that employers have different standards if they are hiring someone on a temporary basis versus a permanent basis?

Lew Dittelman: I would guess that some do, but for years we've dealt with clients who hire someone on a temporary basis with the idea that if a temp works out, they could be hired for a permanent job. All employees basically face the same scrutiny and skill level in order to satisfy the clients, regardless of what type of position they were being hired for. Some temps were treated differently by some clients for whatever reason, but we tried to weed those companies out because we didn't really want to deal with those that handled people differently.

Dave Abrams: Have companies greatly changed their hiring practices when it comes to accountants due to a weakened economy?

Lew Dittelman: I actually haven't seen much change because of the economic conditions. Jobs are out there, however, and there are companies that are hiring at all financial levels.

Dave Abrams: From your experience dealing with the current environment, are there greater needs for certain jobs in the accounting field than others?

Lew Dittelman: Not necessarily. I think it has always been leve; across the board. If companies still hire at different financial levels, I don't think it's changed too much. The way that companies fill those positions today is the major way it has changed.

"...certifications do more to help people get hired or even get an interview than master's degrees"

Dave Abrams: Have you seen an up ticking demand in a particular area, like for CPAs, for example? Or has that too been pretty much level over the last year.

Lew Dittelman: First of all, after the last tax season we saw a definite peeling down of staff. Now people are now trying to refill positions according to their needs and the client mix of their firm. There were a lot of people from public accounting who were laid off because the work wasn't there, but now these firms realize they may not have enough people on staff, and they are starting to hire people again.

Dave Abrams: What would you recommend to graduates coming out of school with an undergraduate degree in finance? What sort of positions should they be looking at, and do they need further education, such as a CPA degree or certification?

Lew Dittelman: Certifications will always help, but anyone with an accounting finance curriculum in college who hasn't worked an internship or had some kind of work experience on the side is behind the curve. Those things not only give students experience, but exposure to potential employers as well. Most of the big CPA firms do hire interns while they are in college, and these could turn into entry-level positions for students who do well. Internships are great for students to do while they are in school, but if someone just graduated and has no prior experience, this is a good option for them as well. People can't just sit back and wait, they need to use all their resources to get their first job, regardless of what those may be. That means contacting anyone they know, even using friends and family, or friends of family. That's how students have to get their first job.

Dave Abrams: For students who want to pursue a general career in finance, what sort of degree should they be looking at?

Lew Dittelman: They will need exposure into accounting and finance, but even a general business degree could allow them to pick up those courses. Any business curriculum can lead to a job in accounting and finance, but it is not specifically the first choice for someone interested in these fields. Students could get a minor in finance, for example, and then use it to get a job in the field..

Dave Abrams: Do you think people who major in finance have an advantage over those who just earn a general business degree when applying for a position in the financial field?

Lew Dittelman: Absolutely.

Dave Abrams: Are there other certifications in the finance fields that you deal with that could be helpful for someone's career?

Lew Dittelman: Absolutely, yes. In fact, I am a past president of the Worcester chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants, which examines people and gives out Certified Management Association Certifications, the equivalent of a CPA for those who work in industry but have never worked in public accounting. It is widely known and somewhat respected, but it's lost a little bit of it's luster in the past years. Some people think a CMA exam is harder to pass than a CPA exam, but it's more realistic and it's hands-on type of knowledge, as opposed to a lot of the theory that's involved on the CPA exam.

Dave Abrams: Are CMA certificate study programs offered at universities and colleges?

Lew Dittelman: Actually, there are, but they are only offered to members of the IMA organization. It's very easy to join, and people can't just show up and take the exam if they don't have a sponsorship and paid dues to the IMA organization.

Dave Abrams: So, after you join the IMA are there programs that will help you study for the CMA accreditation?

Lew Dittelman: Yes, there are many programs available either in classrooms or even online to help students study for the CMA exam. That's one example, but there are several other certifications that relate to the fields that people work in, including those for Certified Financial Analysts, Certified Internal Auditors, Certified Payroll Professionals, and there are actually even certifications for people with a background in credit collections.

Lew Dittelman: There is a certification available for virtually everything in any area to allow people in those fields to step up to the top of the class and add some letters after their name.

Dave Abrams: Can I am assuming that people can apply for these positions even without necessarily having that certification, correct?

Lew Dittelman: Oh, absolutely. Experience wins out, and of course certifications are always going to be a very important aspect of who gets certain jobs.

Dave Abrams: How specifically does certification help people?

Lew Dittelman: It tests their knowledge and their abilities in some of the more complex issues of the field. Certified Payroll Professional probably have had large payrolls and dealt with a lot of other things that are involved with the field.

Dave Abrams: If you have two candidates whose backgrounds appear to be fairly equal, but one has a certification, do you tend to say this certification may put that person over the top.

Lew Dittelman: It's obviously something to sell to a client, as certification shows that the candidate has dedicated himself to the field of his expertise. They didn't just do it because it was there, they decided to do it in order to move up the ladder in their career.

Dave Abrams: So, you are saying that certification doesn't just represent that someone has achieved a certain competence in an area, but also that he or she took the time to study and to invest in themselves and in their career?

"Public accounting is probably the best training ground for anyone looking to go towards their ultimate career goal in the field..."

Lew Dittelman: That's very true. If someone is in the Payroll Association, for example, they will go to their meetings, meet with them, and learn things from their peers in the field. There are also seminars and there is a lot of information that people can gain from going to these. Again, it's a test of their knowledge and their ability, and this certification will really help their career path.

Dave Abrams: We discussed certifications in payroll, auditing and in collections, are there any other fields in which certification is currently being discussed?

Lew Dittelman: Yes. You can now become certified as a certified treasury professional. There are a lot more as well.

Dave Abrams: Are there any which are currently in more demand than others?

Lew Dittelman: Companies which are looking to fill financial roles always ask for CPAs or CMAs (Certified Management Accountants). It also depends on the circumstances and level of the job requirements.

Dave Abrams: For an accountant who is looking to go back to school, would you recommend that they pursue an MBA or a specific certification in their field?

Lew Dittelman: A master's degree shouldn't be downplayed, as people are competing with other people who've got this education. But, I think that certifications do more to help people get hired or even get an interview than master's degrees. I think that people who get master's degree are improving their situation at their current company, not necessarily improving their chances of getting hired by a new company.

Dave Abrams: For young individuals hoping to pursue a career in finance, would you suggest a particular specialization for them? Is there something that you feel is very hot right now or which will be hot in the future?

Lew Dittelman: Public accounting is probably the best training ground for anyone looking to go towards their ultimate career goal in the field, whether it's to stay in the public sector or become a partner of a firm. In the New England area, hi-tech is great field to be in, whether it's software or even biotech. Healthcare is sort of topsy-turvy right now because of the change that's coming, and I'm not sure whether that's the best industry to be in. Whether it's retail or manufacturing, however, people can still do very well in either one if they are dedicated to it.

Dave Abrams: I assume that generally there are some industries where demand may lack, but at the same time there are going to be industries where demand is going to be greater. For those in the finance field, they have a wide range of options in terms of the industries they may work within.

Lew Dittelman: That is true. I always also say that not every company needs a controller or a chief financial officer, but there is not a company out there that doesn't need some finance person like a bookkeeper. It's not a derogatory term to be called a bookkeeper, but some people who just like doing bookkeeping may go to get a degree and then find something they like more than bookkeeping. I've met bookkeepers who could be called controllers, and I have met controllers who are no better than a bookkeeper. So what's in the title anyway? People's worth to their company and how much they are getting paid are more important.

"Jobseekers should not be passive. They cannot sit back and wait for the phone to ring and for the jobs to come to them."

Dave Abrams: Have you met people who have been in a different profession and then moved into finance?

Lew Dittelman: Yes, I have, and the first question I always ask them is how they did it. There are some interesting stories I've heard over the years, but ultimately someone gave them the opportunity to transfer their skills or knowledge. It's not the easiest thing to do, but people have done it.

Dave Abrams: I assume transitionally this is another area where education can become very important?

Lew Dittelman: I agree, yes, absolutely.

Dave Abrams: Do you have any advice to professionals in the finance industry in terms of how to best develop a relationship and find a recruiter?

Lew Dittelman: They should always find someone who is a specialist in their field. They'll always do better than going to a general placement agency where people don't necessarily have the wealth of experience in their own particular area. Those who are looking for an accounting job should look for recruiters who had a pretty lengthy career in the accounting and finance field. This way, they will know that the recruiter will understand what they do better and they will be able to sell their skills better to potential employers.

Dave Abrams: What mistakes do you see people in the financial field make most within their careers?

Lew Dittelman: Well, over the years I've probably seen a lot of people who just don't get it. This means that they've made their choices and they stayed for very short periods of time at companies, which is absolutely detrimental to their future employment. Companies don't like to hire people who appear to be job hoppers. I got a resume today from a guy whose only experience was working for his father. I just surely hope that he gets a good reference from the guy, but he is now trying to leave his father's CPA firm and find a job in another firm. Since 2006, the work for his father is the only experience he has, and it's yet to be determined how potential employers will look at him. I've had people who listed their mother as their reference, and it was their only reference. You can guess how likely we were to place that person!

Jobseekers should not be passive. They cannot sit back and wait for the phone to ring and for the jobs to come to them. That's the best advice I can give them. I also recommend that those who are currently working always keep their resume up-to-date. They never know what can happen, and if another job comes along they don't want to tell a perspective employer that they don't have a current resume. They need to keep it up-to-date all the time.

Dave Abrams: People don't always take the time and trouble to analyze job changes. They accept a job offer before they've really considered it. If they have a good recruiter, I assume they can discuss the options and the benefits of a particular position before they take it so they can prevent that mistake.

Lew Dittelman: That's true. If we are doing our job properly we are obviously interested in making a placement that sticks. It's up to us to try to give as much information as we can in order to ensure smooth transitions and high success rates.

Dave Abrams: About how many times can people switch jobs before they are considered job hoppers?

Lew Dittelman: Most people probably expect that employees really aren't able to accomplish a lot in the first year or two a new job. If they stay for three or four years and have the chance to be promoted into a new job, that's going to look better than someone who stays at a job for one year and then leaves.

Dave Abrams: What is the strangest recruiting experience you've had?

Lew Dittelman: A story that sticks in my mind is when a woman went into an interview with a camera, and she took a picture of the man who interviewed her. He was so surprised, and she told him that they she was taking a picture of everyone she met. That had to be one of the strangest things that ever happened in an interview.

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