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Job Recruiter Interview: Market For Tax Accountants Improving

By Dave Abrams
February 2, 2010

Larry Barlow is a graduate of San Diego State University with a degree in Accounting. After 15 years as an accounting professional in several industries, holding a wide spectrum of positions from Tax Accountant to Chief Financial Officer, Mr. Barlow chose to follow his entrepreneurial spirit and founded Tax Advantage Personnel in 2000.

Tax Advantage Personnel works exclusively recruiting tax professionals from senior staff to the executive level. Tax Advantage Personnel offers its candidates strategies for advancing and achieving goals of the tax professional in all phases of their careers.

Mr. Barlow is also the publisher of Career Choice, a monthly newsletter that offers tax professionals unique ideas and insights into achieving their career goals.

Dave Abrams and Larry Barlow discussed job searching and careers as it relates to the specialty of tax accounting.

Interview Transcript

David Abrams: Tell me how long you have been in the recruiting field, and how did you get started?

Larry Barlow: I've been recruiting for well over ten years now. I got started in the recruiting field because I saw that there was a need for recruiters to bring quality people to the marketplace, and I felt like I could find those people and present them to major corporations.

David Abrams: How did you develop your recruiting specialty?

Larry Barlow: I have a background in accounting, with an undergraduate degree in the field. After initially recruiting for about 3 to 4 months, I saw that there was a strong need for tax people, but many recruiters did not understand how tax people could be identified by who was good and who was not. I basically made it my area of expertise, and I started recruiting and working for tax professionals.

David Abrams: I assume that there are a lot of subtleties and intricacies, both in identifying talented tax professionals and in being able to help your clients identify those people.

"The one quality that I do look for is if they really love tax."

Larry Barlow: Absolutely. Just like with any specialty area, tax does have a lot of uniqueness to it, and it really depends on what area of tax you are looking at. For example, if I am recruiting for a federal tax professional, I am going to be asking candidates questions about what experience they have in the federal tax area. When I am talking to a client, I am going to be asking them what they are most interested in. If I am looking for a federal tax person, I also need to know if they have experience in one particular area over another.

David Abrams: When looking for tax professionals, you are looking for people with accounting backgrounds, and then you go into deeper specializations. Are there any qualities that you look for when you are identifying these people?

Larry Barlow: The one quality that I do look for is if they really love tax. For example, one of my favorite questions to ask tax professionals is why they got into tax. Sometimes they say it was between audit or tax, and they decided to pursue tax. Sometimes people find they love working in the tax area after doing an internship because it is very challenging, always changing, and they found that they were good at it. When I hear people talking about tax as their passion, then I know I have a real special person.

David Abrams: And I think that's an important point in terms of any professional. If you find someone who has a passion for what they do, those are going to be the people who may be the most successful. They are going to spend the time to study, to learn, and to put the time in it at work. If they have a passion for it, they'll probably also enjoy what they do better.

Larry Barlow: Oh yes, absolutely.

David Abrams: Are there internships available for accountants and tax professionals while they are in school?

" Internships are also a great way for students to get in the door of a large corporation or accounting firm."

Larry Barlow: Oh, absolutely. Companies love for students to come in and help them with their work, especially when they would normally pay for that service. There are quite a few opportunities for students to take on internships, and this will give them experience and could help them find an area of specialty that they should be looking for. Internships are also a great way for students to get in the door of a large corporation or accounting firm.

David Abrams: Do schools help their students find internships?

Larry Barlow: Schools certainly help, and the initiative of the individual helps as well. Individual students can call a company or its human resources office and ask them if they are hiring any interns for that year. I've also seen companies advertise for interns.

David Abrams: Are paid internships ever offered to students?

Larry Barlow: Oh yes, of course.

David Abrams: Are there schools that employers prefer to see candidates from, and are there any particular degrees that they are looking for?

Larry Barlow: Most employers are looking for people with at least an undergraduate degree. It's not too often that companies are looking for someone with just an associate's degree, but that could be a start for some of them. Companies generally look for someone with an undergraduate degree in business, business administration, accounting or finance. As far as schools go, there are not one or two specific schools that a company would prefer. They are just looking for someone who has graduated with a 4-year undergraduate degree in business from a prominent business school.

David Abrams: Do you represent positions all across the country, or are they specific to your location in Tennessee?

Larry Barlow: All across the country.

David Abrams: What sort of certifications are your clients looking for?

Larry Barlow: Once again, I am focusing on corporate tax, which is going to be different from other areas of tax. In the corporate arena, they are looking for candidates with Certified Public Accountant certification.

David Abrams: I think that CPA certification is, if not a requirement, a significant certification to have for many areas of accounting, not just for taxation, correct?

Larry Barlow: Let me explain why it is important to have that certification. Every state has different guidelines about how people can obtain a CPA. For example, some states require people to work in a public accounting firm in the audit area for a number of years, or to receive a certain number of audit hours. There could be different nuances between states, but the CPA exam is the same exam administered nationwide. Now companies have a uniform measure to know this person has reached this level of profession.

"Actually, there has been an increase in the last three to six months in hiring tax people once again."

David Abrams: Are there training programs that help people study for the CPA exam?

Larry Barlow: Yes, there are probably more then I can count. One that comes to mind which is very prominent is the Becker's course, which can be taken online and in person. There are a number of programs out there that will help people study for their CPA exam. It might be interesting to note that the format for the CPA exam changed in the last three or four years. Before, people would come in and have to pick the course of the exam, and then they would have to pass at least two areas of the exam in order to go forward.

They had the option of taking the whole exam, but they would have to take at least two exams at once. Now, people can take one part of the exam at one point, and then the other several months down the road when it is offered again.

David Abrams: This should make life a little bit easier, especially for those who are already employed as an accountant.

Larry Barlow: Yes. From my understanding, the test is more difficult now because of how they've set it up, but it does allow people to just focus on one area. There is a certification section just on auditing, one on financial reporting, and a practice section. There is not a section on tax by itself, and I think one of the reasons for that is because tax laws are constantly changing.

David Abrams: What is the market going to be like for someone who earns at least an undergraduate degree in accounting and then passes their CPA exam?

Larry Barlow: They'll have a better chance in obtaining a good job than someone with just an undergraduate degree.

David Abrams: So you are saying a CPA certification gives people the presence to standout in a crowd?

Larry Barlow: Yes, certainly.

David Abrams: For someone without a lot of business experience, is this a difficult job market? Are organizations hiring tax professionals and accountants right now?

Larry Barlow: Yes, they certainly are. Actually, there has been an increase in the last three to six months in hiring tax people once again. I think one of the reasons for that is the mere fact that we do have a new administration in government, and people are looking at just a whole new administration.

David Abrams: I guess something to be aware of for those considering becoming a tax professional is that when administrations change, tax laws may change as well. If there is more compliance out there, there is probably greater need for accountants and tax accountants.

"One mistake that people make is specializing in any one tax area too soon in their career."

Larry Barlow: Yes, absolutely.

David Abrams: Is there any advice that you could give to a career seeker out there in terms of the mistakes that you see people make that others should avoid?

Larry Barlow: One mistake that people make is specializing in any one tax area too soon in their career. For example, we have an area called state tax and local tax, which is where people focus on state income tax and maybe some of the local tax areas as well. If a person just focuses on that one area in the beginning of their career, they are pretty much pigeonholing themselves in that one area.

David Abrams: Would you say that the advice to not become too specialized in any one field too early applies to most people in the accounting field?

Larry Barlow: I may be contradicting myself, but once again if you focus just on tax, that might be really to think that that was too much of a specialization. But, because there are so many different areas of tax it's not.

David Abrams: So, there is specialization and people should want to be specialized, but not too specialized too early.

Larry Barlow: Exactly. People should always want to be open to looking at other areas, but at the same time they don't want to go too far away. For example, if someone was focusing in on corporate tax, they shouldn't be jumping over to audit. I mean, they can do a little audit here and there, but they should still have that stronger focus in the tax area. If they deviate too much, then they are going to lose that specialization in tax. They could always go back into it, but when corporations are looking for a tax professional, they are looking for someone that's a pure tax professional, not someone that has dabbled in accounting and auditing areas, and done some tax work.

David Abrams: More and more people today are considering changing their careers with the evolving economy. Do you see that at all in the accounting or tax area, where people are moving into accounting or tax from another career?

Larry Barlow: No, not really. I don't see people leaving the tax area just to get a job.

David Abrams: Do you see people going into the tax area from something else?

Larry Barlow: I see many people trying to get into the tax area, but it's a difficult area to get into if you haven't been in it before.

David Abrams: It sounds like you are telling me that people have to put some thought into this. They have to steer their career, rather than letting their career steer them.

Larry Barlow: Yes, that's exactly right.

David Abrams: What advice would you give to accountants regarding how to best partner with and establish a good relationship with a recruiter?

Larry Barlow: First off, looking at job boards, there are going to be a number of recruiters advertising. These advertisements will be promoting a job, and just by contacting that recruiter about that particular job, you could then start building up a rapport with that recruiter. Another source that a lot of people find me through is a book called The Directory of Executive Recruiters, which is also known as the Red Book. There is something online right now as well, but a lot of people will go to this book to find recruiters because they are looking for recruiters that specialize in their area.

David Abrams: So the one important aspect of this is to find someone who specializes in your area?

"The one thing that people need to keep in mind when using a recruiter is that it's really important to know where their resume has gone...It's going to look bad on the part of potential employees and recruiters if a company receives the same resume from two different sources."

Larry Barlow: Absolutely.

David Abrams: How many recruiters should people be working with who specialize in their area?

Larry Barlow: The one thing that people need to keep in mind when using a recruiter is that it's really important to know where their resume has gone. They need to keep track of where they are sending their resume, and they need to be firm with the recruiter to let them know that they want to know where their resume is going before or during the time when they are representing them. It's going to look bad on the part of potential employees and recruiters if a company receives the same resume from two different sources.

David Abrams: Would you suggest that people look around and interview recruiters until they find one they are comfortable with?

Larry Barlow: Absolutely. I recommend that people find out how long the recruiter has been in the recruiting business, what type of clients they represent, their specialization, and the relationships they have with corporations. I specialize in tax, so I am going to work mainly with the head of tax, or someone within the tax department, as opposed to in HR. Human resource departments are necessary and useful departments for corporations, but they don't understand the inner workings of tax, so sometimes they'll miss good people just because of that. I also recommend that when people send their resume to a company, they do it in a PDF form. That way, it is secure and it can't be copied as easily as a word document can be. Once they have a relationship with that recruiter, then they can send a word document.

David Abrams: Do you expect demand for tax specialists to remain intact over the next ten or more years.

Larry Barlow: Absolutely.

David Abrams: Any other areas that also you might recommend within accounting?

Larry Barlow: The areas that can't easily be outsourced, especially to India or some other third-world country. The areas where people actually have to go on the premises to do the work, like auditing for example.

David Abrams: Great! Do you have any funny stories, or something strange or remarkable that happened during an interview that you might want to tell us about?

Larry Barlow: I don't know about funny stories, but something that one candidate said that I remember to this day, which I feel should never be said while in an interview, is that they still need to look around before they can start working.

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