Reality Check for Young Finance Pros

The bottomless well of opportunities is no more, so job candidates are being less choosey and resigning themselves to lower pay.
David McCannMarch 11, 2009

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The expectations of entry-level corporate finance and accounting professionals have taken a dive right along with the economy, say speakers at the CFO Rising conference in Orlando.

In a field that just a few months ago was brimming with job opportunities, young people are finding fewer choices now, and the steady rise in compensation seen over the past several years has slammed to a halt.

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For organizations that are in a hiring frame of mind, it’s a much-improved situation. “We talked a lot about the war for talent, and until recently that was the case,” says Linda Ford, financial leadership program director at AT&T. Proof of the shift is in the numbers: Whereas previously about half of the entry-level people invited to join the leadership training program accepted, with the most recent class the acceptance rate shot up to 95 percent.

AT&T also has enjoyed increased retention. Last year, in fact, 100 percent of those in the training program, and 97 percent of program graduates, stayed on.

There is a risk, though, that people hired during a recession will be short-lived employees, putting pressure on a company’s recruiting activities. That’s what happened to AT&T after the dot-com bust began to sort itself out in 2003. It places an additional premium on the employee-selection process. “Even though it is easier to find talent right now, you still have to make sure they’re the right fit,” says Ford.

Doing that, she notes, means starting the screening process right away, while candidates are still on campus. They have to convince AT&T recruiters that they are interested in telecommunications, corporate finance, and the company’s leadership training program, in which they will rotate though many different finance positions as well as operational roles. They also must be “100 percent mobile” — willing to move anywhere in the country for the job. And they submit to an intense phase of behavioral interviewing to make sure they will fit with AT&T’s culture.

That is the right approach, according to John Orr, an industrial psychologist and managing director of Rogala and Orr, which counsels companies on hiring and succession-planning activities. “You can afford to be more choosey now. Be skeptical as you talk to people,” he says.

Especially watch out for candidates professing to have suddenly discovered a latent love for your company’s industry, Orr advises. “When times get tough, you hear more of these stories. I’m being very skeptical of them,” he says. Hiring managers should dig into the candidate’s story, pressing for details. If the story is true, it will continue to evolve with the conversation. If not, it quickly will get repetitive.

That brings up another question: Is there really more talent available, or are there just more bodies? It’s both, in Orr’s view. He said clients have told him that they initially planned to cut “just the fat, not the muscle,” but ultimately realized that meeting their staff-reduction goals would require losing some good people.

Another speaker, Colleen Cunningham, is also very focused on cultural fit in her role as global managing director of Resources Global, which provides financial consulting and project services. “We’re very collaborative and team-oriented, so we ask a lot of questions about how you’ve worked on teams and collaborated on cross-functional areas,” says Cunningham, a former CEO of Financial Executives International. “Cultural fit is critical for success.”

Orr disagrees, in part. Cultural fit, he said, is crucial for companies that know what their culture is, have a very good description of it, and are focused on it. But many companies don’t. Some just don’t think about culture at all, while others “will say, ‘here is our culture,’ and what they’re describing is what they want it to be or what they carved on the Lucite block down in the lobby. And it may or may not reflect how things are actually done,” says Orr.

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