Welcome back, finance pro

Returning to the profession after being forced out by the recession? Here are some reentry tips.

The recession has altered the career track for many ambitious finance and accounting professionals. Some took more junior roles in finance after losing their old positions. Others, unable to find a suitable replacement post, ventured into fields outside the finance world.

While there's no good calculation of finance professionals in those unenviable positions, one expert claimed that they accounted for as many as 25 percent of impacted employees. Mid-level pros, said another expert, were more vulnerable than their entry-level or senior-level colleagues.

These days, though, the finance job market has largely stabilized, and may indeed be growing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's May unemployment report, the finance activities sector -- defined as occupations that include accountants, auditors and loan officers -- remained unchanged at 6.8 percent compared to a year earlier (considerably better than the overall unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.) CFOs, too, seem a bit more optimistic in their professional staffing plans for the third quarter, according to Robert Half Finance & Accounting. Its latest survey finds 7 percent of CFOs indicating they plan to add full-time employees, while 6 percent expected staff shrinkage -- for a net gain of 1 percent, slightly higher than the gain in the second quarter.

And, said the experts, any professionals making a reentry can take certain steps to help improve prospects for matching their skills to the available positions.

To their benefit, experts noted, recruiters and managers are aware of how many candidates were uprooted from finance by the economy. When encountering a career diversion in the recruiting process, most who are hiring "have a much higher level of understanding than maybe they would have [had] several years ago," said Katherine Spencer Lee, a senior district president for staffing firm Robert Half International. Thus, for example, employers would grasp that a small-business controller may have wound up working at a supermarket because the previous employer hit hard times, rather than because of any fault of the finance professional's.

During prosperous economic periods, employers sometimes confined their approach to reviewing a candidate's background, and looking for "a chronological history of what they'd done in the industry," she said. But no more.

Today, recruiters and corporate managers confronting candidates returning to the industry may demand candor about your recent career path, along with evidence that you have stayed connected somehow to the financial universe, even if you no longer work directly in it.

"Did they keep their relationship with the AICPA current? Did they keep their CPA current?" Spencer Lee asked rhetorically. Managers doing the hiring "will look to see what the person did to stay involved in the profession, although they might not have been working in it."To employers, maintaining skills eliminates any perception that a professional might be "coming back in [to finance] and starting all over again," she said.

Indeed, failing to keep abreast of industry trends "is where I see people fall out of being in the top tier of candidates," said Bryan Wempen, executive vice president of PeopleClues, a business professionals social network whose members offer advice on a range of IT and business topics.

Wempen, who also is an expert at Focus.com, advises candidates to use social networking sites, take classes, read national financial periodicals -- and even tune into earnings calls -- to stay connected. Potential employers need to see that job seekers spent their "off time" filling in career gaps with knowledge on topics "that are interesting to the people that you're talking to," he said.

There can be major benefits, too, if such connecting keeps you on top of current developments in technology and other volatile areas. Most companies, for example, are struggling with mobile development, change management, and project management, so people should keep up with these areas, he said.

Embarrassment about having left finance won't help, the experts add. And the best chances for reentry lie with experienced workers who took a lesser post-recession role -- and are now "comfortably coming out and maybe looking for a new position," said Lance Haun, community director at Ere Media, a website devoted to the human resources and recruiting community, and another Focus.com expert.

He agrees that most businesses realize that the economic collapse created career blips, and that many employers now "are taking advantage of that, and saying we could pick up some really good talent out there" among onetime finance pros who now find themselves in job mismatches. "They might be a lead accountant when they should be a director level accountant," said Haun. "You look at that career path, and you see that diversion, and you see that they got laid off."

Candidates who land a job interview should use that opportunity to proactively discuss career anomalies, and show how they have kept up with the field.

"You should be able to say, 'I know you're looking at my background. Let me tell you what I was doing between X and Y'," said Spencer Lee. "And if you can do that, and tie in something that you did to your professional experience, it's just a tremendous positive."

In other words, convert your career blip into a strong story, and tell it with confidence, suggested Wempen."You have to not be ashamed of having taken a job outside industry," he said. Instead, "have your head around why you took the role," and realize that your explanation "is going to be the 'make or break' of that interview."

Experts hold varying views about how long is too long for professionals to be away from accounting and finance before trying to make their return. Worry about skills becoming stale is the main reason staying current is so important.

A career sidetrack of six months to a year generally is not questioned, said Haun. But after that period, employers may spend a bit more time studying "what compelling reason you have" for the absence from finance continuing.

The experience level that the available position requires is a factor when a recruiter looks at how long a candidate for the job has been out of the industry, said Wempen. For senior positions, a 12- to 18-month absence may be understood, because it takes that long for a candidate to find a suitable high-level replacement job. Still, looking at the months of absence that recruiters are most comfortable with, he said, "12 is probably a little better."

For more junior positions, he added, "it gets more interesting, explaining what you were doing, and how you were staying up to speed."

By all means, when being asked about the departure from your last job, "you cannot be a victim," Wempen said. "The trough is a lot longer and a lot deeper than some of the brightest people in the country had thought," he pointed out.

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Tags business issuespersonnelU.S. Department of LaborCFO Careersbusiness management

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