Survey: CFOs to add finance jobs despite US unemployment

The study's results highlight an unemployment trend that is based on education and skill levels

Despite a U.S. unemployment average that has hovered around 9 percent in recent months, a survey of CFOs indicates improved fourth-quarter hiring for accounting and finance positions.

Of the 1,400 CFOs polled for the Robert Half Financial Hiring Index forecast, 12 percent plan to hire full-time accounting and finance workers in the coming months and 7 percent look to reduce headcount, for a net increase of 5 percent. This figure is up four points from the third-quarter survey and is the highest projection in three years.

The results show that "a divergent unemployment picture" based on education and skills is starting to emerge, said Brett Good, senior district president for staffing firm Robert Half International.

The national unemployment rate, which stood at 9.1 percent in August according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), is a "blend" of highly and lesser skilled workers, he said.

Breaking down the BLS numbers by profession shows unemployment rates that fluctuate between 2.6 percent and 4.2 percent for finance positions such as accountants, auditors, financial analysts and financial managers, Good said. This means skilled, college-educated workers can expect low unemployment in certain industries, such as finance and technology, he added. Conversely, the unemployment rate for "lighter skilled individuals" ranges between 14 percent and 18 percent.

After weathering the recession without hiring employees, "organizations have hit that point of diminishing returns" and need to hire workers to meet the uptick in work, Good said. BLS statistics have noted a productivity decrease over the past few quarters, he said, and that can be attributed to firms trying to handle increased work volumes with current staff levels.

"As organizations have worked their way through this downturn they've really held off trying to add to their overhead departments for as long as possible," said Good. "We're seeing increases in transactions, whether it's receivables, payables or payroll. Companies now have to add staff to give the existing staff a bit of a break and handle those increases."

There is also a seasonal effect to fourth-quarter hiring with many companies timing the end of their fiscal years with the end of the calendar year, added Good. Firms will hire accountants in the coming months to ensure that their "books look good at the year end" and prepare organizations for tax season.

The hiring prospects are not limited to certain sectors, according to the survey, other than the construction industry.

CFOs in seven of the eight industries surveyed called for increasing staff levels in the coming months. Professional services firms (net 9 percent) will lead the hiring, followed by manufacturers (net 8 percent) and business services organizations (net 6 percent). A net 4 percent of finance chiefs in the transportation, wholesale and finance, insurance and real estate sectors will add employees and a net 1 percent of retailers will boost their payrolls. Only the construction industry called for a loss of finance and accounting positions, with a net 3 percent of CFOs in that space predicting staff reductions.

While companies may need to boost finance department headcounts to meet increased business, firms are maintaining strict hiring criteria, according to the survey. Finding skilled financial professionals is somewhat to very challenging for 59 percent of the CFOs polled, an increase from 41 percent in the third quarter's survey.

Hiring mangers are "still being very specific and somewhat picayune around wanting not only the industry background but also wanting the five to seven must-haves," said Good. In a normal market, managers would hire job candidates with a majority of the desired skills, but now organizations aren't wavering on the necessary background, he said. CFOs and hiring managers want workers who have experience on a specific technology platform, a very strong background in accounting and the ability to play multiple roles in a pared-down team, he said.

For candidates with the desired background, getting noticed is "what you know and who you know," said Good. In addition to networking, he suggests that candidates have résumés that clearly state how their work has generated revenue, saved money or increased productivity. Job seekers also need to tailor their résumés to the specific needs of the company they are applying to and avoid emailing the same document to every business.

Robust hiring plans also tie into strong CFO optimism about business prospects for the fourth quarter, Good said. A total of 91 percent of finance officers surveyed said they hold some degree of confidence about future business, with 55 percent answering that they are very confident and 36 percent saying that they are somewhat confident. Companies that outlasted the recession retooled their organizations to stay afloat, typically have better cash flow and now hold a more positive business outlook, he said.

"They feel optimistic that they've weathered the worst of the storm ... and as they get deeper into the recovery they'll have to expand."

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