Accounting can be door to professional class

WASHINGTON Sun Oct 16, 2011 10:11am EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Gemma Urquiza interviewed for her job at True Partners, a Chicago tax and consulting firm, she remembers talking about her university honors, her ambitions and her dad's restaurant.

Urquiza, 25, is the eldest of four children of Mexican immigrants and, like many first-generation Americans, she's found accounting to be a perfect fit.

Her employer likes her work ethic and multicultural upbringing, as well as her technical mastery and spreadsheet savvy. She likes the variety of the job and its stability.

Accounting has long provided a path for first-generation Americans into the professional classes. Good pay and a focus on numbers makes it an attractive career choice.

Still, recruiting the children of immigrants is complex, say some Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). Parents' opinions are influential and they often don't know the field, a problem that alternatives like medicine or the law don't face.

Once on the job, first-generation CPAs can face new challenges like decoding the relationship-driven, sometimes self-promotional American business culture.

As accounting firms rev up recruiting efforts on college campuses this fall, there is rising demand for multicultural candidates like Urquiza to match an increasingly global focus.

"It's important to have talented accountants that reflect the demographic of a global economy." Ken Bouyer, Ernst & Young Americas director of inclusiveness recruiting, told Reuters.

Specific figures on first-generation CPAs are hard to come by, but the biggest firms are spending millions of dollars on a diversification push that's trying to reach minorities in college, high school and even as early as grammar school.

At a time when it is tough for many new graduates to find work, the Big Four accounting firms -- PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG -- report they expect to hire more than 30,000 graduates this year.

Diversity in recruiting is a strong focus for all four of the U.S.-based giants of accounting, which had combined global revenue last year of more than $95 billion, said Accounting News Report, with $31 billion of that in the United States.

CHOPSTICKS AND GILLIGAN

Deloitte & Touche partner Anna Mok was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in San Francisco, eating "with chopsticks every night," but before dinner watching U.S. TV sitcoms like the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, she said in an interview.

Exploiting her multicultural background, she has spent the last 20 years working with global public companies in a variety of industries. The Cantonese speaker worked for a time in Hong Kong, and now is responsible for southeast Asia and supporting the firm's initiatives in the fast-growing Chinese market.

With family and close friends overseas and observing Chinese traditions at home, Mok thinks that she grew up more globally oriented than many Americans. Now, said Mok, "that fits with where the world is going, especially the economy."

True Partners, the firm Urquiza joined in January 2010, tailors much of its recruiting to first-generation Americans.

The firm focuses on city universities which often have a larger population of these students. True Partners CEO Cary McMillan said the approach is about changing demographics.

The high school student population peaked about three years ago and is expected to decline for the next 20 years. With numbers declining for white and African-American students, it is more important to reach out to the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, McMillan said.

"If we don't make an effort to reach these children and grandchildren of immigrants, we could miss some of the best kids out there," he said.

PARENTS HAVE BIG SAY

Recruiting from immigrant populations can pose unique challenges. Among some groups, parents can be influential in career decisions, recruiters said.

Asian parents may want their children to become engineers, doctors or lawyers. Some can be skeptical about accounting as a career, said accountants and career experts.

Parents born in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries may be focused on their children going into public service, such as teaching, they said.

When Maria Castanon Moats, PwC's chief diversity officer, told her family that she planned to be a CPA, she remembers her parents asked "Why not be a lawyer?"

"They did not understand this accounting thing ... To them, a professional was an attorney or a doctor," said Moats, 43.

Moats, who emigrated from Mexico at the age of one with her father, a migrant farmworker, said the profession appealed to her because it brought stability. High ethical standards and integrity, strong values in her family, were also important.

Now, as part of the firm's 14-member leadership team, she welcomes young recruits with a similar background. "The first generation really wants to be successful to make their parents proud. They are committed and loyal," she said.

LOYALTY HIGHLY PRIZED

Loyalty is especially valuable to the biggest firms, which invest heavily in training and talent development, but still can suffer 20-percent-plus annual staff turnover rates.

A bigger challenge than getting candidates from recent immigrant families into top firms is moving them up once they arrive. An October 2008 report by a U.S. Treasury advisory committee on auditing found that 21 percent of new hires brought into large firms in 2007 were Asian, but only 3 percent of those firms' partners were of Asian descent.

Children of Asian immigrants sometimes have language barriers, or difficulty with U.S. business culture, said Arthur Chin, executive director of Ascend, a New York-based organization launched six years ago to help close that gap.

Coming from families that value technical excellence and hard work above all, many first-generation Asian American CPAs don't recognize the importance of marketing themselves, Chin said in an October 10 phone interview. "The whole sales and marketing message needs to be developed," Chin said.

The stability and security of accounting appealed to many of the accountants interviewed for this story.

Eduardo Castrejon, a 26-year-old senior tax consultant who joined True Partners in 2009, said some of his classmates with different majors still don't have jobs.

Castrejon's mother didn't exactly understand what field her son was getting into, but when co-workers at the factory where she has worked for 40 years were impressed by his CPA, she got a bit more comfortable with the idea.

"She said, 'I'm always going to worry about you,'" he recalled, "'but maybe I'll worry a little less.'"

(Reporting by Nanette Byrnes. Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)

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