Salaries for SOX accountants on the rise

Strong demand -- and short supply -- means experienced Sarbanes-Oxley accountants don't come cheap.

If you're in the market for a good accountant, then don't expect any bargains. Demand for experienced -- and even rookie accountants -- remains high in year two of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform act, and so does the pay, according to industry experts.

"Hiring for accountants is definitely on the rise and has been for a period of time. All indicators suggest it will remain strong through the balance of the year," said Brett Good, district president at Robert Half International Inc., the global staffing company whose salary data is used as a benchmark by the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics.

Good said the firm started seeing an uptick in accounting and finance salaries in early summer of 2004, when companies quickly realized they needed people with broad-based skills to handle a SOX audit and other regulatory requirements. By 2005, salaries for internal auditors at large companies jumped roughly 13% over 2004, and at medium and small companies increases were even higher for some positions.

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The data for 2006, slated for publication in two months, shows salaries still on the rise, although not as sharply as the year before, Good said.

"You can probably add three percentage points to our 2005 salary guide, and for professionals with forensic or internal audit experience, you can put expect another 5% or 6% increase on top of that," Good said.

CareerJournal.com, the Wall street Journal's executive career site, is more bullish. Citing recruiters, a report issued July 5 estimates pay for accountants who can help companies with SOX regulations jumped 10% or more. Experienced team leaders, the report found, as well as finance professionals expert in forensic accounting, can command 20% more than a year ago.

A report from Hewitt Associates LLC in May documents the need for professionals with SOX expertise. Of the more than 100 major companies surveyed by Hewitt, 56% reported hiring additional finance staff as a direct result of SOX regulations -- typically four new hires in the past two years. To hang on to their top talent, companies said they sweetened the pot with a variety of goodies, including raises (54%), special recognition awards, project completion bonuses, stock awards, retention bonuses and flexible work hours.

One reason for the strong demand is that, until recently, the number of accounting graduates has been in a decline, dropping from about 60,000 graduates in 1991 to 45,000 in 2002. Tom Lemmon, a spokesman for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, said the tide turned in 2003, when the numbers rose 11% to 50,000 graduates. Numbers have been on the rise since. Enrollments are also "up big time," said Lemmon, adding that the association is "laying the groundwork for the future with a vigorous campaign -- "Start Here Go Places" -- aimed at high school students. Whether the new recruits will offset the by the retiring baby boom accountants remains to be seen.

One new wrinkle, as companies gear up for year two, is the sharp interest from CIOs in accounting candidates who are proficient with the latest database applications and enterprise resource planning programs, Robert Half's Good said. He cited an example of a client whose existing platform had an internal audit system that had been disabled and was now trying to determine if it should be enabled. "Much of the demand now is for financial system experts, who can look at platforms and figure out what needs to be done to get that legacy system to produce the information that company needs to remain in compliance."

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