In mid-April Christina Solomon, CPA/CFF, CGMA, a nonequity partner at a St. Louis public accounting firm, received word that she, along with several other employees, would be furloughed for 90 days. The COVID-19 pandemic had hit close to home.
"It was unexpected, but it gave me an opportunity to reassess and reevaluate," Solomon said. After some soul-searching, she chose to survey the job market and consider a change. She scoured online employment listings and spoke with recruiters. Then through a connection, she was introduced to the team at Mueller Prost, a public accounting firm also in St. Louis. After a series of 10 interviews, nine of which were conducted via Zoom with only one in-person meeting, Mueller Prost offered Solomon a job as director of forensic accounting. She started her new post on Aug. 4.
Solomon is one of many CPAs who have attempted to search for a job, interview, and start new stints since the coronavirus began spreading widely. While some firms and companies have furloughed or cut staff, others are actively hiring, capitalizing on a greater talent pool of CPAs and support staff now in the market.
The pandemic hasn't affected the job search process much. CPAs can still work with recruiters, comb job ads, and respond to postings via email. But the process of interviewing and landing a job has changed dramatically. Many firms are interviewing applicants remotely, over platforms such as Zoom, to determine whether they are a fit. Others, like Kemper CPA Group, which has 30 offices across four states, use a videoconferencing platform called Spark Hire, which allows interviewees to record answers to interview questions on their own time.
Though there are challenges in the current hiring and onboarding process, job seekers and public accounting firms are adapting. Solomon and hiring personnel at CPA firms share advice for remote job seekers on how to search for positions, manage the interview process, and impress potential future employers:
Don't underestimate your connections. If you're laid off, furloughed, or between jobs, tap people you know who may be able to help you get a foot in the door at an organization. "Don't be afraid to have those types of communications," Solomon said.
Create a savvy résumé. While this tip was vital pre-pandemic, it's even more important now since competition could be intense, with more job hunters in the marketplace. Solomon had not written a résumé for 19 years, so she purchased a résumé layout from Etsy.com that looked professional and organized. She created different versions of her résumé that were designed to appeal to different potential employers, she said.
Learn the technology and test it. Before your job interview, make sure you can handle the tools within Zoom or any other platform the interviewer will be using and that your internet connection is solid. You don't want to be fumbling with audio or video during a live on-camera meeting. "Our world is so technologically driven," said Christopher Volz, CPA/ABV/CFF, partner and director of business valuation and litigation services at Mueller Prost, who helped hire Solomon. "The last thing you want to impart in the interview is that you are not very adept with technology."
Be aware of your surroundings. When interviewing for a new post virtually, ensure you don't have people or pets appearing behind you. These movements or noise "can be distracting to the hiring manager, who is trying to listen to answers as they are given," said Evansville, Ind.-based Natalie Rascher, director of talent and development at Kemper CPA Group. Make sure the TV and other devices are off and, if possible, ask someone in your household to keep children or pets from making noise.
Also, ensure your backdrop is neat. "You don't want to be in a messy room in your house," said LeAnne Diebold, firm administrator at Belfint Lyons & Shuman in Wilmington, Del. "It's important to be in a place that is quiet and clean and present yourself in a fashion that an employer would expect if you were going into an interview on-site."
Wear appropriate attire. You may be at home, but still must make a good first impression. Though "business casual is perfectly appropriate" right now, Diebold said, take care not to appear too casual. "If I did a Zoom interview and someone was sitting in yoga pants and a tank top, I would frown on that," she said.
Be equipped and eloquent. Interviews on Zoom tend to be shorter than ones in person — often lasting less than an hour — so be prepared and be specific and concise about your background, skills, and know-how. "I had to back up my experience with personal stories and be able to articulate the work that I do and the value that I would bring to the firm," Solomon said.
In addition, both parties may be uneasy during virtual meetings, so be ready with some small talk to break through the awkwardness, Volz advised. "You should definitely come armed with some questions about the employer, of course, but you'll get to that a little later in the interview," he said.
Dig deep regarding culture. Since you cannot visually see your potential new workplace and how people interact, ask in-depth questions to help you determine whether the new firm or company is a good fit for you culturally. For example, you might ask about fun events that occur at the firm, or about philanthropy projects that the firm has undertaken, Volz said.
Also, ask the employer how they've responded and adapted to the pandemic, if they had to make any staff adjustments, and what their plans are for remote work once COVID-19 has subsided, he said. The answers may speak volumes about the organization's culture.
Be patient. The virtual job interview process can be long, with multiple interviews scheduled on different days, depending on the level of the position. Solomon, for instance, had 10 one-on-one interviews each lasting 45 minutes to an hour. She was able to use this to her advantage, though. Once one interview was over, she realized it gave her "an opportunity to pause and reflect and adapt for the next interview," she said.
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.