Receiving your first professional job offer is one of the most exciting things you'll ever encounter. It's a sign of validation. It's a milestone that reminds you that everything you've worked on to help drive your career has paid off. However, those first few minutes of excitement could potentially be followed by an overwhelming few days. You will have a decision to make, and make it quickly.
I'm Mylin Batipps Jr. and welcome to the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation's Work Your Way to CPA, a podcast series to help aspiring CPAs achieve their dreams. In this episode we will discuss the different components of a job offer and we'll learn from corporate and public accounting recruiters and successful CPA candidates about how to best evaluate a job offer and decide whether it is right for you. We will also hear words of wisdom from accounting educators for CPA candidates as they prepare to enter the workforce.
In a typical job offer, you'll find the job title for which you applied, your start date, and maybe a statement of at-will employment. Salary, however, is the one thing that always jumps out in the offer letter and has often been argued as the most important consideration when choosing a job. Brandon Saylor, partner in the Philadelphia office of recruiting agency the Atlantic Group, says that while salary should be taken very seriously, it is only a short-term factor.
[Saylor] What I mean by that is whatever salary you take when you start a job, it's not going to be your last salary, especially if you're with a company that is in, like we had said, a growing industry or sector. There's going to be newly created positions. There's going to be promotions throughout your time there. As you get promoted in an organization, that's when the increases are bigger. One of the biggest factors you should look at is long term. What opportunities do you see yourself having there? There's been a lot of examples over the years. I could bring up two different examples where someone had two different opportunities in front of them and took the salary that was higher up front.
Let's, for example, say it's a staff accountant position. One position is paying a base salary of $55,000 and the other one's paying a base salary of $50,000. At the end of the day everybody is going to gravitate towards the one that's paying a base salary of $55,000 obviously, because it's higher. But if you peek underneath the cover a little bit more and turn it back more, that company that's offering the $55,000 may not be a growth company. They may not be as big. They may not have as many opportunities for you to move around, where that company that is offering the salary of $50,000 may be a big company with growth or a leader in their industry.
Young candidates look at salary because that's what affecting them the most at the moment, according to Stefanie Deiter-Printz, human resources generalist for accounting and business consulting firm RKL, a sponsor of the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation. However, Deiter-Printz agrees with Saylor that candidates should be thinking of the long term when making a decision. One way to do this is by evaluating the benefits package in the job offer.
[Deiter-Printz] What I would encourage them to look at is looking at vacation, is looking at sick time, is looking at what the benefit packages are. Does the company offer a retirement account? Ideally you're not just looking to be at that company for a month or a couple of months. You're looking for the long term. Personal lives change, situations change, and those other pieces tend to become more and more important as you move along in your career.
One of the components of a benefits package that should not be overlooked is the health insurance plan. Health care is expensive. Recognizing this, many employers offer a plan to help you pay those costs—not just for a doctor’s appointment and prescription, but also for any kind of emergency. But according to Kristin LaRosa, senior campus recruiter for public accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly—also a Pennsylvania CPA Foundation sponsor—candidates should consider more than just the medical aspect included under the health insurance umbrella.
[LaRosa] There are three folds to it: medical, dental, and then vision as well. What does the firm or the company cover just in terms of your copay or whatnot, or if you had to go to the emergency room, what would that cost look like? How much is the firm or the company going to pay for it? How much are you going to pay for out of pocket? Look at that in three folds: again, medical, and then your dental, and then your vision.
Candidates who are joining a company under the age of 26 may not pay as much attention to the kind of health insurance plan that's offered because they can still be covered under their parents' insurance plan, but it's important for those candidates to do some research to prepare themselves before they are on their own at the age of 26, Deiter-Printz says.
[Deiter-Printz] When looking at health insurance options, the number one thing that I recommend for somebody who is 26 or under is make sure that you do your research. Make sure that you know at the point when you need that health insurance that there is an option there that will fit for your lifestyle. For example, we offer two different plans. One is the very standard black and white vanilla plan. The other is a high deductible plan. Although for us the services look very similar, how you pay for those plans is very different. What I would recommend doing is that you get all the information you can from that company, whether it's an enrollment guide, a benefits summary, everything that they give you prior to your first day, and if they don't offer that to you, ask them for that information so that you can talk with one of their HR representatives and talk with members of your personal family that understand insurance a little bit more than you do. I would say make sure you're doing those things. Look at those pieces. Understand what your options are. If you have offers from multiple companies, look at both of them. See which one is better because, again, as you move throughout your life and your career, those benefit pieces are going to become more and more important.
Another component of the benefits package that candidates should pay attention to is the retirement plan. It's easy for young candidates to gloss over retirement benefits: they are decades away from retirement. But, the retirement savings should start early. Pay attention to the kind of plan that is offered. Depending on the industry in which you join you may be offered a pension plan, a 403(b), a 457(b), or more commonly a 401(k) plan. Not only should you understand your company's retirement plan, but you should also enroll in that plan as soon as you can, says LaRosa from Baker Tilly.
[LaRosa] Start saving as early as possible and put in as much as you can or what you can afford because at the end of the day, you are saving for your future. And do it as early as possible. I know some folks who didn't start saving until they were 35-40 and they're not able to retire as early as someone who started saving at 22, 23. That's definitely something to consider and look into – the company or the firm's 401(k) plan and what that looks like. Are there any matching options? What's that benefit? That does really help when you look at the end of the year at how much the company matches or how much the company gives you because at the end of the day, it's free money and that always helps. Yes, definitely something to look into as well are the 401(k) plans.
According to Saylor from the Atlantic Group, life can become more expensive when you finally step into the post-graduate state. With that in mind, having a retirement plan that your employer can invest in for you can be very beneficial.
[Saylor] When you start your career with the potential of the college loans coming due, moving out and finding your own apartment, costs can be a little bit higher where you need every dollar out of your paycheck and it's tough for you to contribute. If you have that 401(k) where the company is automatically contributing for you without you having to contribute, now your retirement is getting built without you having to sacrifice on the front end.
As we've heard so far, salary and benefits are very important when evaluating a job offer. But, evaluating a job offer is more than just looking at the numbers. It's also about asking yourself whether what's being offered will provide an appropriate balance for you, both physically and mentally. This can come down to work culture, according to LaRosa.
[LaRosa] Feeling out the culture and feeling out the team, do you see yourself working with these people every day? You're going to be working with them 40 plus hours per week. Do you see yourself fitting in with that team and can you see yourself coming into work every day and working with them? I think that's really important.
I've talked to a few successful CPA candidates who have said location was an important factor when evaluating a potential employer, not just the job offer itself. For instance, Erin Dumm, CPA, senior accountant with Barnes Saly & Company, knew that she wanted to work close to home.
[Dumm] To be honest with you, I come from a really small town. Johnstown is probably the biggest city in a 40-mile radius, so location had a lot to do with it because I wanted to stay close to my family.
Matt Nehoda, CPA, corporate controller of adult daycare service provider Active Day, gave himself parameters early on in the job search in terms of location. This allowed him to narrow down the considerations he had to make when he reached the stage of evaluating a job offer.
[Nehoda] I drew a line on the map and said “I want to be within this location. It doesn't matter where. If I'm at the very end of this little circle or if I'm right next to my house, it's really no big deal for what jobs I'm really going to go try to interview for or try to get a job doing.” That took location out of it. It's like, “OK, if I'm within here, I'm comfortable with the commute no matter what.”
For Shannon Sabourin, staff accountant with the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation firm sponsor Kreischer Miller, salary and benefits weren't huge areas of concern when job searching for the first time, as long as she was getting practical experience.
I will say that when you're evaluating job offers for that early in your career, just take it with a grain of salt – everything you're looking at. I think I prioritized that I was getting experience and that's what I wanted most. I wasn't that concerned with what my salary was going to be. I wasn't that concerned with the benefits. My number one thing was getting my foot in the door because I always, knew that you could always change. You could always go somewhere else. But I think the most important thing is finding somewhere that you feel you can learn and that you're going to get the benefits that way because you'll reap those benefits way more than you're going to reap a good salary that early in your career.
With salary, benefits like health insurance and retirement plans, and other factors like work culture and location, there are a lot of considerations to juggle when it comes to evaluating a job offer. There is no one formula to determine what should matter the most. Knowing this can make it difficult and overwhelming for someone who's experiencing the job search process for the first time, but successful CPA candidates have told me that you should embrace how difficult the process of evaluating a job offer can be. Sabourin, who has experienced a couple of job changes, says it doesn't get easier with more experience.
[Sabourin] I think it's always hard and I think that's what makes the difference between a lot of people. I know a lot of people will stay where they're at because they don't want to make that hard decision and they'll just get complacent because it's easy. But really, any time of growth usually starts with a hard decision.
Of course, you don't have to experience this process alone. Successful CPA candidates have looked to others for guidance during the job search and job offer evaluation processes. Matt Nehoda, who has also made a few job changes, says he's always looked to someone to help him evaluate his offers.
In the beginning it was my family, the only people I've ever really known that have taken jobs, negotiated jobs, did that. As I've gotten older, my wife obviously factored into these things. The recruiter that's helped me get the job can give you some guidance. They're a great resource. You should always lean on a headhunter or recruiter, or if you're using somebody to help place you. They've done it before. They know the ins and outs. Ultimately, it's your decision. You have to do what's right for you. But they can shed light on things that you maybe weren't thinking about in that sense, or maybe in the same way before. I've always had a little bit of help, like I said, whether it's from a parent or a spouse or a recruiter, but it's never good to do anything alone for that matter. Always get another set of eyes on it because they might be seeing something that you're not, or seeing something in a different way that makes you think.
Pennsylvania accounting educators share some practical advice for transitioning into the workforce. Valerie Williams, CPA, assistant accounting professor of practice at Duquesne University, talks about sleep.
[Williams] Most of them are not used to having a class at 8:00 in the morning when they're expected to be at work at 8:00 in the morning. Maybe they have been having a class at 10:00, so they're going to have to adjust that, and obviously that means not staying up past midnight either. Especially when our students go into busy season and they're working 12 hours day, they're not used to straight 12-hour days. They should get used to that type of schedule and understand what that effort is going to be.
Carlo Silvesti, CPA, assistant professor of accounting and business at Gwynedd Mercy University, says those entering the workforce should prepare for situations that will challenge their moral standards.
I tell them I was in business and industry for 35 years. No matter what happens, you are going to be faced with some ethical issues. Doing the right thing is the way you wish to go, but you've got to be able to see it, you've got to be able to challenge it, and you've got to be able to deal with it. I jokingly tell them for 90 percent of us, if at the end of the day you can put your head on the pillow and fall asleep, you've had a good ethical day. The other 10 percent—nothing’s going to phase them.
Joe Hargadon, CPA, professor of accounting, undergraduate accounting coordinator, and former chair of the department of accounting, economics and finance at Widener University, stresses that students graduating from college and preparing to enter the workforce should start studying for the CPA exam right away.
For the accounting majors, the first thing I when they graduate (ours usually graduate in May), I try to impress upon them if you have your job already lined up – let’s hope you do, and normally that wouldn't be until the fall, maybe take a week or two off –you've got to get that CPA exam, at least some of the parts. That's your first major goal when you graduate to me. Then you've got to understand that when you start working full-time, your employer has expectations of you. And hopefully we did a good job in college of impressing upon students about showing up on time, about having a good attitude, turning in good work. I said there's not going to be tolerance like there might have been in college. They're going to expect – not that you won't make a mistake – but they're going to expect certain basic, not only knowledge, but skills, and just some common courtesy.
Congratulations! With all this information that has been provided to you, you're even closer to becoming a CPA than you were before. Perhaps you've stumbled upon this specific episode, but have not yet decided which exam review provider to choose from to help you study for the CPA exam. Maybe you're not even sure of which field of accounting to pursue for a career, whether that's public accounting or corporate accounting. If you fit any one of these scenarios, that is totally okay. Be sure to visit www.picpa.org/workyourway for previous episodes of the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation's “Work Your Way to CPA” podcast series for tips on navigating through each of these processes and working your way towards becoming a CPA.