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Thinking Career Change? Big 4 Probably Isn’t for You

A reader posed a question to one of Caleb’s posts last week with regards to, “how to get into one of the big four accounting firms as an entry-level auditor when you are a laid off baby boomer with many other experiences?”

My short answer — in so many polite words — is why would anyone want to do that? Even as a recently laid off baby boomer, I can only hope that your career, up until its unexpected termination, was fulfilling. Contacts, networks, referrals, and references; all of these resources should be tapped out before considering a complete career change.

On a more basic level of necessity, I doubt that an entry-level career (well below the average Big 4 salaries earlier discussed) starting between $48,000 and $60,000 is ideal for a baby boomer. This is before the return on investment is even discussed. If I was a recruiter and had to choose between hiring a green recent graduate with minimal zero family obligations versus a baby boomer, parent of three, coming off of a recent firing, the answer is simple. The young buck will complain less, cost less in insurance terms, and has a recent education that can be molded to fit the firm’s methodology.

The typical public accounting career path is set: graduate from school, start career with a Big 4, take your punches and roll up the ranks. Those still standing in 10-12 years make partner. Burnt out souls need not apply; there’s always the private sector.

There are a few exceptions to this rule of thumb. The experienced hiring departments of the Big 4 are consistently recruiting specialized talent from the private sector. Ten years ago this centered heavily around the IT departments, as firm security practices grew exponentially (gotta love those SAS 70’s). Tax specialists are always in need. Many of the firms poach experience from government work, which is about as plug-and-play of a situation as you could hope for.

More on the volatility side of things are the firms’ advisory practices. Through 2005-2008, experienced hiring for the forensic, corporate finance and M&A practices tried desperately to keep up with growth opportunities. Turn the page to 2009 and where do you think the axe fell the most? No question it was the advisory lines. But even now as the markets shed thousands of jobs, a supply of raw talent appeared on the horizon for the Big 4 to gobble up. It can oftentimes be a rollercoaster of both potential and risk, but generally the best opportunities for experienced employment can be found here.