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May 1994

Part-time employment opportunities in the field of public accountancy. (The CPA Manager)

by Buszha, Sharlene

    Abstract- Part-time employment opportunities are increasingly becoming available in the field of public accountancy. The general growth in the number of part-time professionals in the US is commonly attributed to the increase in the number of working mothers who want to devote more time to their families, of dual career families, and of individuals who are opting for semi-retirement. In public accountancy, the rise in demand for part-time professional employment is ascribed to such factors as the seasonal nature of the business and the entry of more women accountants into the profession. Part-time employment is advantageous for both employees and employers. Such an arrangement provides employees more time for personal and familiar concerns. Employers, on the other hand, incur less labor and fringe benefit costs, gain greater flexibility, and improve their ability to recruit and retain qualified employees.

The many advantages of part-time work from an employee perspective have often been cited. Part-time employment allows individuals to increase time spent with children, care for aging parents, attend to family business matters, and, for more independence and freedom, pursue other career interests, hobbies, leisure-time activities, and community service. In turn, these advantages may result in decreased levels of employee stress and "burnout" resulting from juggling home- and work- related responsibilities.

This improved quality of life does not come without a price. Lower compensation, reduced fringe benefits, loss of career mobility, and reduced feelings of importance are some of the commonly cited tradeoffs of part-time employment. Part-time employees also note that a different type of stress can be associated with such an arrangement. They often feel pressured to "keep up with" their full-time professional counterparts by doing the same amount of work, or progressing as far in their careers, while working fewer hours.

Employers also benefit from using part-time work arrangements. Some advantages are reduced labor and fringe benefit costs and increased scheduling flexibility during seasonal or business cycle fluctuations. Additionally, firms often state that offering part-time work arrangements is a business necessity. It aids in employee retention and recruitment efforts. It has also been suggested that part-timers work more productively than their full-time counterparts. Companies may also experience added employee goodwill and lower rates of absenteeism and turnover. Companies reluctant to consider the part-time work option often defend their position by explaining the need for employees to be consistently visible and available. Lack of formal policy and company "role models," as well as the associated administrative difficulties of scheduling and determining part-time compensation and benefits, are also cited as reasons for not using such an arrangement.

Public accountancy, however, appears to be a field that is beginning to respond to the increased demand for part-time professional employment. All of the Big Six accounting firms now offer some form of part-time work arrangement for their staff members. One reason for this may be that the percentage of women in the accounting field, as reported by the Department of Labor, has increased from 21.7% in 1972 to 49.8% in 1989. Another obvious reason is the seasonal nature of the public accounting firm's business. More staff labor hours are necessary during the tax season. Additionally, the skills of a proficient CPA are more cross- situationally transferrable than in other professions where a high level of situation-specific training may be necessary. Again, business necessity may be a final reason for public accountancy's openness to alternative work schedules. As Peter Pesce, Managing Director for Human Resources of Arthur Anderson & Co., S.C. stated, in reference to offering part-time work, "We were losing one-third to one-half more women than men during the fourth to sixth year. We had to retain the talent."

Prevalence of Part-Time Opportunities

Public accounting firms in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were selected to look more specifically at the prevalence of part-time opportunities within these firms. Information was gathered regarding the nature of the part-time employment relationship in terms of compensation, hours, fringe benefits, and opportunities for professional development activities. It was hoped some insight would be gained as to the perceived barriers to utilizing part-timers. This information should be helpful to public accounting firms considering the possibility of offering a part-time work arrangement. Accounting professionals desiring part-time employment also may find this data useful when negotiating such an arrangement.

A three-page, 14-item questionnaire was mailed to 300 public accounting firms. This sample included a heterogeneous cross section, ranging from the Big Six to very small firms. The response rate to our survey was 25%, with a total of 75 firms returning completed questionnaires. The questionnaire requested information regarding numbers and demographic make-up of part-timers, compensation, benefits, opportunities for professional development, scheduling, and at-home work arrangements. Firms were also asked to project future demand, and provide possible suggestions for recruiting and accommodating the needs of part timers.

Survey Results

Of the firms responding to our survey, 60% currently use part-time professional staff. In this group, 59% felt the need for part-time professionals would increase in the future. The remaining firms believed the demand would remain the same, and no firms anticipated a decreed need. Of the firms not presently using part-time staff, 73% stated "no need" as the reason. Additionally, 73% did not expect a need for part- time staff in the foreseeable future. It appears that firms now using part-time staff anticipate a growth in this area, while firms without part-timers expect this situation to remain the same. Most firms (68%) used one or two part-timers, 70% of the part-timers were female, and 42% worked in the tax area followed by 24% in audit and 20% in small business.

As far as scheduling is concerned, 38% of these part-timers were scheduled uniformly throughout the year (e.g. 20 hours/week). The remaining 62% were scheduled as demand dictated. A common arrangement was for a base number of hours to be worked throughout the year with additional hours scheduled during peak or busy season. Several firms reported that part time-staff only worked during the tax season. Schedules were arranged for the most part (75%) by mutual agreement between the employee and the firm. Literature suggests that this type of cooperation leads to the most satisfactory type of work arrangement from both the employee and employer perspective. Although an at-home work arrangement was not popular in our sample, 11% of part timers worked two and nine hours per week and 9% worked 10-20 hours per week at home.

In the area of compensation, 89% of the part-time employees were paid on an hourly basis, 11% were on salary, and only one employee received a bonus. Raises were given as frequently for part-timers as full-timers in 65% of the firms surveyed. One firm noted that compensation was negotiated each year. Over half (53%) of the firms surveyed provided no fringe benefits for their part-time employees. Sixteen percent provided full benefits, with one firm noting part-timers must work over 25 hours per week to receive them. Twenty-five percent of firms paid partial benefits, with the most liberal of these firms allowing for full health- care benefits and a prorated amount of vacation and sick days. Others provided various portions of their full-time benefit package. One firm even provided daycare for the part-time employee's child.

Finally, 50% of these firms allowed both time and money for professional-development activities, while 46% provided neither. Firms may feel more inclined to provide this benefit as continuing professional education credits are required to maintain professional certification and/or licensure.

Interpreting the Results

Comments and suggestions varied from the feeling that part-timers were incompetent and that such an arrangement was more beneficial to the employee than to the firm, to statements from firms that they were very willing to accommodate the needs of their staff. One predominant theme regarding part-time staffing was that these positions were frequently filled using former full-timers who negotiated such an arrangement. Literature also suggests that this is a common situation, with part- timers often returning to full-time positions after several years. This is especially true of women who cut back on work hours to care for infants or children. Filling part-time positions in this fashion also would eliminate the associated start-up and training costs that were cited as reasons several firms did not feel it was cost effective to use part-timers. Additionally, firms appear to be more willing to accommodate sold, consistent employees with a proven track record.

Flexibility on the firm's part was deemed crucial to the success of such arrangements. It may be necessary for firms to have various types of part-time schedules depending on employees needs, skills, and areas of work. Schedules may be adjusted over time depending on workload and, again, the needs of employees. To enhance such flexibility, lines of communication between the part-timer and firm should be kept open and such arrangements be continually monitored.

Comments also revealed that challenging work, organized and/or structured work assignments, job security, and basic fringe benefits were viewed as desirable from an employee perspective. It was also noted that firms should let employees or job seekers know that the chance of such part-time positions exist. Firms offering such perks will be more likely to attract and retain part-time employees. Literature suggests that firms providing such a "high quality" part-time work arrangement may, in effect, be avoiding the tendency to create a second-class tier in their workforce.

The data support the published findings which suggest that more firms will choose or be forced by business necessity, to consider part-time work arrangements.

Looking ahead to the projected make-up of "Workforce 2000," there will be more women entering the paid-labor market. A major portion of this growth is expected in service-related professional fields such as public accountancy. As a result, the demand for alternative work schedules will grow to accommodate the needs of this changing workforce.

The field of public accountancy has great potential in terms of offering part-time work for its professional staff. Based upon our sample, a typical part-time professional would be a female CPA who works in the tax area, is scheduled by mutual agreement as demand dictates, is paid on an hourly basis, receives no fringe benefits, but receives time and money for professional-development activities. We project in future years there will be more men interested in part-time work as child rearing and family responsibilities become more of a joint undertaking. We also anticipate the difference in compensation and benefits between part-time and full-time staff to narrow as part-time employment becomes a more common occurrence in professional fields and as firms recognize the need to be competitive in attracting and retaining part-time staff.

Recommendations to Firms

Suggestions to firms considering such an arrangement would be:

1. Be sensitive to the needs of your staff. Keep lines of communication open and be as flexible as your business allows.

2. Recognize that the time and effort put into developing such an arrangement may be rewarded with satisfied, loyal employees and a lower turnover of skilled, competent staff.

3. Provide part-time staff with clear, challenging assignments.

4. Consider offering some form of fringe benefits. Prorating your basic full-time benefits may be a fair system.

Suggestions to individuals desiring part-time professional employment would be:

1. Recognize that your employer must see the "business feasibility" of using part-time staff. Do your homework by preparing a proposal that would point out what your employer will gain from such an arrangement.

2. Look ahead if you anticipate the need to scale back your hours in the future, start now by proving yourself a loyal, competent, indispensable employee.

3. Be flexible and willing to adapt to your employer's needs. Be willing to adjust your schedule for peak season or if unforeseen work arises. Taking work home may be another way you can accommodate your employer.

4. Finally, once negotiated, prove that a part-time work arrangement can and does work by being the most efficient, productive employee you can be during your scheduled hours.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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