Recruiters from the Big Five firms say they've beefed up their efforts to get more high school students interested in accounting careers. And they're launching mentoring programs and ad campaigns in an effort to counter the dot.com world's lucrative lure.
But recruiters said they have to battle the clichÃ©d perception of accountants as nerdy number crunchers.
"Many students are exposed to accounting in high school, but the courses are introductory bookkeeping courses, and that makes them think, 'I would never be an accountant.'" said Jerri Calle, national partner in charge of human resources for KPMG, one of the Big Five. "Our challenge is getting back in the schools and letting people know what the profession is all about."
Accounting, the industry is telling high schoolers, is all about decision-making and advising clients and developing personal and professional relationships with top companies.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants began a program more than a year ago to send educational materials about the profession to more than 4,000 U.S. high schools. The lesson plans call for students to incorporate accounting techniques into a variety of subjects, from chemistry to history.
"Our intent was to get the message across to high school students, to give them a flavor for what the profession was about, since we're constantly battling negative perceptions out there," said Joe Bittner, the institute's manager of career awareness.
In one of the most popular lesson plans, students learn to read and analyze real companies' annual reports and determine if they are good investments, Mr. Bittner said. Another provides students with a hypothetical accounting problem and asks them to solve it.
That problem-solving aspect is key to selling the profession to young people, said Steve Albrecht, associate dean of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University.
"Today the whole emphasis is on making decisions. The role of the accountant has changed," he said. "You've got to understand business first and accounting second and know how to leverage information to make decisions. But that's not the way they train them in high school."
Accounting firms also use business-education programs to get more face time with young people. Ernst & Young works with colleges and universities that are already recruiting in high schools, said Sherri McBroom, the firm's director of human resources for the Southwest.
Ms. McBroom said Ernst & Young also sends accountants to speak to high school and college students through the Accounting Career Awareness Program run by the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants. The goal is to identify students who display interest in the profession, she said.
"We try to stick with them throughout their entrÃ©e into college and past that," she said. "That relationship-building is probably the most important aspect of what we do."
Mark Low, a partner at Arthur Andersen, said his firm sends accountants to Dallas-area schools through Junior Achievement, a nonprofit group that links business and schools to promote economics education. Junior Achievement gives students a chance to learn about accounting in general and Arthur Andersen in particular, but the company uses the program with another goal in mind, too, Mr. Low said.
"We hope we present a good image for the firm, but it's more about us doing something to give back to the community," he said.