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Ikram Al Mouaswas was hired by Deloitte Canada when she graduated and specializes in commodity mining.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ikram Al Mouaswas's career as a chartered accountant has taken her – in hard hat and steel-toed boots – to remote mining projects in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Northwest Territories, and Northern Ontario's Ring of Fire region.

A manager in Deloitte Canada's assurance and advisory group, Ms. Al Mouaswas specializes in commodity mining – diamonds, gold, nickel, copper. "I love the mining industry. It's changing every day. There's always a complex or interesting transaction going on." It's rewarding work with a demanding schedule.

Still, every fall, Ms. Al Mouaswas and her colleagues at Deloitte engage in some prospecting of their own – blanketing Canadian university campuses in search of the next generation of accounting professionals. "Recruiting season" starts in September, and wraps up by Thanksgiving. And the war for talent is fierce, Ms. Al Mouaswas says.

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"The big [professional accounting] companies and some of the mid-sized ones, as well, heavily recruit. They go out there and have events, rent banquet halls and bring out as many of their representatives as they can to tell the students about their firms, about the advantages, about their own experiences."

The employment prospects for accountants are excellent, says Jacques Maurice, an accounting professor in the commerce program at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business. "I would say for the good students, the strong students … the placement rate is probably 100 per cent on graduation."

Students who have done co-op terms are typically snapped up by the employers they were placed with, and the remaining grads who are not hired right out of school tend to land jobs within six months, Prof. Maurice says.

At the entry level, the challenge for recruiters is that "we are all after the top candidates," says Craig Irwin, a partner in Deloitte Canada's assurance and advisory group. Deloitte invests heavily in its recruits, helping them prepare for their accounting exams and offering a range of work experiences and professional advancement opportunities. As they become more experienced, more specialized and more marketable, the challenge is to retain them.

A recent survey on the demand for accounting and finance professionals, conducted by Hays Recruiting, found "key shortages … particularly in niche roles, including: property accountants, specialist knowledge in mining and construction, cost accounting, financial analysis, bilingualism, payroll managers and financial and management reporting."

Here's a look at what it takes to become an accountant and the skills employers want.

The Educators

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The starting point is an undergraduate degree, typically a bachelor of commerce with a major in accounting. From there, candidates earn their certification through courses and exams administered by Canada's three professional accounting bodies – the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Society of Management Accountants of Canada and the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada – that are now in the process of merging.

The certification program being developed by the new body – Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada – is designed to equip accountants with a broader set of skills demanded by the market, says Kevin Dancey, president and chief executive officer of the organization.

"They will be able to understand business, they will have the right interpersonal skills and will also understand the numbers, they won't be afraid of the numbers," he says. The new credential will be a business credential as well as an accounting credential and "a springboard" to a wider array of business and management career options, Mr. Dancey adds.

The Employer

Mr. Irwin at Deloitte says that, because of the accreditation requirements, most chartered accountants start their careers at professional accounting firms while they earn their CA designation.

Hays Recruiting found in its survey that "career progression is the No. 1 ranked item on employees' minds, followed by professional development, flexible work options and RRSP matching." Salaries vary by seniority and sector.

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"The appeal is probably not the compensation early on in your career," says Mr. Irwin, but salaries rise considerably as accounting professionals climb the corporate ladder. The typical base wage rate for an audit staff accountant at a small accounting firm would range between $50,000 and $65,000 a year and between $60,000 and $75,000 at a large firm. In publicly traded companies, senior accountants' base salaries range between $50,000 and $100,000, according to Hays's research. These figures do not include bonuses, benefits and other compensation. Controllers in large publicly traded firms earn base salaries between $120,000 and $160,000, vice-presidents of finance earn between $150,000 and $200,000-plus, and chief financial officers pull in upward of $250,000 or $300,000 a year, Hays says.

The Accountant

Ms. Al Mouaswas was studying life sciences at the University of Toronto before discovering a knack for accounting and switched to the commerce program at the Rotman School of Management. She was scouted by Deloitte and hired into the firm's resource group as soon as she graduated. "When you are starting out in your career, you learn a lot more about the general audit function than you do about the industry, but a few years in, you start becoming a lot more specialized."

Accountants enter the profession with similar academic backgrounds but specialization is the differentiator, Ms. Al Mouaswas says. "I get the chance to talk to geologists, mining engineers, geoscientists. I have been here almost seven years now, and I still find myself learning every day."

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