HIGH school students as young as 16 are being headhunted into accounting courses by major firms and universities desperate to tackle the worsening skills shortage in the profession.
Companies are hitting schools to secure the most talented students before they finish Year 12, recruiting them as trainees and paying their degree fees.
Figures show there are four jobs for every accountant in Australia and, according to Department of Education research provided to The Australian by the Institute of Chartered Accountants, accountancy faced one of the biggest growth spurts from 2005 to 2010 of any profession.
Experts predict the white-collar skills shortage is only going to get worse because not enough school-leavers are interested in studying accountancy.
Australia Business Deans Council president Tim Brailsford said there were not enough accountants to meet demand.
"The broader world of commerce is just screaming out for accountants," Mr Brailsford said.
"I see a day in the future when a member of the public trying to get an accountant will be as difficult as trying to get a plumber to turn up on time."
He said misconceptions about the profession were deterring school-leavers from choosing accountancy.
The Institute of Charted Accountants' Sheena Frenkel said recent figures showed there were four vacancies to every one accountant in Australia.
"And accountancy is one of the biggest sources of job growth from 2005 to 2010, so it's only going to get worse over the next few years," Ms Frenkel said.
She said there was also a flattening of interest in accountancy among school leavers.
She said the institute was launching a program in schools to "better communicate" the advantages of the profession to young people.
Ms Frenkel also said major firms were recruiting talented Year 12 students into traineeships, where they worked part-time while studying their degrees at university, which were often subsidised by the firms.
Curtin University accounting lecturer Glen Hutchings said competition between companies to get the best accountancy graduates was intensifying.
"What you have is a shrinking pool of students, and the competition for that diminishing pool of exceptional students is incredible," Mr Hutchings said.
He said accounting firms used to recruit second- and third-year university accountancy students.
"But it is becoming so intense now that it is going in high schools. They want to get these students before anyone else."
Mr Hutchings said two Perth Year 12 students had just been recruited by PricewaterhouseCoopers as trainees as part of a program run through the university. He said the 16-year-olds undertook an accounting subject with the university before being selected by PwC to start work at the firm next year while studying their accountancy degrees.
A spokeswoman for PricewaterhouseCoopers said its Year 12 traineeship program was to provide more opportunities for students rather than to fill the skills shortage.
Mr Hutchings said accountancy was not just "number crunching" but a broad field that offered countlees opportunities to students to work in companies around the world.
"Penetrating high schools and changing the view of accounting is what this program is all about," he said.