Career Overview: Accounting

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
The need to meet now-stringent government regulations combined with an aging workforce and expanding global market has made this a great time to be looking for a job in accounting. Many firms that fell under scrutiny of new government regulations have paradoxically benefited from those same rules-facing less competition while reaping hefty fees for government-mandated services. And even in an ailing economy, there will be opportunities abound for entry-level and midcareer types in both public and management accounting. (Companies will always need auditing and consulting to stay as financially healthy as possible-as will fiscally responsible individuals during the current recession.)

.  Most industry hires are recent graduates of college or university accounting programs.
.  Growth is projected in the government, corporate, and public job markets.
.  By far the most hires are for audit positions (especially senior-level audit specialists), but specialty areas such as financial analysis and forensic accounting are also experiencing increased growth.
.  Big Four-KPMG, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Ernst & Young-accounting jobs are still highly coveted and offer a predictable career path with great experience should you decide to leave one of these firms.

Major Pluses
.  The Big Four and smaller firms give you exposure to a wide range of companies and industries, along with a lot of responsibility. You'll develop an impressive skill set you can take elsewhere, whether you want to go into business for yourself, pursue a career in industry finance, or an entirely different profession.
.  You'll use top-flight technology if you go to work in the Big Four. These firms have been among the most savvy and aggressive users of intranets, extranets, and e-commerce technologies.
.  Now more than ever, corporations and other institutions need accountants, and it remains de rigueur for Fortune 500 companies to use the Big Four for accounting services.

Major Minuses
. Internal politics play a big role when it comes to staffing at the Big Four.
. Bureaucracy central: Accounting involves myriad rules, regulations, reviews, and checklists, and some insiders complain that a feeling of administration overload often creeps unnecessarily into other aspects of their professional lives.
. Accountants are notorious for working late, especially during tax season, AKA "busy season." There are always client demands to be met and numbers to be checked-and double-checked. Thankfully, life is often relatively sane during the off-season.
. Lack of both creativity and daily work variation are often associated with the industry.

The vast majority of accounting jobs require at least a bachelor's degree from a four-year university. In fact, according to the AICPA, within the next few years most states will require 150 hours of university education-30 hours more than for a regular four-year degree-before you can even take the test to become a CPA. Currently 47 states have adopted the 150-hour requirement, while the remaining states/jurisdictions continue to work toward adoption. Some universities have even created specific programs designed to meet the 150-hour coursework requirement while working toward an advanced degree.

While college is almost always a requirement, your study field choices are beginning to broaden to cover current industry trends. With the popularity of using accounting software to balance the books increasing, firms are looking to business and finance majors to work in accounting departments. These degrees-and even a management of information systems degree-will also be helpful in landing a job as a management accountant or internal auditor. One insider even said, "If I could go back I would take more psychology courses. There's a lot of emotion involved when dealing with clients at higher levels."

And once that bachelor's degree is out of the way, most accountants who go on to get a master's degree don't get a master's of accounting (MA). These days a master's of business administration (MBA) with a specialization in either finance or accounting is much more popular. And again, any education you pick up relating to technology and information systems is going to be a big ace to carry around in your pocket. Once you have school out of the way, the next step for many accountants is to get licensed. But in many states you need to work for about a year before you can take the CPA exam, even after 150 hours of undergraduate courses.

Even for accounting jobs that don't require a CPA-such as internal auditing and management accounting-there are organizations that provide certification, such as the Institute of Internal Auditors or the Institute of Management Accountants.

Although the government does not regulate certification by these groups, many employers are starting to require such certification anyway, and having it can open many doors for you. Perhaps the only exception to the need for a formal education and a license are the accounting positions that fall under the category of bookkeeping. Here, there are many openings for people straight out of high school, or who have two-year degrees from community colleges or technical schools or four-year degrees in unrelated areas. As always, there's a tradeoff: With less schooling, expect less pay and much less stimulating work.

Job Outlook
The good news is that accounting firms are hiring-and some are nearly desperate for talent. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment predicts the number of accountants and auditors to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2016. Thanks to new accounting rules, increasing merger and acquisition (M&A) activity, and an aging workforce, public accountancies are staffing up. These and other factors are creating increased opportunities for management accountants who work in-house for companies of all kinds.

Despite the growing unemployment rate in 2008 and 2009, accountants are still in high demand. Studies say the role of the qualified accountant will be even more important during the recession-they are needed to help companies survive. Ajilon Finance, a leading accounting staffing firm, found that 75 percent of accountants said their responsibilities have changed due to the recession. Most notably, accountants say they are spending more time on cost-cutting initiatives, risk assessment initiatives, and providing more general financial advice to clients.

The Big Four and many second-tier firms recruit on college campuses across the country. (Smaller firms may recruit regionally.) The on-campus recruiting process begins with a campus presentation by firm representatives, followed by first-round on-campus interviews. After the initial round, recruiters will invite selected candidates back for second-round interviews. Some firms conduct one or two big office interviewing days for the second round; others spread out the office visits. Many job offers are then made in as little as two weeks after the second interview.

Students at schools where firms of their choice don't have a presence-including candidates interested in smaller public accounting firms-and mid-career candidates should contact the firms directly. This is also true for experienced hires; those in high demand have a CPA and three to four years of experience. Job postings, upcoming career events, informational seminars, and internship programs, along with special postings for experienced hires, are usually provided on the firms' websites. Remember: The best way to make this MO work is to network and find a personal contact within the firm of your choice.

Serious consideration should be given to seeking out summer or semester internship or leadership program experiences. Designed to attract potential hires, these opportunities are often a great way to gain a better sense of job requirements and corporate culture, and can also provide invaluable internal contacts.

Accounting firms look for the following skills and attributes:
. Analytical ability
. Leadership skills
. Written and oral communication skills
. Attention to detail
. Ability to work independently
. Team skills
. Multitasking ability
. High ethical standards
. Computer literacy
Career Tracks

Public Accounting Roles

Staff Audit Accountant
Ask a few auditors what they do and the answers will be pretty similar. Most audit work involves poring over the client's books, conducting tests on income and expense statements, and telling the general public that there's been no material misstatement. At the most junior levels, accountants will be assigned less complex areas of the balance sheet, such as fixed assets and cash, where there's less risk of confusion and error. At the senior level and above comes responsibility for managing several accountants on a project, as well as maintaining contact with the client's accounting department.

The audit job involves lots of writing, from documenting different accounting systems and describing the procedures involved in testing a client's control structure to writing memos to the client requesting information. Many of the traditional "bean-counting" tasks associated with accountants, such as adding numbers and recording data, are now completed with the support of computers, making it crucial to have a working knowledge of the latest accounting software. All staff-level work is reviewed on a day-to-day basis by a senior audit accountant or manager. According to insiders, much of your first year as an audit accountant is about getting acclimated to the work environment and to working with clients. In the second year, you'll learn more of the skills necessary to supervise engagements at the senior level.

Assistants and staff auditors spend the bulk of their time at the client site, working on one project at a time. Some Big Four firms have even instituted "hoteling," a system under which most auditors don't get their own office until they reach a senior manager rank. An audit can last from a week to a year and is usually staffed by at least one assistant or staff member, one senior, and one manager.

Senior Audit Accountant
The major difference between the staff and senior level is that at the latter you revise other people's work as well as do your own. Seniors are also generally assigned to more than one client and are required to specialize in an industry. "It can be difficult scheduling your time and managing your staff," one insider tells us. But almost all senior-level insiders agree that the increased responsibility and autonomy are a welcome change from the drudgery of staff-level work.

Staff Tax Accountant
At the junior levels, tax accounting involves tax compliance or the research and preparation of tax returns. Tax work is generally structured; supervising senior accountants check out the work of staff and assistant accountants, managers recheck it, and senior managers or partners sign off on the returns. Tax consulting, which is usually the responsibility of those at more senior levels, involves researching tax issues and advising corporations, trusts, and partnerships on the tax implications of various actions.

Unlike auditors, tax staff members get to spend most of their time in the home office. Although January to April is the primary busy season, corporations and partnerships often extend tax-filing deadlines, which means tax staff accountants have secondary busy seasons in the summer and fall.

Corporate Accounting Roles

Internal Auditor
Many big companies that operate in complex regulatory environments or have complex internal structures often employ internal auditors, whose role it is to make sure the company's financial records are in order and that operations are not being affected by mismanagement or fraud. Usually they spend a lot of time analyzing the company's operational processes, information systems, financial systems, and controlling systems to confirm that the company is operating efficiently and is not being legally or financially harmed (or in danger of being harmed) by malfeasance. Specializations within this job function include electronic data-processing auditor, environmental auditor (who ensures the company is not running afoul of environmental regulations), engineering auditor, bank auditor, and health care auditor.

Thanks to the passage of Sarbox regulations that require company CEOs to sign off on-and be held personally accountable for-a company's financial statements, internal auditing departments are experiencing quite a bit of growth these days. In fact, many companies are desperate for talent to help them meet the new requirements and keep them out of the scandal sheets.

Management Accountant
Management accountants, also known as corporate or private accountants, are in-house accountants. They track the finances of the companies they work for, overseeing profit-and-loss statements and balance sheets for everything from individual departments or
product lines to the company as a whole. Management accountants could be responsible for planning and overseeing budgets and adjusting them periodically based on overall business strategy and the performance of various areas of the company. Other responsibilities could include forecasting financial performance, overseeing and reducing costs (for instance, by recommending and overseeing the implementation of new sales force management software for the sales department), or managing company investments, with possible aims of increasing return on investment, increasing cash flow, or minimizing investment risk. Management accountants could also be responsible for preparing reports for outside parties and regulatory authorities. That might entail preparing tax returns, annual reports for investors, lender-required reports on the financial health of the company, or SEC filings.

The precise details of the management accountant's job description varies tremendously among companies and industries, but in every case you'll need to possess or develop an intimate understanding of a company's business and the business and regulatory environment in which it operates.

The following are some examples of management accounting jobs.

Budget and Credit Analyst
The budget side plans and manages corporate finances during a 12-month period or longer. Budget analysts present findings and recommendations either themselves or through a controller. The government also employs thousands of budget analysts to do
the same type of work for public programs and expenditures. Credit specialists focus on whether customers or institutional clients can repay a loan or credit line. Banks are their biggest type of employer.

Controller is a catchall title for a key financial officer at a corporate firm. Responsibilities and pay vary considerably depending on the size of the firm. Controllers generally leave most of the actual number juggling to junior accountants and take a more strategic role in the support side of the business, planning the allocation of various funds throughout the company.

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