The ever-changing business environment and evolving consumer trends resulting from COVID-19 are emphasising the need for the accounting function to play an frontline role in managing the economic impact of disruption. Many businesses are operating without the roadmap of historical data to benchmark their responses or model future scenarios, so are looking to accounting teams to gather and analyse snapshot data to drive continuous planning and growth efforts.

Indeed, the 2021 Salary Guide finds that 'Financial Accountants' are among the top 5 in-demand permanent roles in a finance department, as well as one of the most difficult to find specialist skills. So how can one tap into this demand and pursue a career in accounting?

Both the CA and CPA are fantastic qualifications that can give an accounting career a competitive edge.

But how do you choose which one to study? Which would be better for your accounting resume?

Robert Half asked two senior finance leaders – one a Chartered Accountant (CA); the other a Certified Practising Accountant (CPA) – about why they chose their qualification, the skills they gained and what it’s offered their accounting careers.

Our two experts

Qualified Chartered Accountant, Kris Black, is the group finance director at IRI-Aztec. After launching his career at professional services firm, KPMG, Black went on to become finance manager at BBC Worldwide and financial controller at IMG and Innocent Drinks.

On the flipside is Australian National Maritime Museum CFO Frank Shapter, who is a qualified CPA. Shapter has held senior finance positions at Optus, Chubb, Kaplan Australia, and was the regional financial controller and general manager of ANZ business processes at Thomson Reuters.

The importance of accounting qualifications

For an employee looking to make the next step in their career, both Black and Shapter agree that any accountant with a CA or CPA have a competitive edge over those without one.

“Either postgraduate accountancy qualification is invaluable in a competitive employment market,” Black says. “Both can give a student the ability to work for many different organisations, not just professional services simply because the skills they learn are transferable to other industries.”

“In my experience, employers are increasingly considering a postgraduate qualification a prerequisite for shortlisting candidates.”

Likewise, Shapter says employees with a postgraduate accountancy qualification are looked on favourably by businesses. Employees with these qualifications tend to drive efficiencies and improvements in a company’s systems and processes. “I believe qualified employees can have more exposure to the many aspects in an organisation than most other employees in a company,” says Shapter.

What is the difference between CA and CPA?

When it comes to separating the two qualifications, there are some distinct differences.

If you would like to specialise in a particular technical function, then a Chartered Accountant qualification is a good choice. It can help you move into a financial controller or CFO role later in your career.

The CA course content is geared heavily toward auditing and tax matters and, from a technical perspective, those that obtain a CA qualification are better prepared to handle the more complex accounting issues. According to Black, the knowledge he gained from his CA qualification has been applicable on a practical level nearly every day of his career. “The knowledge, insight and applied practice you gain is invaluable.”

In addition, Black says he chose the CA because he was working within a Big Four firm, which offered the Chartered Accountant qualification as part of his career development. “Often businesses encourage their employees to upskill themselves with a post-grad qualification. The company as a whole will benefit from the outcome in the long run with a more knowledgeable and efficient team.”

On the flipside, students wanting a broader focus on more varied accounting skills, such as costing, production, marketing and planning should opt for a CPA.

“A CPA can open many doors to many exciting industries around the world,” says Shapter. “You will become an active partner in the success of the company and a CPA will teach you how to diversify your thinking. This can lead to a career path in more management or innovative sectors of a business.”

For Shapter, the draw of diversifying his skills was one of the primary reasons he chose a CPA. “Rather than specialising in internal/external audit, I wanted to be more creative and collaborative in contributing to the success of the organisation. For me, a CPA seemed to fit better for this career path.”

In addition, Shapter says the CPA made him realise that accountants can have real impact on a business’ performance. A case in point, Shapter says the knowledge he gained from his CPA allowed him to restructure the company’s reporting.

“[I] implemented a new type of reporting based on customer and product profitability. I then aligned this reporting back against key assets to determine various returns and profitability mix. The amount of good decisions this led to was amazing. [Having a CPA] truly helped me - technically and motivationally - in looking at more strategic reporting that would help to shape an organisation.”

CPA or CA, which is better?

Deciding on whether to pursue a Chartered Accountant or Certified Practising Accountant’s qualification is not an easy decision, and our interviewees had some pointers.

Firstly, says Black, have an open and honest discussion with your employer about what you and they think is the best qualification that suits to your skills, the company’s business goals and your future career direction. “Talk with your employer and consider your options, taking into account where you’re at now as well as where you see yourself in five, 10 and 15 years. In addition, research the roles you want in the future and understand the skills and qualifications required for those roles.”

Shapter’s journey was different. Fresh out of school, he couldn’t decide on a career, however, he knew he was interested in what made businesses “tick”.

“I was always interested in understanding how successful businesses perform,” says Shapter.

For those interested, both accounting qualifications take around two years to complete. “Students preparing to embark on either a CPA or CA need to know that it will require a significant time investment and that there are no shortcuts. It requires a significant time commitment. You need to be dedicated and 100 per cent focused,” says Shapter.

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Once completed, students gain access to a vast network of alumni, which opens up networking opportunities and international job postings.

“[The CA] is an internationally recognised, respected and sought-after qualification,” Black says. “So it definitely helped open doors for me around the world that would have been harder to open without it.” After gaining his CA at KPMG, Black spent numerous years working in the UK, rising from financial accountant to group financial controller.

Both Black and Shapter are in agreement that the opportunities are limitless whether a student pursues a CA or CPA. Both qualifications can kick start a global career, however it is up to the student to decide which path they want to take. “I’d suggest if the employee was an accounting firm, they would more likely seek CA type skills,” says Shapter, yet the CPA’s broad focus develops an accountant’s ability to contribute to business strategy.

The simple advice is to talk with your employer about what you want from your career and the skills you wish to develop. Either way, you’ll be well positioned for a prosperous accountant career with the CPA or the CA designation next to your name.