Corporate accounting and finance professionals narrow their focus when it comes to choosing their employers. Will they work for nonprofit organizations or manufacturing companies? Engineering, energy or transportation businesses? They differentiate themselves by their choices. But what happens if they decide to explore careers that take them to different industries from where they started?
One of the beauties of an accounting and finance career is the variety of options it affords with regard to industries, and Mike Gorski, president of the East Bay, Northern California Chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), says you shouldn’t be afraid to explore them.
“If your foundation is solid, you can take that with you and apply it,” he says. “Accounting might have subtle differences from industry to industry, but generally speaking, it’s straightforward: debits, credits, assets, liabilities, revenue, expenses.
“It’s like building a house. You have your bricks and mortar — your professional skill set — and all you have to learn is the company’s expertise, market and industry in order to put on the roof.”
Gorski has had his own taste of exploring careers in various industries, working in accounting and finance for technology and software companies before making the switch to real estate investment.
“Here I was, working for software companies, and I decide to shift to an area where I had no real experience,” he said. “I found that if you can get to the point where you can marry the technical side of your work, knowledge and skills with something you’re most passionate about, in terms of business, market and industry, that’s the best of both worlds.”
Whether you’re considering a move from public accounting to corporate or you're ready to explore careers in new industry sectors, taking a new direction can be daunting. With these six tips, you can prepare for a career change and be well on your way to finding the industries that suit you best.
1. Explore careers in other fields
As you consider a career switch, find out as much as you can about your options. What are the daily tasks? How does the workload compare to what you have now? What’s the local market like for other types of accounting, or would you have to move to another city to increase your chances of landing a desired job?
Thanks to the internet, you can get a fairly good overview of other fields by reading trade magazines, blogs, social media and news content — and even read online job postings in different markets to get an idea of available opportunities. Another option is to request informational interviews with accountants who are or were in that industry.
2. List your strengths
Have a clear picture of what value you bring to potential employers with a skills audit. Start with transferable skills — abilities you possess that are useful no matter the industry. These include basic technical abilities, such as proficiency in Microsoft Excel and knowledge of GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles). Also consider your soft skills: communication, critical thinking, collegiality, discretion, leadership and so forth.
Experience in a certain industry isn’t necessarily something you need to get the job.
“Some companies may not have the luxury and time for this, but others like to take folks and shape them into their own culture and ways of doing business,” Gorski says, “serving as a pathway for them to obtain experience in their industry.”
3. Fill holes in your knowledge base
After you’ve inventoried your assets, consider what liabilities exist in your skill set for a new job in a different field. If you’d like to go from the industrial to the academia sector, as an example, your candidacy would be stronger if you have a good understanding of university policies and procedures. To switch from financial analysis in global banking to healthcare, be prepared to speak knowledgeably about insurance reimbursement rates, medical devices and pending federal legislation.
4. Maximize your network
You have accounting acquaintances in many fields. When you’re pondering a career shift, tap their expertise. Scour your online connections to see who is working where. Then reach out to a few people to see whether they would mind answering questions about your potential fields of interest. Most professionals are happy to help out and share their insider knowledge, whether they work in sales and marketing or accounting and finance. You never know — by networking like a pro and speaking with people in your target industry, you may even end up with a few job leads.
For more information about advancing your career, check out the IMA’s CareerDriver® tool (for IMA members). This resource helps students and professionals assess their skills, plan career paths and prepare for specific management accounting roles.
5. Weigh pluses and minuses
Some career shifts are incremental, such as going from financial services to management consulting. Others are a bigger leap, requiring a new certification or starting over near the bottom. Do company research to determine whether it makes sense for you, your family and your career goals to switch industries. If you’re dissatisfied with your current job, perhaps a lateral move within the same industry could make you happier at work.
6. Know your worth
Whenever you change employers, not to mention industries, the pay scale differs. Location, experience level, company size, job title, for-profit vs. nonprofit — all these and more determine your starting salary. One of the best resources for getting a good idea of how much you can expect to earn in various industries and job categories is the Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals.
Regardless of salary and other important factors, finding a good fit with a company and within an industry may be one of the most important choices you make in your career. As Gorski says, “You can decide to do something, you can decide not to do something, or you can let someone else decide for you — but the choice is best when it’s your own.”
“Industry experience is valued by organizations, but employers are often more interested in candidates’ abilities, accomplishments and fit with the company culture,” says Ky Kingsley, Robert Half Finance & Accounting Vice President for North America. “Be prepared to highlight your skills, particularly your transferable and soft skills, to increase your marketability.”
Changing industries can be scary, but having a strategy and taking calculated risks often pays off and may be just the challenge you need in your finance and accounting career.
Subscribe to our newsletter
When you subscribe to the Robert Half newsletter, you’ll get articles and resources to help you build a successful career in accounting and finance — all sent directly to your inbox. Click the button below to sign up today!
Mike Gorski, president of the East Bay, Northern California Chapter of the IMA, has more than 20 years of progressive corporate and field finance, accounting, and operational experience. Over his career, he has successfully directed the financial planning, forecasting, reporting, and analysis for fast-growing technology companies. He joined Hall Equities Group in 2016 as its director of financial planning and analysis.