All You Need to Know About CPA Jobs — and Then Some

By Robert Half March 13, 2017 at 2:30pm

We write a lot about CPA jobs, CPA salaries, CPA skills, CPA specializations and the CPA exam here, but in honor of the centennial of the Uniform CPA Examination, we've put together a roundup of all things certified public accountant for those of you interested in a range of topics related to CPA jobs.

From startup ventures to nonprofits to multinational corporations, organizations depend on the skills of people who undergo strict licensing and educational requirements to earn their CPAs. As the business environment grows in complexity, so does the demand for these trusted advisers and their trusted credentials.

Today's CPAs make strategic business decisions and and have more career options than ever before.

In this article, we describe the steps to becoming a CPA, from taking the tests to choosing a specialty to moving into management, with links to posts about the CPA that appear on this blog. Consider this your definitive guide to discover everything you need to know about CPA jobs, and as time goes on, we'll keep adding to it.

Classroom of future CPAs

First steps to becoming a CPA

Most accountants earn a college degree, but for those who plan to pursue CPA jobs, at least a bachelor’s degree is required, typically in accounting, finance or business. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Many CPAs earn a master’s in business administration or pursue an accelerated five-year accounting program.

Every state is different, but most require 150 semester hours of instruction, which is 30 hours beyond a typical four-year bachelor’s degree. Some states also stipulate advanced coursework in subjects such as financial reporting, taxes, auditing and other non-accounting business areas. Regulations vary by state, so be sure to check the requirements for your jurisdiction.

Before you jump on the career path to CPA jobs, read these blog posts:

Woman taking CPA exam

The rigors of the CPA exam

Aside from education, most states require CPA candidates to work for 1,800 hours under the supervision of a licensed CPA, which they can do before, during or after the exam process. CPA candidates also typically enroll in test preparation courses to get ready for the four parts of the Uniform CPA Examination: Audit and Attestation; Financial Accounting and Reporting; Regulation; and Business Environment and Concepts. Changes in the now-16-hour exam that launches in April 2017 will reflect a shift from memorization to an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis, in an effort to better reflect the demands faced by today’s new CPAs.

The CPA exam is offered during the first two months of every quarter, over the course of several days. Candidates take the sections in any order they choose, but once they have passed one part, they must successfully complete the other three within 18 months.

The cost of the test plus application fees typically runs around $1,000 but varies from state to state.

Many state boards of accountancy require that CPAs maintain and improve their skills through continuing professional education (CPE) courses. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), which develops and scores the CPA exam, requires an annual renewal fee and every-three-year recertification.

Man in suit working at CPA job

CPA jobs and specializations

What do CPAs do? On the most basic level, they keep and inspect financial accounts for companies, governmental entities and clients. The CPA license isn’t required for corporate or private accountants, but it is for public accountants, who work for companies that provide accounting services to others.

The work of a public accountant covers a range positions, and many professionals choose specializations, such as these CPA jobs:

  • Financial analysis — ​The job of a financial analyst is to support business growth by analyzing financial data, preparing reports to illustrate technical information, interpreting data affecting investment programs and helping management make informed decisions.
  • Internal auditingInternal auditors evaluate and contribute to their company’s operations by examining risk management issues, financial data and operations, and control processes.

  • Information technology auditingCombining the IT and accounting disciplines, IT auditors examine the technological infrastructure of companies, testing systems to ensure security, accuracy and compliance with regulations.

  • Tax accountingDuties of a tax accountant range from maintaining tax records and completing tax returns to guiding companies in tax strategies, compliance, and tax laws and regulations.

  • Managerial accountingAccounting managers prepare budgets and financial documents, evaluate and refine accounting procedures, and consult with management teams to help them make good business decisions

Belicia Cespedes, CPA
Belicia Cespedes

Real stories about the CPA

Want some real examples from real people about their CPA jobs and journeys? We have a few to share from our blog.

  • Belicia Cespedes Tells Her Story: How I Became the Youngest CPA at 17 — Belicia writes about how she started high school at 10 and college at 13, and was rewarded with trips to the Cheesecake Factory every time she sat for a section of the CPA exam. She tells an inspiring story.
  • How to Become a CPA in 9 Months: Live Under a Rock Like I Did — Charlene Rhinehart shares her heartfelt and advice-filled story of how she used her grit and tenacity (and brains) to study for the CPA exam and pass the tests within nine months.
  • 5 Ways to Fail at the CPA Exam (Like I Did) — Ethan, a senior associate in the audit and assurance department of a regional public accounting firm, offers his candid warning about how NOT to approach the CPA exam, the way he did. He’s inspiring, too, in a different sort of way from Belicia and Charlene.
  • The Top 7 CPA Skills — and How to Get Them — A study asked 450 staff-level finance and accounting professionals what they would like to add to their compilation of CPA skills in the next year, and this post discusses their top seven responses.
Outstretched hand with dollar signs

CPA salary information

Of course, we’d be leaving out a big part of the CPA jobs story if we didn’t tell you about salaries. Not only is the CPA an in-demand credential, but it can put you a the higher end of the compensation table.  

Update: The 2018 Robert Half Salary Guide is out, along with salaries for more than 190 financial and accounting positions, regional variances that can help you adjust salaries to your local market, and new data on benefits, incentives and perks.

Based on actual placements in our office, the starting salary for a senior manager in audit/assurance services is $129,750 at the midpoint and $132,000 for a senior manager/director in tax services. Bonuses and benefits are not included in those numbers.

CPA looking at the sky with telescope

Job outlook for CPAs

There’s more good news with regard to CPA jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of accountants and auditors will grow 11 percent from 2014 to 2020. So far, a short supply of skilled talent has lowered unemployment rates for accounting and finance roles below the overall national rate.

As a result, CPA hiring has taken on a greater sense of urgency, with public accounting firms recruiting at all levels. Much of the activity is focused on adding professionals in audit and tax roles, but firms are also looking for expertise in risk, compliance, and mergers and acquisitions.

As CPAs get experience under their belts — in public accounting, financial services and corporate accounting — many naturally want to take on more responsibilities and move up the career ladders. Find out more about those options by reading 8 Ways CPAs Can Make Their Way to Management Positions.

Of course, once you pass the CPA exam, you have to keep up your professional education. Check out the training options in CPE Requirements Offer Learning Opportunities for CPAs.

Wow. Becoming a licensed CPA is an important milestone, opening a world of career possibilities. Enjoy the journey!

Don't stop reading! Here are more articles about accounting certifications and training for today’s jobs:

If you've made it this far, don't stop learning about the latest in accounting and finance careers! Subscribe to the Robert Half Finance & Accounting Blog

Editor's note: This post has been updated with more current information.

More From the Blog...