By Rich Singer, CPA, MBA, Senior VP and Director of Permanent Placement, Robert Half
When you do a lot of public speaking like I do, you’re bound to have some interesting stories. One of my favorites: My colleague and I were presenting to a group of accounting students about the benefits of pursuing the CPA when an objection came from the back. Another speaker, a VP at a pharmaceutical firm, stood up and said he never got certified, and that he’d had a great career without it. He achieved an executive position at a big company, so who could argue with his points?
We couldn’t argue, and we didn’t. But what I said next surprised him and the rest of the audience. “There’s no question you’ve had a terrific career,” I responded. “But what about the future? What if you lose your job? Or the CEO leaves and you want to move on? What if circumstances you don’t anticipate require you to move across the country and get another role?”
Past vs. present vs. Future
Many times, we focus on our past successes or present situation (like our recent roles or the job offer that’s on the table) without considering what’s ahead. What types of roles will you want in the future, and will you be prepared to compete for them? I want people to be successful not just with one job move, but throughout their career.
In 35 years of working as a recruiter, I’ve always advised job seekers to consider the bigger picture and challenge themselves with the question, “Am I doing all I can to build my career marketability and make myself the top choice for organizations to hire?” And while much has changed since I started in this business, one thing has remained consistent: A bachelor’s degree in accounting is one of the very best investments you can make in yourself and your career. When you take two more steps — earning the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation and gaining two-plus years of experience working for a public accounting firm — you’ve put yourself in a very elite group. Your demand in the marketplace and earning potential increase dramatically when you possess the “Magic 3.”
The hiring environment
The situation with accountants across the country is simple to explain, yet very troubling: We have extremely high demand and very low supply. The Wall Street Journal (Why So Many Accountants Are Quitting, Dec. 28, 2022) noted that 300,000 accountants and auditors have left their jobs in the last two years. And that’s not the only bad news: Colleges are seeing a 17 percent decline in students pursuing the accounting major, according to the same article. Fewer students graduating in accounting means we have fewer people taking the CPA exam.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.4 million people work in the accounting profession. It’s important to note, though, that not all of these people have the CPA. In my recruiting practice, I’d estimate that fewer than 25% of the job candidates I meet have the designation. These candidates get snapped up quickly, and in most cases, have multiple offers from clients. We see more businesses requiring the CPA for a number of reasons (that I address later in this piece), and there are not nearly enough job candidates to meet this demand.
The reasons for the drop in accounting graduates and interest in pursuing the CPA path are many, and I touched on these in my previous post In Defense of the Accounting Major. Unfortunately, students are being poorly advised by professors, family and others that the major is “too difficult” and will be graded “too harshly.” Further, the career is “too rigorous” and “just plain boring.” These students are convinced that other majors and careers would be better for them.
The accounting major as a foundation
Often the most lucrative career paths are harder to take, but they pay long-term dividends. Accounting is one of these paths. Nothing about pursuing this career is easy. However, once you secure the Magic 3, more career doors open: You have choices and options that others (Iike those who major in business or finance) do not. Today’s accountants leverage technology to develop strategy and analysis that drive decision making in every organization. The C-suite relies heavily on accountants’ work to build a successful firm. This is far from boring work if you ask me.
The benefits of pursuing the CPA
CPAs enjoy greater success, career marketability and compensation over the course of their career. Here are some specifics:
- Compensation: Getting your CPA is putting money in the bank. While your starting salary out of college may be similar to those without the designation, the similarities stop there. As a CPA, your career progression and salary increases often come at a faster clip than those without it. I’ve seen many CPAs outearn those with MBAs.
- Eligibility for more positions: Many organizations prefer an accountant to have gained experience in public accounting before joining their company because of the training they receive. The breadth and depth of experience you gain as a public accountant prepares you for the demands of a multitude of opportunities. Some companies don’t just request — but require — candidates to have a CPA to be considered for a role. The reasons for this are varied: It may be required by the board of directors, banks (for lending purposes), investors, or because the organization is publicly traded.
- Experience: Digging into the financial and operational ends of many companies in different industries provides insight few others can match. When I worked in public, I had exposure to 15 different industries. Many years later, this experience and what I gained from it continues to stick with me. You’ll never learn so much, so quickly, as you do in public accounting.
- Flexibility: Multiple options — not just full-time careers — are available when you pursue the Magic 3. Many choose to keep their CPA active while they work on a per diem or contract basis. I see this with working parents and others who need a more flexible schedule than a traditional full-time role might allow. CPAs can earn solid daily rates and build a successful career working on their terms.
- Career paths: Your choices expand greatly with the CPA. Some choose to stick with public accounting. Others pursue industry roles. If you’re eyeing a path to the controller or CFO position, the door is open to you as a CPA; those with a finance degree or background will not be as fortunate. Clients I work with favor candidates with the CPA, even if the role doesn’t require it: If I find people with the certification, clients want to meet them first.
Options outside the field
You don’t have to be an accountant forever. Some choose very different fields, like business development, consulting and other careers. The foundation you have with the Magic 3 background will help you be successful. I’m more successful as a recruiter in this field because of this path.
The choice is yours
When you look back on your college years, do you think about how much fun you had — or — how hard you worked? I hope you enjoyed your time as a student, but if it wasn’t hard, you didn’t challenge yourself. And when we don’t challenge ourselves, we let stagnation creep in and prevent us from reaching highs in career growth, compensation and personal fulfillment. I apply the same thinking to pursuing the Magic 3. It’s not the easy route, but one that will push you to achieve great things and set you up for a long and successful career.
There’s no better time to be an accountant, and the role is filled with more opportunities and choices than ever before. If you think you’re up for the challenge, I recommend seeking out people with the Magic 3 background who can discuss their career path and offer advice. Don’t rely on just one person; find several at different stages of their career. Also plan to speak to a recruiter in your market who specializes in accounting roles. Ask about current market trends, open positions and salary levels.
Speaking with knowledgeable people will enable you to get a more accurate snapshot of the profession and decide if it’s right for you. It will also help limit the noise from others who try to knock the profession. Those who haven’t worked in the field themselves — or who say they’ve done great without a CPA and you can too — shouldn’t be influencing your decisions. Your career is too important to let others call the shots.
About Rich Singer
Rich has been a financial recruiting expert with Robert Half for 35 years. He has a CPA and MBA and worked for 10 years in public and private accounting, including as an accounting manager for a worldwide leasing company and a controller for a major construction company. Rich, who is based in New Jersey, frequently provides his insights on career planning through public speaking engagements and published articles.
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