Competition for the best finance and accounting jobs can be tough, even if you’re a highly skilled and experienced professional. And if you’re just starting your career, catching the eye of a hiring manager can be especially challenging. However, if you’ve earned industry certifications that employers hold in high regard, it can help increase your chances of standing apart from the crowd.

One of those credentials is the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) certification. IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) sponsors the CMA, which is a globally recognized certification. Professionals who possess the CMA have demonstrated mastery of critical accounting and financial management skills from a generalized, managerial and internal perspective.

To better understand the value of earning the CMA, especially in the current environment, we looked to Dennis Whitney, CMA, senior vice president for IMA, and Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, for insight. Here’s what they had to say:

How can a CMA credential help your career?

Dennis Whitney, IMA: Knowledge always opens doors to career advancement and new pathways. And the CMA exam is focused on skills that are most in demand by today’s finance teams, based on IMA’s research. These skills include critical thinking and data analytics, which can help you stand out in the job market. Employers know candidates with these skills can add value to their organizations.

As a starting point, I recommend that people interested in earning the CMA look at the Content Specification Outlines. That will give them a good overview of the knowledge and cognitive skills that candidates should possess going into the CMA examination.

Paul McDonald, Robert Half: Right now, many professionals are reflecting on their careers, wondering what direction they should take next. A recent Robert Half survey found that the COVID-19 pandemic has one-third of workers thinking about pursuing a more meaningful or fulfilling position, for example. Business downsizing and reorganization due to the crisis also has many people looking for employment out of necessity.

By taking the time to earn an industry certification like the CMA, many professionals will find they are well-positioned to pursue more and different types of opportunities at leading companies across industries. They can earn higher compensation, too: Research for Robert Half’s latest Salary Guide for the finance and accounting profession finds that certifications can have a positive impact on a candidate’s earning potential for many roles.

Is it valuable to have both a CMA and CPA designation?

Whitney: I think there is great value in earning both the CMA and the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential. I would say the CMA complements the CPA. Employers value the CMA because it shows you can bring future-forward skills like strategic thinking and data analytics to the table. We see many CPAs opting to earn the CMA designation because they want to take their career to the next level. Our research shows that almost one in three active CMAs in the United States are also CPAs.

We don’t just see professionals with an accounting background, though. Some CMA candidates also have backgrounds in finance, economics and IT. That’s partly because there’s so much collaboration now between these areas due to digital transformation. And management accountants often serve as the “translator” between the data scientists and business decision makers in an organization.

McDonald: Earning the CPA license is an important rite of passage for many professionals in the finance and accounting profession. The CPA is a testament to a candidate’s expertise in forensic accounting, tax, compliance, risk management and other skills that are must-have requirements for top CPA jobs, and which are foundational for many other roles in business as well.

The CMA credential helps to build on the fundamental knowledge that CPAs possess. If you’re aiming for the top rungs of the profession, having both the CPA and CMA, and other highly valued certifications like the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) credential, can help you get there. Also, a commitment to continuous learning is essential in today’s rapidly evolving profession — and top employers value dedication to learning new skills and knowledge.

Why is now a good time to think about earning the CMA?

Whitney: The finance and accounting profession is changing fast — and has been for the past several years. Technology is a big reason for that. In fact, IMA recently conducted a survey of our members and found that most see the finance team as important to introducing leading-edge technology, like big data analytics, in an organization. However, only about 13% of respondents said their finance staff was well-prepared for upcoming technological change.

Also, many repetitive tasks in the profession are now being automated. That trend will only continue as companies expand their use of robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI). Finance and accounting professionals will be expected to provide even more strategic thinking and problem-solving abilities in their everyday work. Again, the CMA exam can help them prepare for that change because it really focuses on those types of areas.

McDonald: When I talk to finance and accounting professionals about their careers, they often ask me, “What can I do to make sure I stay marketable?” I get this question from professionals at all career stages. And I’m hearing it more often now not only because of technological change, but also, pandemic-related business disruption. The impact on companies and people’s careers due to COVID-19 cannot be understated. Many professionals now realize they need to prepare for a new future of work.

There was a lot of emphasis on “future-proofing” one’s career even before the pandemic. That includes learning how to work with emerging technology like AI, but also, refining soft skills like critical thinking. Earning the CMA credential offers an opportunity to accelerate the future-proofing process. It’s not the answer for everyone, of course. But it can go a long way toward helping professionals upskill in a meaningful way — and to shine in the hiring marketplace, today and tomorrow.

What other advice can you offer candidates who want to earn the CMA?

Whitney: First, you want to make sure you have the right base of knowledge coming into the process. While you don’t need to be an accountant, you do need some experience in accounting, economics, finance, or statistics. Relevant coursework applies. In fact, many college students take the CMA while they are still in school. They can’t get certified until they get professional experience, but they can still show employers that they passed the exam.

I would also urge candidates never to underestimate how much work is involved in earing the CMA. You’ll need to commit to about 300 hours of study to pass both parts of the exam. It usually takes about 18 months to go through the whole process. It’s a big commitment for the short term, but the long-term benefits include the opportunity to advance your career and earn a higher salary.

You do have to keep your certification up to date as well. It requires 30 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) credits annually, including two hours in the field of ethics. IMA provides that ethics training for free to its members.

McDonald: For many people, there has never been a better time to earn the CMA credential. They are working remotely right now and likely will be for the foreseeable future. The lack of a commute provides them with extra time in the day to study for the CMA exam.

That said, professionals working from home and juggling competing priorities may still struggle to find the time. Talking with your employer about flexible scheduling can help. Many companies are more open to allowing their team members to work a schedule that allows them to be most productive. For example, many are promoting “windowed work,” where employees, including working parents, can break up their day into distinct chunks of business and personal time.

In truth, earning the CMA is a major commitment for any person at any time, no matter how much flexibility you have to study. But by successfully completing the exam and getting certified, you can realize a significant return on your investment in terms of more career options, more challenging work, and the opportunity to earn higher compensation. (If you want some more inspiration, check out these recent ads from IMA.)

There’s a good chance your employer will be supportive of your goals, as the knowledge and skills you gain can create value for the business. So, be sure to discuss your CMA aspirations with your boss.

Want to learn more about the CMA exam? See the FAQs on the IMA website.

Interested in joining IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants)? Sign up for a free, three-month trial membership today.