Accountants and auditors help make sure that businesses and other organizations are run efficiently, keep accurate records, and pay their taxes properly. In addition to carrying out these and other essential tasks of the occupation – such as providing information to clients by preparing, analyzing, and verifying financial documents – many accountants also perform budget analysis, and financial and investment planning. Those who have the appropriate skills might also offer limited information technology consulting and/or legal services.
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Specific job duties vary widely among the four major fields of accounting and auditing: public accounting, management accounting, government accounting and internal auditing.
Accountants and Auditors Job Profile
Most employment in this field requires at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related discipline.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job prospects for accountants and auditors will be excellent, especially for those who have earned professional recognition through certification or licensure.
A much faster-than-average employment growth rate will result from an increase in the number of businesses, stricter financial laws and regulations, and greater oversight of company finances.
Accountants and auditors typically work in an office setting, though some may be able to do at least some of their work from home. Those who are employed by public accounting firms, government agencies, and companies with multiple locations may have to travel to perform audits at branches, clients’ places of business, or government facilities.
About half of all accountants and auditors worked a regular 40-hour week in 2008, but many had to put in longer hours, especially those that were self-employed or had numerous clients. In addition, tax specialists often work much more during the tax season.
Accountants Career Path and Education
Employment as an accountant and auditor requires at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field. Some employers only hire applicants with an accounting master’s degree, or an accounting-focused MBA. And because of increased scrutiny on corporate earnings, some universities and colleges are now offering accounting certificate programs that prepare students to work in specialty professions like internal auditing. Finally, there are professional associations that offer continuing education conferences, courses and seminars.
Graduates of junior colleges, business schools, or correspondence schools can obtain junior accounting positions and advance to accountant positions by demonstrating their skills on the job. The same is true for bookkeepers and accounting clerks who meet the education and experience requirements set by their employers. Regardless of education, beginning accountants and auditors almost always work under an experienced supervisor before gaining more independence and responsibility.
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All accountants who file a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are required by law to be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). This includes senior-level accountants who are working for or on behalf of public companies that are registered with the SEC. CPAs are licensed by their State Board of Accountancy, and any accountant who passes the national exam and meets the other requirements of the state where they practice can become a CPA. Most states require CPA candidates to be college graduates, but a few will substitute a number of years of public accounting experience for a college degree.
As of 2009, 46 states and the District of Columbia required CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework, which is 30 hours beyond what is required for the usual 4-year bachelor’s degree. California, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Vermont do not require 150 semester hours for certification. Many schools now offer a five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree to meet the 150 semester hour requirement, though actually holding a master’s is not necessary for licensure. To make sure they are learning the right skills, accounting majors should carefully research their program’s curriculum and the requirements of the state(s) in which they want to become licensed.
All 50 states use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination prepared by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). This test is rigorous, and less than half of those who take it pass every part on the first try. Fortunately, passing all four parts at once is not necessary – but most states do require that candidates pass all four sections within 18 months of passing their first. The CPA exam is now given on a computer, and is offered 2 months out of every quarter at testing centers across the U.S. Most states also require that CPA license applicants have some accounting experience, though this varies by state or jurisdiction.
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In nearly all states, it is necessary for CPAs and other public accountants to complete a certain number of hours of continuing professional education (CPE) in order to keep their licenses up to date. For this reason, professional associations representing accountants sponsor numerous courses, group study programs, seminars and other forms of continuing education.
Jobs Outlook and Salaries for Accountants
As of 2008, 24% of accountants and auditors worked for accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services firms. About 8% were self-employed. Most accountants and auditors work in urban areas, where public accounting firms the businesses that employ them are located.
What is the jobs outlook for professional accountants? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that accountants and auditors will experience 22% employment growth through 2018 – a pace much faster than the average for all occupations. Job opportunities should be favorable, especially for accountants and auditors who have earned professional recognition through certification or licensure. Applicants who hold a master’s degree in accounting or an MBA with a concentration in accounting also may have an edge over the competition.