Building an accounting career: One size does not fit all

Cecilia Nysing

What to do with an accounting degree in 2021? Not too long ago, the answer to that question would have been fairly straightforward, but these days, professional opportunities for accounting and finance graduates are much more open-ended. A high demand for accounting graduates, spread across multiple industries that require their own niche skills and specialties (and offer their own rewards), puts young accounting professionals into a wide-open space at the start of their careers.

That being said, there’s definitely a paradox of choice for students and young professionals. With so many paths open, how do you know which one to take? What questions should young accountants consider before committing to a certain field of study or area of expertise?

In an age when accountants can seemingly pursue any professional path they wish, the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is. And while it can be daunting to have so many options to consider at the start of one’s career, experts in the field stress that the flexibility available to young professionals is a great asset.

“Accounting grads need to know that there is an abundance of options for them to pursue — CPAs do more than just audit and tax,” said Elizabeth Brown, student and diversity outreach manager at the Illinois CPA Society. “Their skills and background allow them to work in any area of their choosing, with expanded opportunities in areas like consulting services and technology. Plus, with CPAs retiring out of the profession and a decline in the number of CPA candidates, [they] are in high demand, with more advancement opportunities.”

“Each career path will not be exactly the same for any two individuals,” said Becky Sproul, talent and culture leader for audit at Big Four firm KPMG. “Career paths will be determined by the ability to provide insights and deliver value through baseline accounting knowledge coupled with future-focused technology skills.”

And if young professionals find themselves in a role or career path that’s not right for them, the need for accounting professionals across multiple industries gives them plenty of opportunities to try something new.

“My experience has been that accounting and finance is a flexible space to expand your career,” said Michael Rodriguez, a CPA and 2013 graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, currently on staff at WEC Energy Group. “I started in public accounting, where I had experience in personal tax and audit of companies in the financial services industry. I [now] work in internal audit for an energy/utilities conglomerate.”

The remote revolution

Another new factor to consider in young peoples’ careers is the opportunity to start — and perhaps carry out the rest of their careers — in a remote work environment. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the field into new work environments last year, new accounting professionals were tasked with starting their careers in this unique setting. However, some appreciate the newfound ability to work exactly where and how they want, adding even more to career flexibility.

“It will be interesting to see how corporations adjust to new ways of working after the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jennifer Kreb, a 2017 graduate of DeVry University and senior associate at KPMG in Dallas. “Personally, I would like a hybrid approach with the option to work at home a few days a week and at the KPMG office or client site a few days a week as well. Many young professionals are looking for increased flexibility, so it will be interesting to see how firms respond and how this will impact company culture, real estate and office spaces.”

This freedom doesn’t come without caveats, however. “The skills, characteristics and work ethic that employers are looking for haven’t changed just because employers are now hiring remote,” added Jeff Phillips, CEO of Padgett Business Services and co-founder of accounting staffing firm Accountingfly. “Good training, putting in hard work to learn the technical skills, having the highest integrity, and being a great team player are still essential for getting the best roles. … There is one new skill I think it’s critical to learn — learn how to work remotely well. This requires self-discipline and a self-starter mindset, great writing skills and video communication. It’s the first thing a remote employer will look for before moving on to the core technical skills.”

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The right skill set

Even as the possible pathways for future accountants multiply, so too does the number of abilities that they’ll need to pursue them, and that potential employers will expect them to have.

“Regardless of the shape a career in accounting takes, it’s going to require the ability to constantly adapt and learn new skills to meet the challenges of the day,” said Sue Coffey, the CEO of public accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “In 2021, we’re continuing to see some of the greatest opportunities in the profession around technology. Any career path in accounting in 2021 is going to require a core knowledge of technology and the ability to harness it to meet the needs of clients and drive success in organizations.”

While a basic understanding of technology is a clear necessity, the rest of the young accountant’s toolkit can be a bit unclear when it comes, for instance, to deciding what specific college major, degree or licensure to pursue.

Take, for instance, the CPA license: It’s the gold standard in accounting credentials, but has been steadily losing its appeal to young accounting and finance professionals over the last few years. An Illinois CPA Society report released earlier this year, “A CPA Pipeline Report: Decoding the Decline,” found that a growing number of young professionals don’t find licensure necessary because they “do not see the return on investment; they do not see their employers or prospective employers supporting or requiring it; and they see other credentials or specialties as being more valuable to their careers,” according to Kari Natale, ICPAS senior director of planning and governance.

Also take into consideration the newly unveiled CPA Evolution education model, via the American Institute of CPAs and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, which is bullish on teaching a curriculum that reflects a “deep understanding of new and emerging technologies … essential for CPAs entering the profession,” according to Coffey.

So if the idea of what an accountant is (and can be) is in flux, where exactly should one start in their collegiate careers? “A strong skill set in tax or audit is a great start for success in the profession,” Coffey said. “But the importance of skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and professional skepticism cannot be understated. Working to develop these skills, understanding the power of effective and persuasive communications and presentation skills, and developing leadership traits will help take your career to the next level.”

“Young professionals should take a multipronged approach to their skill development and be sure they do not ignore the ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, project management and people skills,” added Sproul. “In addition to continually building their accounting and auditing acumen and technology skills, they must develop a strong relationship with their clients and understand their clients’ business and industry as well as — or better than — their clients.”

And despite recent changes in attitudes, experts still stress that the CPA license opens more doors than it closes. “Students can set themselves up for the greatest success by earning their CPA license before they begin working full-time,” said the ICPAS’s Brown. “We … see young professionals regretting not taking their CPA exams sooner because they find themselves at a disadvantage having to adjust to the time commitments of their job and preparing for the CPA exams.”

Asking the right questions

The sheer range of opportunities available to young accountants, and the way they can be tailored to suit the individual, makes it impossible to advise young accountants on a one-size-fits-all career path — but experts do offer very specific advice on how they can make the most of all the possibilities for the longest possible time.

To start, simply taking a proactive approach early in one’s career is one of the best decisions young professionals can make. “Planning a career really begins as a student, and one common mistake we see is when students don’t take advantage of the opportunity to explore various career options through their internships, and then feel locked into a career path that may not be the best fit for them,” said Brown.

“I also think the sooner a young professional adapts a lifelong learning mindset, the better off they will be,” added Coffey. “I don’t know anyone who came into the profession with a base of skills and knowledge that they were able to rely upon for their entire career. And with the pace of change quicker than ever, embracing a cycle of learning, unlearning and relearning is essential to continued development.”

It’s also become voguish in recent years for young professionals to start in public accounting and then transfer over to private businesses in fairly short order. Our experts, though, say that moving on too quickly isn’t necessarily the best move.

“One of the questions they should ask is what’s the rush to get out of public accounting?” said AccountingFly’s Phillips. “Why go in-house? I think this speaks to every candidate. [They] should know their goals and have a vision for their career. Don’t chase every shiny object that comes along, and in these days, lots of opportunities will come calling, so it’s important to have a sense of where you’re going.”

“Take advantage of the many opportunities a career in public accounting provides,” suggested Sproul. “Try a rotation, apply for a role on an international engagement, and develop new skills to become a well-rounded professional — whether those skills are in accounting, technology or soft skills.”

Seeking mentorship is another crucial factor early in one’s career, as it gives young professionals not only an advantage in areas such as networking, but a direct, human connection to what their future selves can accomplish.

“I have gotten a lot of advice from audit managers and partners I have worked with,” said KPMG’s Kreb. “It is often when you become comfortable and develop trust with someone that you can have honest and vulnerable discussions about long-term careers, happiness as a manager/partner, the factors that keep someone at [the firm], and advice for specific situations.”

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