Accountancy has an image problem when viewed as a potential career. Often depicted in the media as tedious ‘bean counters’, accountants probably reached their lowest ebb in terms of public representation when the British comedy team Monty Python released their ‘Vocational guidance counselor’ sketch in the 1960s. This stereotype of dreariness and rigidity will probably always plague the profession, but the reality is quite different. Accountants in the 21st century are not only highly qualified but also multi-skilled individuals valued for the contribution they make to achieving an organization’s goals rather than merely recording its transactions.
Three main career paths
An accountant’s career path is likely to follow one of three main routes: major accounting corporation expert, organizational senior departmental manager or self-employed accounting entrepreneur. In theory it is possible to move between these professional channels, but in practice it is likely that once the area of specialization is chosen the career trajectory will be upwards rather than outwards.
Anyone wishing to be taken seriously as an accountant must now obtain a professional accounting qualification, rather than just working their way up from articled clerk to a senior position and acquiring knowledge on the way in the manner of an old-fashioned apprenticeship. The first step on the ladder for an accounting career is now a university degree in accounting, business studies, economics or other related discipline. Having obtained an appropriate degree, the graduate then applies to the professional accounting body of his choice to be admitted as a member. In order to become a member the candidate will usually have to pass a further written examination, or series of examinations, devised or approved by the accounting association to test various aspects of the candidate’s accounting knowledge.
These examination requirements vary from country to country, and from association to association. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, for example, uses the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, but candidates must first have completed 150 semester hours of accounting at a tertiary institution. After satisfactorily passing the examination, a further two years of hands-on accounting experience is required before admission to full membership, and professional expertise must be continually maintained and updated. Similar membership standards apply for most professional accounting bodies throughout the world.
Having obtained full membership of a professional body, the accountants career will very likely follow one of the three main paths already mentioned.
Major accounting corporation expert
Global accounting firms, like KPMG, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse Coopers, have multiple offices in most developed countries. They provide specialist services for other organizations, mainly in the areas of audit, taxation, annual reporting, corporate governance, corporations law and compliance issues. Recently qualified accountants could expect to join a team such as audit in a relatively junior role, and find themselves doing the rather tedious legwork of client transaction testing for at least their first year. Promotion in such large organizations can come relatively rapidly however, and for those prepared to put in long hours while still learning there are prospects and rewards available in the form of overseas travel, specialization and ultimately, significantly high remuneration. This kind of accounting career is advisory rather than operational, although on a local level or with accounting corporations smaller than the ‘Big Four’, the work can be similar to that undertaken by the entrepreneurial accountant with his own practice.
Accounting manager in a large organization
This is the commercial or applied stream of accounting. As a senior employee of a corporation, government or not-for-profit organization, the accountant is responsible for protecting the group’s assets and contributing to its effectiveness by coordinating the recording of its transactions and reporting on the results. In a medium-sized business this means managing an accounts department mainly comprised of clerks and providing regular reports of profitability (or other measure of efficiency for non-profit entities) as well as an annual report for the board, shareholders or other stakeholders. People management and organizational skills, as well as the ability to communicate effectively in writing, can often push mere accounting knowledge into a minor role for this kind of accountant. In extremely large corporations the accountant may be only one of a team of qualified personnel, each heading up a specialized department such as cost accounting, taxation, asset management or corporate governance. The ultimate senior role is that of Finance Director or Vice President for Finance, though some accountants do become Chief Executive Officer rather than Chief Financial Officer, especially in finance-related industries.
Self-employed accounting entrepreneur
A route to success as an owner or partner in a small to medium sized accounting firm is often selected by those seeking the kind of independence not available to an accountant who is someone else’s employee. Alternatively it can be the chosen path for someone wishing to succeed a parent in the family’s accounting business. It will always involve a certain amount of entrepreneurial acumen, and, except for inherited businesses, a good dose of capital to effect a start-up or buy into an existing business as a partner. Success is dependent on the extent of personal effort and the level demand for accounting services in the chosen locality. The work involved may include preparation of personal tax returns, provision of bookkeeping services for small businesses, preparing annual accounts and tax returns for medium-sized companies and providing general finance and investment advice to clients. Additional tasks are those pertaining to any small business owner: recruitment, training, marketing and general compliance.
The accounting profession was one of the first typically male-dominated professions to open itself to women on a large scale rather than as unusual exceptions. It also embraced information technology and management theory with enthusiasm in an era when other professions regarded these domains as merely passing fads. Today’s accountant is a well-rounded expert with qualifications and experience in far more than number-crunching, able to perform all the tasks demanded of senior personnel in the areas of people management, written reports, general executive and administrative skills and ultimate added value for the employing organization.