Career Information


Accountants and Auditors

Significant Points:

  • Most jobs require at least a bachelors degree in accounting or a related field.
  • Jobseekers who obtain professional recognition through certification or licensure, a masters degree, proficiency in accounting and auditing computer software, or specialized expertise will have an advantage in the job market.
  • Competition will remain keen for the most prestigious jobs in major accounting and business firms.

Nature of the Work      [About this section]
Accountants and auditors help to ensure that the Nations firms are run more efficiently, its public records kept more accurately, and its taxes paid properly and on time. They perform these vital functions by offering an increasingly wide array of business and accounting services to their clients. Broadly, these services include public, management, and government accounting, as well as internal auditing. In each of these major fields, however, accountants and auditors continue to carry out the fundamental tasks of the occupationprepare, analyze, and verify financial documents in order to provide information to clients.

Specific job duties vary widely in the four major fields of accounting. Public accountants perform a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax, and consulting activities for their clients, who may be corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, or individuals. For example, some public accountants concentrate on tax matters, such as advising companies of the tax advantages and disadvantages of certain business decisions and preparing individual income tax returns. Others are consultants who offer advice in areas such as compensation or employee health care benefits; the design of accounting and data processing systems; and the selection of controls to safeguard assets. Some specialize in forensic accountinginvestigating and interpreting bankruptcies and other complex financial transactions. Still others audit a clients financial statements and report to investors and authorities that they have been prepared and reported correctly. Public accountants, many of whom are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), generally have their own businesses or work for public accounting firms.

Management accountantsalso called industrial, corporate, or private accountantsrecord and analyze the financial information of the companies for which they work. Other responsibilities include budgeting, performance evaluation, cost management, and asset management. They are usually part of executive teams involved in strategic planning or new product development. Management accountants analyze and interpret the financial information corporate executives need to make sound business decisions. They also prepare financial reports for non-management groups, including stockholders, creditors, regulatory agencies, and tax authorities. Within accounting departments, they may work in areas including financial analysis, planning and budgeting, and cost accounting.

Many persons with an accounting background work in the public sector. Government accountants and auditors maintain and examine the records of government agencies and audit private businesses and individuals whose activities are subject to government regulations or taxation. Accountants employed by Federal, State, and local governments guarantee that revenues are received and expenditures are made in accordance with laws and regulations. Those who are employed by the Federal Government may work as Internal Revenue Service agents or in financial management, financial institution examination, or budget analysis and administration.

An increasingly important area of accounting and auditing is internal auditing. Internal auditors verify the accuracy of their organizations records and check for mismanagement, waste, or fraud. Specifically, they examine and evaluate their firms financial and information systems, management procedures, and internal controls to ensure that records are accurate and controls are adequate to protect against fraud and waste. They also review company operationsevaluating their efficiency, effectiveness, and compliance with corporate policies and procedures, laws, and government regulations. There are many types of highly specialized auditors, such as electronic data processing, environmental, engineering, legal, insurance premium, bank, and health care auditors. As computer systems make information more timely, internal auditors help managers to base their decisions on actual data, rather than personal observation. Internal auditors may also recommend controls for their organizations computer system to ensure the reliability of the system and the integrity of the data.

Computers are rapidly changing the nature of the work for most accountants and auditors. With the aid of special software packages, accountants summarize transactions in standard formats for financial records and organize data in special formats for financial analysis. These accounting packages greatly reduce the amount of tedious manual work associated with data and recordkeeping. Personal and laptop computers enable accountants and auditors to be more mobile and to use their clients computer systems to extract information from large mainframe computers. As a result of these trends, a growing number of accountants and auditors have extensive computer skills and specialize in correcting problems with software or developing software to meet unique data needs.

Working Conditions      [About this section]
Most accountants and auditors work in a typical office setting. Self-employed accountants may be able to do part of their work at home. Accountants and auditors employed by public accounting firms and government agencies may travel frequently to perform audits at clients places of business, branches of their firm, or government facilities.

Most accountants and auditors generally work a standard 40-hour week, but many work longer hours, particularly if they are self-employed and have numerous clients. Tax specialists often work long hours during the tax season.

Employment      [About this section]
Accountants and auditors held over 1,080,000 jobs in 1998. They worked throughout private industry and government, but about 1 out of 4 worked for accounting, auditing, and bookkeeping firms. Approximately 1 out of 10 accountants or auditors were self-employed.

Many accountants and auditors are unlicensed management accountants, internal auditors, or government accountants and auditors. However, a large number are licensed Certified Public Accountants, Public Accountants (PAs), Registered Public Accountants (RPAs), and Accounting Practitioners (APs). Most accountants and auditors work in urban areas, where public accounting firms and central or regional offices of businesses are concentrated.

Some individuals with backgrounds in accounting and auditing are full-time college and university faculty; others teach part time while working as self-employed accountants, or as salaried accountants for private industry or government. (See the Handbook statement on college and university faculty.)

Training, Other Qualifications,      [About this section]
and Advancement
Most accountant and internal auditor positions require at least a bachelors degree in accounting or a related field. Beginning accounting and auditing positions in the Federal Government, for example, usually require 4 years of college (including 24 semester hours in accounting or auditing) or an equivalent combination of education and experience. Some employers prefer applicants with a masters degree in accounting or a masters degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting.

Previous experience in accounting or auditing can help an applicant get a job. Many colleges offer students an opportunity to gain experience through summer or part-time internship programs conducted by public accounting or business firms. In addition, practical knowledge of computers and their applications in accounting and internal auditing is a great asset for jobseekers in the accounting field.

Professional recognition through certification or licensure provides a distinct advantage in the job market. All CPAs must have a certificate and the partners in their firm must have licenses issued by a State Board of Accountancy. The vast majority of States require CPA candidates to be college graduates, but a few States substitute a number of years of public accounting experience for the college degree. Based on recommendations made by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 17 States currently require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college courseworkan additional 30 hours beyond the usual 4-year bachelors degree. Most States have adopted similar legislation that will become effective in the future. Many schools have altered their curricula accordingly, and prospective accounting majors should carefully research accounting curricula and the requirements for any States in which they hope to become licensed.

All States use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination prepared by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The 2-day CPA examination is rigorous, and only about one-quarter of those who take it each year pass every part they attempt. Candidates are not required to pass all four parts at once, but most States require candidates to pass at least two parts for partial credit and all four sections within a certain period of time. Most States also require applicants for a CPA certificate to have some accounting experience.

The designations PA or RPA are also recognized by most States, and several States continue to issue these licenses. With the growth in the number of CPAs, however, the majority of States are phasing out non-CPA designationsPA, RPA, and APby not issuing new licenses. Accountants who hold PA or RPA designations have legal rights, duties, and obligations similar to those of CPAs, but their qualifications for licensure are less stringent. AP designation requires less formal training and covers a more limited scope of practice than the CPA.

Nearly all States require CPAs and other public accountants to complete a certain number of hours of continuing professional education before their licenses can be renewed. The professional associations representing accountants sponsor numerous courses, seminars, group study programs, and other forms of continuing education. Professional societies bestow other forms of credentials on a voluntary basis. Voluntary certification can attest to professional competence in a specialized field of accounting and auditing. It can also certify that a recognized level of professional competence has been achieved by accountants and auditors who acquired some skills on the job, without the formal education or public accounting work experience needed to meet the rigorous standards required to take the CPA examination.

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) confers the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation upon applicants who complete a bachelors degree or attain a minimum score on specified graduate school entrance exams. Applicants must also pass a four-part examination, agree to meet continuing education requirements, comply with standards of professional conduct, and have worked at least 2 years in management accounting. The CMA program is administered through the Institute of Certified Management Accountants, an affiliate of the IMA.

Graduates from accredited colleges and universities who have worked for 2 years as internal auditors and have passed a four-part examination may earn the designation Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) from the Institute of Internal Auditors. Similarly, the Information Systems Audit and Control Association confers the designation Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) upon candidates who pass an examination and have 5 years of experience in auditing electronic data processing systems. Auditing or data processing experience and college education may be substituted for up to 3 years of work experience in this program. The Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation, a satellite organization of the National Society of Public Accountants, confers three designationsAccredited in Accountancy (AA), Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA), and Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP). Candidates for the AA must pass an exam, while candidates for the ATA and ATP must complete the required coursework and pass an exam. Other organizations, such as the National Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the Bank Administration Institute, confer specialized auditing designations. Often a practitioner will hold multiple licenses and designations. For instance, an internal auditor might be a CPA, CIA, and CISA.

Persons planning a career in accounting should have an aptitude for mathematics and be able to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures quickly. They must be able to clearly communicate the results of their work to clients and managers. Accountants and auditors must be good at working with people as well as with business systems and computers. Because millions of financial statement users rely on their services, accountants and auditors should have high standards of integrity.

Capable accountants and auditors may advance rapidly; those having inadequate academic preparation may be assigned routine jobs and find promotion difficult. Many graduates of junior colleges and business and correspondence schools, as well as bookkeepers and accounting clerks who meet the education and experience requirements set by their employers, can obtain junior accounting positions and advance to positions with more responsibilities by demonstrating their accounting skills on the job.

Beginning public accountants usually start by assisting with work for several clients. They may advance to positions with more responsibility in 1 or 2 years, and to senior positions within another few years. Those who excel may become supervisors, managers, partners, open their own public accounting firms, or transfer to executive positions in management accounting or internal auditing in private firms.

Management accountants often start as cost accountants, junior internal auditors, or as trainees for other accounting positions. As they rise through the organization, they may advance to accounting manager, chief cost accountant, budget director, or manager of internal auditing. Some become controllers, treasurers, financial vice presidents, chief financial officers, or corporation presidents. Many senior corporation executives have a background in accounting, internal auditing, or finance.

In general, there is a large degree of mobility among public accountants, management accountants, and internal auditors. Practitioners often shift into management accounting or internal auditing from public accounting, or between internal auditing and management accounting. However, it is less common for accountants and auditors to move from either management accounting or internal auditing into public accounting.

Job Outlook      [About this section]
Employment of accountants and auditors is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2008. In addition to openings resulting from growth, the need to replace accountants and auditors who retire or transfer to other occupations will produce thousands of job openings annually in this large occupation.

As the economy grows, the number of business establishments will increase, requiring more accountants and auditors to set up books, prepare taxes, and provide management advice. As these businesses grow, the volume and complexity of information developed by accountants and auditors regarding costs, expenditures, and taxes will increase as well. More complex requirements for accountants and auditors also arise from changes in legislation related to taxes, financial reporting standards, business investments, mergers, and other financial matters. In addition, businesses will increasingly need quick, accurate, and individually tailored financial information due to the demands of growing international competition. These trends will positively affect the employment of accountants and auditors.

The changing role of accountants and auditors also will spur job growth. In response to market demand, these professionals will offer more management and consulting services as they take on a greater advisory role and develop more sophisticated and flexible accounting systems. By focusing more on analyzing operations rather than just providing financial data, accountants will help to increase the demand for their services. Also, internal auditors will increasingly be needed to discover and eliminate waste and fraud.

However, this trend will be counteracted somewhat by a decrease in the demand for traditional services and growing use of accounting software. Accountants will spend less time performing audits due to potential liability and relatively low profits, and will shift away from tax preparation due to the increasing popularity of tax preparation firms. As computer programs continue simplifying some accounting-related tasks, clerical staff will increasingly handle many routine calculations.

Accountants and auditors who have earned professional recognition through certification or licensure should have the best job prospects. For example, CPAs should continue to enjoy a wide range of job opportunities, especially as more States enact the 150-hour requirement, making it more difficult to obtain this certification. Similarly, CMAs should be in demand as their management advice is increasingly sought. Applicants with a masters degree in accounting, or a masters degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting, will also have an advantage in the job market.

Proficiency in accounting and auditing computer software, or expertise in specialized areas such as international business, specific industries, or current legislation, may also be helpful in landing certain accounting and auditing jobs. In addition, employers increasingly seek applicants with strong interpersonal and communication skills. Regardless of ones qualifications, however, competition will remain keen for the most prestigious jobs in major accounting and business firms.

Earnings      [About this section]      [More salary/earnings info]
In 1998, the median annual earnings of accountants and auditors were $37,860. The middle half of the occupation earned between $29,840 and $49,460. The top 10 percent of accountants and auditors earned more than $76,160, and the bottom decile earned less than $23,800. Accountants and auditors earn slightly more in urban areas. In 1997, median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of accountants and auditors were:

Accounting, Auditing, and Bookkeeping $38,100
State Government, except Education and Hospitals 35,900
Federal Government 43,100
Local Government, except Education and Hospitals 36,400
Commercial Banks 35,700

According to a salary survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelors degree candidates in accounting received starting offers averaging $34,500 a year in 1999; masters degree candidates in accounting, $36,800.

According to a salary survey conducted by Robert Half International, a staffing services firm specializing in accounting and finance, accountants and auditors with up to 1 year of experience earned between $26,000-$36,250 in 1999. Those with 1 to 3 years of experience earned between $29,250-$41,250. Senior accountants and auditors earned between $34,750-$51,000; managers earned between $41,750-$68,500; and directors of accounting and auditing earned between $56,250-$91,000 a year. The variation in salaries reflects differences in size of firm, location, level of education, and professional credentials.

In the Federal Government, the starting annual salary for junior accountants and auditors was about $20,600 in 1999. Candidates who had a superior academic record might start at $25,500, while applicants with a masters degree or 2 years of professional experience usually began at $31,200. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. Accountants employed by the Federal Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions averaged about $58,200 a year in 1999; auditors averaged $62,500.

Please note that the earnings and salary data listed here is usually from government sources and may be dated, so please make adjustments accordingly. If you would like to access current salary data for literally thousands of occupations, check out our new Salary Calculator.

Related Occupations      [About this section]
Accountants and auditors design internal control systems and analyze financial data. Others for whom training in accounting is invaluable include appraisers, budget officers, loan officers, financial analysts and managers, bank officers, actuaries, underwriters, tax collectors and revenue agents, FBI special agents, securities sales representatives, and purchasing agents.

Sources of Additional Information      [About this section]
Information about careers in certified public accounting and about CPA standards and examinations may be obtained from:

  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Harborside Financial Center, 201 Plaza III, Jersey City, NJ 07311-3881. Internet: http://www.aicpa.org

Information on careers in management accounting and the CMA designation may be obtained from:

  • Institute of Management Accountants, 10 Paragon Dr., Montvale, NJ 07645-1760. Internet: http://www.imanet.org

Information on the Accredited in Accountancy/Accredited Business Accountant, Accredited Tax Advisor, or Accredited Tax Preparer designations may be obtained from:

  • National Society of Accountants and the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation, 1010 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet: http://www.acatcredentials.org

Information on careers in internal auditing and the CIA designation may be obtained from:

  • The Institute of Internal Auditors, 249 Maitland Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32701-4201. Internet: http://www.theiia.org

Information on careers in information systems auditing and the CISA designation may be obtained from:

  • The Information Systems Audit and Control Association, 3701 Algonquin Rd., Suite 1010, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008. Internet: http://www.isaca.org

For information on accredited programs in accounting and business, contact:

  • American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of BusinessThe International Association for Management Education, 605 Old Ballas Rd., Suite 220, St. Louis, MO 63141. Internet: http://www.aacsb.edu



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