Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are licensed by the state in which they practice, after passing the Uniform Public Accounting Examination. Typically CPAs must also meet a one- or two-year experience requirement before certification, in addition to passing the CPA exam. Most people who work for large CPA firms immediately after getting their bachelor’s degree work in the auditing area for the first year or two. Under the supervision of a senior staff member, they will perform audit sampling tests designed by the audit senior. They will also prepare work papers and review reports. A college-level accounting course in auditing is required for those wanting to become a CPA.
States license individuals to practice as Certified Public Accountants because they want to set standards to protect the public from poor-quality work or from audits performed by CPAs who are not independent. The attestation or assurance function is intended to provide an independent, objective review of the business results of a company so that investors, lenders, and others who rely on the financials have a fair picture of the company. To do this, the states require passing the CPA Exam and also maintaining competence through continuing professional education. States also require that accounting firms participate in peer reviews on a continuing basis so that another firm takes a hard look at how the firm is performing.
Those either entering smaller CPA firms or with a master’s in taxation are most likely to spend a significant amount of time preparing either personal or business tax returns. The workload for those in the taxation area is particularly heavy from January to April and might require a great deal of overtime.
CPAs with a significant level of expertise, perhaps earned in industry, might enter large CPA firms as consultants. Consultants often work on projects that involve information systems technology and might participate in converting one accounting system to another. Changes in information technology can be triggered by the need to upgrade to newer or faster equipment, as well as by regulatory changes like the implementation of new taxes.
CPAs can also be employed in many different industry roles, including financial accounting and reporting, general accounting, property accounting, taxation, revenue accounting, and project accounting. Some rise to be managers, controllers, or even Chief Financial Officers. These CPAs are by nature not independent of the company they work for and may not perform attestation services for that company. CPAs in industry must still maintain their continuing professional education in order to keep their license active.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook, median annual wages for accountants in 2008 ranged from about $51,250 for those in state government to about $61,480 for those in accounting, taxation, bookkeeping, and payroll services. In 2009 bachelor’s degree starting salaries averaged $48,993 per year, and master’s starting salaries averaged $49,786 annually. Many of these financial career opportunities also include benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, a 401(k) savings plan, and paid annual leave.
The Handbook states, “Accountants and auditors are expected to experience much faster than average employment growth from 2008-18. Job opportunities should be favorable; accountants and auditors who have a professional certification, especially CPAs, should have the best prospects.”
The Handbook also indicates that those demonstrating proficiency in accounting and auditing computer software and information systems or with specialized expertise could have a competitive advantage. It also states that employers are continuing to seek people with strong interpersonal skills. The market for CPAs will probably continue to be a good one because there is continuing emphasis on providing the public with better and more accurate pictures of the companies that they invest in or do business with.