Expert Advice for Getting Hired in Accounting
We asked leaders in the accounting and tax profession to share their best advice for getting hired in the accounting and tax field. Here are their responses:
Donald P. Danner
- Get good grades as many firms have a GPA cut-offs.
- Use internship as an entry to a firm as well as a skill builder.
- Work as a leader: as an on campus-officer or event manager; these positions are always viewed well.
- Build a professional resume with career services on campus.
- Develop your interpersonal skills and habits: firm handshake, good eye contact, professional appearance, polished table manners, and follow-up thank you notes.
Individuals interested in pursuing careers in accounting will most likely be light on experience when they finish their education components; I find it very advantageous if such a prospect has strong computer skills, so as to help with other areas in a small practice, such as marketing content, (Publisher), website content updates (HTML skills), brochure creation and maintenance (Publisher), worksheet updates and creation (Excel) and business communication (letters – Word). Then, having some social media familiarity is helpful as well. Small practices usually do not have full-time staff to do the creative work, nor can they afford to outsource it all. Having those skills in tow is VERY attractive. The degree demonstrates their ability to comprehend accounting. The practical application will be honed as they work in the profession. These other skills make them more useful to the bottom line, as they gain accounting experience.
My advice for getting hired by small or medium size accounting firms is to know the QuickBooks program. Most accounting firms that do bookkeeping and accounting have their clients set up in QuickBooks. It is an excellent program for small and medium-sized companies with good support. Many companies purchase QuickBooks and try to do their own accounting to save cost but if they don’t understand accounting, then they are doomed to fail and will need assistance from an accounting firm to clean up the financials. If you have tax law knowledge as well, it will increase your chances of being hired. Getting involved with your local and state accounting organization will help to make contacts with accounting firms and will help with continuing education.
I would suggest four areas that students need to groom themselves:
- Leadership – If a student can find opportunities to learn leadership skills they will be further ahead than their peers. Examples of things they might consider are: tutoring classmates, serving in student government or committees on campus, leading teams in their places of employment.
- Communication skills – One of the major challenges that I hear about younger CPAs from our employers is there is a lack of ability of young professionals to carry a conversation and write well. Many think that as CPAs we just crunch numbers all day when in fact number crunching is a small part of the job. I would encourage students to find opportunities to give presentations and/or write for publications or create a blog.
- Technology know-how – If students interested in becoming a CPA will take the time to learn technology skills beyond spreadsheets and accounting software they will be ahead of their peers. They could possibly learn how to create web pages, maintain information electronically as well as connect with others on social websites.
- Business savvy – Learning how to problem solve is critical in today’s accounting environment. Students interested in an accounting career should learn how to sort and interpret information and find creative solutions within the parameters they’re given.
-Susan Speirs, CPA, CGMA, is the CEO of the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants
George A. Smith
An aspiring accountant must determine whether the career path is Certified Public Accountant or otherwise.
Aspiring CPAs are required to complete 3 years of accounting experience with a CPA firm in order to obtain licensure. Since CPA firms are aware of this requirement it provides an unbroken string of potential employee graduates at minimum wage for three years from the aspirant’s graduation.
Outside of those who become or aspire to become certified potential accountants should obtain experience in accounting or taxation. This is most easily achieved through seasonal or part time work:
- With an accounting firm CPA firm local or regional Non CPA firm
- With a National Tax Service like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, or
Liberty Tax Service
- With Enrolled Agents
Trade shows and conferences are a good source of leads:
- IRS Tax Forums
- IL Tax & Finance Showcase
Searching the internet and networking are a good source of leads.
-George A. Smith is the 1st Vice President of the Illinois Society of Enrolled Agents and an Enrolled Agent, Admitted to Practice Before the Internal Revenue Service.
J. Michael Kirkland
The very best guidance I can give anyone seeking an accounting career is to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). No doubt about it. Becoming a CPA sets you apart because:
- It demonstrates that you have a strong educational background;
- That your learning process has been confirmed by taking and passing the CPA exam, and;
- The ongoing educational requirement identifies you as a trusted and licensed professional.
In this very competitive job market, which I might add is a global job market, your competition for jobs is not only the American students but your counterparts in China, India, and Brazil.
You will need every educational and work experience advantage you can get. Many job postings state “CPA required.” The CPA license provides a clear measurement of your abilities as an expert in the field of accountancy.
In many cases, CPAs have excellent job security, increased job mobility and respect from their co-workers and friends.
There are many career paths for a CPA. You can go the traditional route and a rewarding career in an international CPA firm such as one of the “Big Four” firms or a medium or small sized firm, depending on your inclination, but there are many other career opportunities for the CPA because every business, every industry, needs financial experts – and the CPA expert is accountancy’s gold standard. There are jobs in sports and entertainment (for instance, almost every celebrity needs a CPA) -– Jay-Z has a CPA; and the FBI needs CPAs too, so do international banks and your financial acumen will most likely make you a successful business owner, whether or not that is your primary career or an interest that you would like to pursue. These are just a few of the numerous opportunities available to you as a CPA.
In addition to taking earning your degree and passing the CPA exam, there is another “must do” item you should put on your list. Join your State CPA society. This is a vital step which all true CPA professionals must take. Why? Because it demonstrates that you believe and care about your professional development, the CPA profession and protecting the public interest as well as the interests of your fellow CPAs, your clients, and the business community. It makes a loud statement about you.
- Don’t be afraid of hard work.
- Be passionate about your CPA career.
- Learn to demonstrate your value.
- Join and become active in your State CPA Society.
- Be Positive.
- Separate yourself from the crowd: become a CPA, “the Gold Standard.”
-J. Michael Kirkland, CPA, CGMA, is the President of the New York State Society of CPAs
If I had a firm that was hiring someone in either the accounting or taxation field (related but not the same field) I would probably look at their experience first but the following would be very important to me:
- Are they a member of any professional organizations?
- What, if any, newsletters they subscribe to?
- Continuing professional education credits – how much they typically get in a year and how (self-study or live) and what is their opinion of CPE?
These three items may indicate to me how seriously they take their profession.
-Mele Perrego, EA, is the Vice President of the North Carolina Society of Enrolled Agents
For students who wish to do tax preparation:
They need to apply for a PTIN through the IRS. I ask an applicant for hire one question: “Are you PTIN compliant?” If they come back and say they do not need to be, then the interview is over and they do not get hired. I have never gotten beyond the first question because too many people today think they can be the boss before they ever get hired.
I would also advise them to study and pass the Enrolled Agents exam. (There are a number of sources to accomplish that.) The advantage is that accountants are state licensed and enrolled agents are federally licensed. In other words, when my clients move to another state I not only can continue to prepare their taxes if they wish but I can also continue to represent them before all levels of the IRS. Accountants can only do so within the state in which they are licensed.
Join professional organizations as an “Associate” or “Student.” Failure to do this indicates to me a lack of interest in pursuing their professional career as if it is just something to do.
Take classes through these organizations. It is also a great way to “network” with potential employers.
-Julianne Molek, EA, is the President of the Wisconsin Society of Enrolled Agents
Stewart A. Smith
- An attention to detail is needed. You must display that ability.
- Excellence with tools like Excel is a must. More and more with tools like PowerPoint.
- Ability to look at things logically but also see what is or is not there… Example: “I know that the number says on paper $100,000 but is that reasonable and consistent with what I would have expected…? (based on all the other information I know, and situations that affect the area in question). Should the answer be $75,000 instead, or should it have been $210,000???” A degree of “trust but verify/question” is very helpful. It is how you find more information about your organization.
- A desire to keep yourself current. As new accounting guidance is developed, are you willing to read up? CPAs require about 40 hours per year in relevant continuing education. If you are not going to stay current, you sell yourself short and you will not be able to compete with others who are keeping abreast to changes in our field.
- A desire to be not just an accountant but a knowledgeable general and/or industry specific business person.
- Being a people person is very helpful in accounting (see point #5 above). I knew a CFO who hired his accounting team members based on their ability to talk to/engage other people outside of their accounting department. Accountants often work with other areas of the organization. When you understand what the operating groups do, their operational challenges, key factors, opportunities, threats, etc, the numbers make more sense in context of the financial statements. You cannot gain that knowledge from behind your monitor and keyboard. You must engage others, walk around, work the phones, etc. “Accounting by walking around” if you will.
-Stewart A. Smith, CPA, MBA, is the Vice President of Finance & CFO of YWCA Columbus, Adjunct Professor of Accounting at Otterbein University, and the Education Chair of the Central Ohio Chapter, Association of Government Accountants.
I cannot stress how important it is for the candidates to arrive timely and dress professionally. Candidates should research the company/agency before the interview and have good communication skills.
-Gail Howell is a Board Member of the First District, Louisiana Association of Tax Administrators
Our National organization (National Association of Enrolled Agents, or NAEA) as well as several state societies have begun a program to promote having the Special Enrollment Exam (SEE, the 3-part test that you must pass to become an EA) taught in local colleges (two- and four-year). The exam has NO prerequisite other than knowledge of tax laws and tax preparation, but the review course is an excellent way to prepare for the exam. Students could actually take the review course, pass the SEE, and be earning money while still in school. Accounting firms that specialize in tax preparation would know that in hiring an EA they would be hiring a knowledgeable professional who keeps up-to-date on the myriad tax law changes each year. EAs are also required to have two hours of continuing education in ethics yearly. The current issues with identity theft and fraudulent tax returns could be avoided with a tax professional who is aware of the strict standards required and committed to maintaining integrity.
-Linda Sandidge, Enrolled Agent, is Secretary of the Louisiana Society of Enrolled Agents
I am an enrolled agent. My background is tax and not accounting, but have learned from the ground up and run a very successful business. We do mainly tax returns but have about 30 bookkeeping and payroll clients. I work mostly with small business owners who are not very good at watching numbers.
My advice to these young folks is they need to diversify. Most come out of school and want to be a CPA and just do one little piece of the puzzle. Employees such as myself are looking for young folks who don’t mind working, getting their hands dirty and learning from the ground up. We find they learn very little at school about the real world of accounting. Most do not like taxes and most CPAs don’t, therefore they limit what they can do for us small business. This is not necessarily a 9-5 operation, and it takes a little TLC with clients. I find most young folks also do not know how to do that. They think all is just easy and we got this way without the sweat and tears that it takes.
I also wanted to share with you that the National Association of Enrolled Agents is just kicking off a new program to get out into the schools and promote the Enrolled Agent course. This is intended to have a two-fold benefit, the student can take courses, become an enrolled agent and then either work or intern in offices doing tax preparation as they finish their degree. We have partnered with the Gleim organization in Florida, who provides the schools with all materials necessary to implement the program. In some cases we are also providing an enrolled agent to teach the course. The program is called “Educating America.”
-Kay Hill, Enrolled Agent is the President of the Ohio State Society of Enrolled Agents
Getting a marketing internship as a freshman in college allowed me to get an accounting internship during my senior year of college. These internships opened the gates to having multiple job offers when I left college. Employers hiring students straight out of college were looking to see that I could apply accounting principles to real life situations and that I could work collaboratively within an office setting. Gaining experience and good references in my internships were essential to getting a job in accounting.
-Rachael Cully is President of the Bellevue, Washington Chapter of the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance
Robert Firely, Jr.
One of the best ways to obtain a full-time position in a CPA firm or industry position is to earn an internship during your final two years in college. Many employers use the internship as an “audition” for full-time positions. Additionally, most employers provide meaningful work assignments which translates well in the job search for the candidate in the event that the internship employer is unable to offer a full-time position upon graduation.
-Robert Firely, Jr. is the Immediate Past President of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants
- Get good grades. The best accounting jobs typically go to the students who are high academic achievers.
- Get involved. Top employers look for employees who are engaged as leaders in civic, charitable, community, or student organizations.
- Get connected. Good references are important when seeking the best accounting jobs. Maintain good relationships with mentors, professors, and other professional contacts.
-Brad Floyd CAE, is the President/CEO of the Tennessee Society of CPAs
Be knowledgeable about the industry you are applying to work in. For example, if you are applying for an accounting job with a hotel chain, learn something about the hospitality industry. Look at the annual reports for Marriott, Hilton and their competitors to see what is emphasized in the report. Visit the trade association website that supports that industry. Find out what are the current issues in the industry – availability of skilled labor, new regulations, mergers and acquisitions, etc.
Have strong Excel skills! Be prepared to give an example of your skill level – describe how you have used specific Excel functions (macros, arrays, vlookups, indexing, conditional formatting, pivot tables, charting, etc) to analyze and report on financial data.
-Karen Schmitt: CPA, is a Compensation Consultant Wells Fargo & Company and Vice President of Membership at the Charlotte Chapter, Institute of Management Accountants
Laura B. Edwards
- Study hard and give your best in school.
- Present “yourself” in interviews – too often we try to fit a mold to get a position only to be miserable when we get it because it doesn’t represent our abilities/interests/talents.
- Be a team player but not a “YES” person – you always have a voice and it gains strength through your ability to share your thoughts/opinions in a respectful/constructive manner.
- Set goals that are reasonable/attainable – both for the short-term and the long-term and be willing not to “have it all” overnight.
- Pray – have faith in the larger plan. This one isn’t politically correct but my faith in God has always gotten me through every crisis/move/change and has been the calming effect with each decision.
-Laura B. Edwards is an accountant, AFLAC Representative, Annuity Representative, Executive Vice President at the Mississippi Association of Public Accountants, and member of the National Society of Accountants.
As someone who started in public accounting, then created my own small firm before finally moving into corporate taxation in industry, I am aware of the difficulties in breaking into the accounting arena. There are many options but also many candidates. My advice to new accountants or anyone interested in the field would be:
Find the niche that makes you happy and keeps you interested. Although it is important to be well-rounded and have experience in multiple levels of auditing and tax, find the subset that makes you most interested and become an expert in it. If, for example, international tax fascinates you, devote extra time to researching it and chose a job that will foster the knowledge gained. As you advance through your career, generalists are rare whereas subject-matter experts are in demand.
Admit when you don’t know something. Exposure does not equal experience. If the only exposure you have to a topic is through coursework, don’t claim to have experience with the topic. Coursework examples are designed to be solvable but real-life situations often are not or spin off into totally different directions. Eagerness to learn will help combat any lack of experience.
Be willing to do the “grunt” work in the early stages of your career. although everyone wants to work on complex audits and tax returns, until you have spent time learning the basics, you should not be handling the complex matters. The time spent learning the basics will be the foundation for the rest of your career.
-Samantha Stewart EA, is Manager – Taxes at FedEx and Immediate Past President of the Pennsylvania Society of Enrolled Agents.
Tone & Demeanor
Anyone looking for a job, in any field, must be up in tone and high in curiosity about the field of endeavor. Having the basic understanding of accounting is obvious in the accounting field, but a willingness to learn more, and the seeking of a mentor comes through in a person’s demeanor when interviewing, and hopefully that desire remains after the hiring. When you want something as bad as your next breath….it is obvious to anyone who observes you.
There exists a destructive temptation awaiting all job seekers: the holding out for more money. Forget the money when its your first job because you are bargaining for a long term proposition.
A person is better able to negotiate a pay raise after being hired, and is more valuable in future interviews if already employed. Once you are hired, you are a consultant for yourself. You learn the inside track, or how things really work. You find the truth as it has meaning for you. I’ve heard the expression in contemporary business writing “Human Capital”, which is always spoken from the viewpoint of the business owners. However, you have ownership of that capital, and as the “true owner,” you should hone, sharpen, improve, and polish it at every opportunity. You become proficient; you make yourself indispensable; you make them dependent on you. Now, dear applicant, you have some power. Your employer ignores it at his own peril, for his competitors would love to have a person like you on their team. You become the rare gem we are all seeking.
There are many facets to the world of work. I’ve only touched on a basic strategy for a student entering the field for the first time.
-John Furge is the President of the Texas Association of Certified Public Accountants
Joanne S. Barry
Build a network of contacts before you need them. Join the NYSSCPA as a student member and you can take advantage of leadership opportunities that will make you stand out once you begin your job search. Moreover, as you build contacts, try to engage them in what you are doing and achieving. For instance, if you are involved in a competition, or elected to a leadership position, you can leverage that activity by reaching out to your professional contacts to seek advice or to invite someone to speak to your group. Become a campus leader and promote yourself as one. Become proficient as a writer or in spreadsheet analysis. This will help you stand out among the many students who graduate each year. Doors will open in ways you may never expect.
-Joanne S. Barry is the Executive Director and CEO of the New York State Society of CPAS
I was fortunate to enter the energy industry in the early 80’s and remain in the industry even after I retired after 32 years with ExxonMobil. Staying with one company through an entire working lifetime is not the norm for young professionals entering the accounting field today.
If I can impart any words of wisdom (based on what I wish I would have done, or things that worked effectively for me), it would be these – not listed in any particular order of significance:
- Have a well-balanced life that includes interaction with people and activities outside of school/work. That may mean sports, book clubs, Church study groups and community outreach.
- Don’t be afraid to engage mentors who are willing to help you land your first job. Learn to network effectively.
- Once you get your degree, get hired and start working, surround yourself with good people (and not the temporary jerks that you think will help you get ahead).
- In accounting it is particularly critical that you join a professional organization whether that be a CPA Chapter or Council of Petroleum Accountants Societies, if you enter the energy industry field. You need to stay on top of things and remain relevant.
- Always strive to learn new things – if you are doing it right, you should be learning something every day (learning to appreciate the little things is still learning).
- Enjoy what you do and your attitude will show it. Not every day will be a good day but overall you should like what you do. Life is too short not to.
-Deb Retzloff is President of the Council of Petroleum Accountants Societies