Hartford Courant publishes article by FML on careers in accounting

By Brian Kelleher, CPA, CGMA, Partner, Assurance & Advisory Services
Aug 30, 2023

See this article by FML partner Brian Kelleher as it originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.

Accounting is a fantastic career — despite common misconceptions

Students across Connecticut are about to enter high schools and universities still undecided about which major to declare and what type of career to pursue. The timing couldn’t be better to choose a career in accounting.

Numbers from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants show that about 67,000 people took the CPA exam in 2022, down from 72,000 in 2021. That’s the lowest number since 2006.

Accounting is a field with high demand, and successful accounting students are virtually guaranteed employment upon (or even prior to) graduation. I’m involved in recruiting for one of the largest accounting firms in Connecticut. When I talk to students about their biggest concerns in pursuing an accounting degree and a career in public accounting, they typically point to four misconceptions: lack of work-life balance, the difficulty of the CPA exam, lower pay compared to other financial career paths, and lack of excitement in the work.

Each of these objections is based on a misunderstanding of what a public accounting career is really like in 2023.

The accounting profession has come a long way with work-life balance

It’s healthy that younger people coming out of school want to find balance. But if work-life balance means working 40 hours a week the entire year with no overtime requirements, that’s typically not going to come with a high salary and fast promotions — and that’s true for most professions.

In accounting, finding balance is a matter of weighing the value of hard work and career progression. You get out of the job what you put into it. But the job doesn’t have to include excessive overtime hours every January through April. There’s been a shift in expectations in the industry — while you may be asked to work some overtime during the busier times, you have more flexibility around your schedule to accommodate other events in your life.

These days, many firms offer flexible work arrangements. Even during the busy season our employees are able to attend events that occur in their personal lives; and just catch up a bit in the evening when needed. Ultimately, finding the right work-life balance comes down to finding the right firm. In interviews, students should ask questions about office culture and expectations to help find a good fit. More and more firms in the accounting industry are offering flexible schedules to attract and retain high-quality employees.

The path to becoming a CPA is challenging, but doable if approached strategically

It’s true that becoming a CPA takes effort and dedication. A fifth year of college is generally required (to obtain the 150 credit hours required to become a CPA) even if you’re not getting a master’s degree in accounting.

Also, the CPA exam is hard. Only about 20 percent of candidates pass all four sections on the first try — a lower pass rate than the bar. But you don’t have to take all four parts at once, and the rates for passing each section are much higher, about 50 percent. As the AICPA points out on its website, “The Exam is not harder or easier to pass at different times. An increase in pass rates simply means that candidates are better prepared.”

The exam is doable if you approach it strategically, and the additional time and effort invested in becoming a CPA is worth its weight in gold. Having those three letters after your name will distinguish you from others as you advance in your career and will provide you with more opportunities and higher earning potential.

CPAs have a very strong starting salary, and comparisons can be deceiving

The idea that the pay for an accounting major coming out of college is lower compared to other finance or business careers is a bit misleading. Most college students in accounting have a job locked up by the beginning of their senior year — demand is that high. Everyone who leaves school with an accounting degree seems to get a job.

Starting salaries in public accounting in 2023 are very good, typically exceeding $70,000. While other financial and professional fields might state similar or higher starting salaries, it’s important to note that they aren’t typically placing as high a percentage of students. It’s harder to get those jobs, and there aren’t very many of them, despite the volume of the surrounding buzz.

Public accounting is an extremely varied, exciting field

As you carve a niche in your career, there’s more to being a CPA than taxes, audits and number-crunching. In fact, the CPA exam will be changing in 2024 to incorporate several new disciplines outside of traditional accounting — areas such as information systems and business analysis.

Plus, a background in public accounting prepares an individual to be essential to any organization that makes financial transactions. People with accounting degrees can become CEOs, CFOs, financial advisors, business analysts, investment advisors, financial analysts, actuaries and more.