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Top Jobs for CPAs

The accounting field is bursting with opportunities. Here’s where to look for them. By Selena Chavis | Winter 2012

top jobs

It’s a great time to be a CPA. A Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast, in fact, indicates that the number of accounting and auditing jobs in the United States will increase 16 percent (or 190,700 positions) by 2020. Specifically, the Bureau believes that demand for comprehensive financial documentation will increase in response to ongoing financial crises and regulatory changes.

“The accounting industry is one of the best career fields at providing stability, longevity and mobility. That’s something we all seek in our careers,” says Jeramy Kaiman, area managing director for Garelli Wong. Kaiman points to Forbes’ recent article, “25 Best Jobs of 2012,” noting that three jobs typically performed by professionals with accounting backgrounds landed in the top 15—financial analyst, accountant and financial advisor.

As the supply-and-demand equation continues to tilt in favor of CPAs, many are seeking out those career paths that best equip them for the future.

“A CPA designation with specialization often equates to higher income,” explains Marilyn Bird, Chicago-based district president for Robert Half International (RHI). “That gets a lot of people’s attention.”

There are a number of drivers currently impacting the momentum of certain specializations. The complex nature of IT investments, for example, is driving demand for accountants who understand technology frameworks. And an ever-expanding regulatory environment continues to boost the need for accountants with astute knowledge of compliance issues.

“At a really high level, accounting is a great field to go into for the opportunities, flexibility and variety of experiences,” says Grant Thornton Midwest Managing Partner Mike Hall. “When you talk about specialization and what’s hot, you can look at the business environment and simply analyze that.”

The outlook for anything related to analysis is good, says Bird, adding that, “Looking at data and helping an organization formulate a strategy—that’s where you see the most investment being made in those with a CPA designation.”

Here, then, are some of the hottest areas for CPAs in the coming year.

Financial Analysis

According to RHI’s 2013 Salary Guide, demand for financial analysts often exceeds supply. Companies are seeking help from CPAs who can identify key trends and offer financial insight into investments. With a starting salary that ranges from $70,000 to $94,000, these professionals analyze financial data; prepare reports and charts to illustrate technical information; interpret data directly affecting investment programs; and monitor economic, industrial and corporate developments through outside sources. Financial analysts specializing in M&A valuations in both public accounting and corporate settings are in particular demand, says Kaiman.

Business Systems Analysis

Expertise in IT-related initiatives remains a top specialization for CPAs. According to RHI’sSalary Guide, companies are specifically seeking experts to identify IT infrastructures that will produce the greatest ROI.

“We’re bringing in more IT professionals just because of advances in technology. When you look at clients expanding globally, there are all kinds of technology considerations,” Hall explains, citing cloud computing and social networking as examples.

Typically those placed in the role of business systems analyst need knowledge of both financial and business systems in order to analyze the best course for IT implementation, upgrades and enhancement. The ability to respond quickly to market conditions and technological advancements is key to this role. Starting salaries typically range from $54,000 to $75,000, peaking at more than $100,000 for management roles.

Technical Accounting

“The environment is such that we are going to see more regulations,” says Hall. Which means that skills that address this ever-evolving and increasingly complex landscape will remain a top-tier specialty going forwards. The professional specializing in this area is aligned with research, policy development and SEC, GAAP and IFRS compliance.

Adding to the demand for technical accountants are the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which, amongst other things, addresses accounting transparency requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and International Financial Reporting Standards and international tax structures.

While not all niche areas of accounting will equate to more pay, technical expertise typically does raise salary levels, says Kaiman. Starting salaries for compliance professionals in a large company range from $62,000 to $83,000 and peak at more than $220,000 for Chief Compliance Officer roles. These roles will be particularly strong in the healthcare arena going forwards, thanks to rapidly evolving regulation of the industry.

Tax Accounting & Auditing

Tax and auditing functions remain in high demand and offer accountants both future flexibility and mobility, Kaiman explains. These professionals have broad-based knowledge that intersects with a multitude of areas, including global business and forensic accounting.

“There’s such an overlap in skill sets for audit and for tax structuring,” says Hall. “If you look at the market, there are shortages. International tax in particular is a hot area.”

Starting salaries for tax and auditing professionals in public accounting firms start in the mid-$40,000s and go all the way up to $58,000-plus in mid-sized firms. Salaries can reach beyond $183,000 for management-level positions in large firms.

Forensic Accounting

Integrating accounting, auditing and investigative skills, the field of forensic accounting provides accounting analysis of financial systems and operations suitable for courtroom deliberations and dispute resolution. The most obvious example is an investigation of corporate fraud and embezzlement.

According to Hall, forensic accounting often crosses into various other specializations, including valuation work and technical accounting. “We have a very robust forensics group that deals with issues such as foreign corrupt practices, contract disputes and monitoring. Demand for forensic accounting has been generated by large damages cases,” he explains.
Salary ranges for forensic accountants start at $60,000 and can reach the mid-$90,000s based on experience. Senior managers in this field can make upwards of $150,000.

Cost Accounting

Hiring trends in the manufacturing sector of Chicago have seen particular improvement, says Kaiman. And, in fact, the RHI Salary Guide indicates that demand for cost accountants will hold steady nationally over the next year.

“One of the most high-demand jobs is cost accounting,” Kaiman notes. “Most companies struggle to fill cost accounting positions at all levels.”

Cost accountants help manufacturers institute efficient operational practices and process improvements by systematically reviewing the costs associated with the development or distribution of a product.

Salaries range from the low $40,000s to mid-$60,000s for entry-level positions and those with a few years’ experience. Senior managers can earn more than $100,000 a year in a large company.

The opportunities are wide and varied for accountants, and the outlook going into 2013 is extremely positive. “It’s an exciting time for the accounting field,” says Hall. “It’s a rigorous profession, and people need to be prepared.”

Top Industries

Now Across the board, experts agree that the healthcare industry represents one of the greatest opportunities for CPAs. From a rapidly expanding regulatory structure to the need to implement large-scale, complex IT initiatives, demand for CPAs in healthcare is not expected to keep pace with supply.

Current initiatives impacting the industry include the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, the move to the new ICD-10 classification system and pay-for-performance initiatives. Accounting expertise will be sought in the areas of business analysis, compliance, financial analysis and tax.

Financial services is another high-voltage sector for CPAs. As the economic outlook continues to improve, financial services firms have a need for functions such as trade support, operations, compliance and financial analysis. The financial services umbrella covers organizations such as national and multinational banks, insurance companies with an investment arm, hedge funds and other large investment firms.