Accountants are key figures in helping organizations and people keep their finances in order. For instance, they might ensure a company’s financial records are correct and legal or file someone’s annual tax returns. In other words, they handle money matters. But what does an accountant do in their day-to-day work life? In this guide, we cover:
What Is an Accountant?
An accountant is a financial professional who tackles an array of duties. For instance, they might issue reports on a company’s financial performance or track an organization’s business transactions. A corporate or private accountant works for a company, like Citi or JPMorgan Chase, while a public accountant works for a business that provides accounting services to clients.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 1.4 million accounting professionals in the U.S. in 2020. The breakdown of the industry’s largest employers include:
- Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services, 25%.
- Finance and insurance, 9%.
- Government, 8%.
- Company management, 7%.
- Self-employment, 5%.
“Pursuing a career in accounting is hard work, but you’ll likely find it to be a rewarding career,” says Richard Deosingh, district president in the New York City office of staffing company Robert Half International.
Depending on where they work, accounting professionals may juggle various responsibilities. These duties might include:
- Reviewing budgets
- Preparing tax returns
- Creating reports about an organization’s finances
- Tracking a business’ profits and losses
- Reconciling bank statements
- Helping to keep an organization’s spending in check
- Going over employees’ expense reports
- Coming up with financial forecasts
- Recommending ways to cut costs, improve revenue and boost profit
- Ensuring the security of financial data
- Evaluating an organization’s financial risks
- Unearthing fraud and other financial misdeeds
“Accounting jobs aren’t just about number-crunching. In addition to needing skills in the latest cloud software, Excel, and risk and compliance, accountants must have a high level of business acumen, collaboration, and communication skills,” Deosingh says.
Types of Accountants
There are several different types of accountants, which can affect the duties one will perform daily. For instance, certified public accountants (CPAs) are state-licensed professionals who have met specific work and educational requirements and passed a CPA exam.
“The principal differences between accountants and CPAs are education, experience, and opportunity,” according to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA).
CPAs can also perform select duties that a non-CPA can’t. For example, they can conduct financial audits and sign audit opinions for public companies, says Tim Yoder, tax and accounting analyst for the Fit Small Business website.
Other types of accounting specialties include:
- Forensic accountants who investigate (and potentially testify in) cases of financial fraud
- Government accountants who manage financial affairs for government agencies and audit organizations that are subject to government regulation and taxation
- Management accountants who analyze financial data for businesses and provide decision-making advice to senior leadership
- Auditors who ensure financial records are accurate, properly managed, and compliant with state and federal laws
You can get hands-on experience with the day-to-day tasks that these professionals perform at top companies, like JPMorgan Chase and KPMG, by completing one of Forage’s free accounting virtual experience programs.
How Much Do Accounting Professionals Make?
Especially with adequate education and training, you can earn a comfortable living in accounting. As of May 2021, the median pay in the U.S. for accounting professionals was $77,250 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau forecasts that demand for these roles will rise 7% from 2020 to 2030.
“The advantages of becoming an accountant are job security, a good salary, and the prospect of playing an essential role in business,” the AICPA says.
Deosingh echoes that observation.
“Unemployment in the accounting field is virtually nonexistent. You’ll find your skills are always in high demand, and you should be able to command an attractive salary for this specialized work,” he says.
How to Become an Accountant
It’s recommended, but not required, that someone setting their sights on becoming an accountant obtain a four-year degree. Most states require that someone hold a bachelor’s degree to take the CPA exam. Sometimes, an employer will prefer to hire someone who earned a master’s degree.
Remember, although every CPA is an accountant, not every accountant is a CPA. To become a CPA, generally, you must earn a minimum number of college credits, rack up a minimum amount of work experience in accounting and pass a state-sanctioned CPA exam. In Texas, for instance, you must complete a 150-hour degree program in accounting at an accredited college or university, work at least one year under the supervision of a CPA, and pass the state’s CPA exam.
Outside of the U.S., industry professionals might pursue a chartered accountant (CA) designation. Requirements vary by governing board, including the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. Still, they generally include passing an exam and fulfilling a set number of work hours.
Other important accounting designations include:
- The Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)
- The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- The Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
- The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
Again, specific requirements vary, but they generally involve passing an exam and meeting the minimums for work and education experience.
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