Looking for a versatile career? Try accounting.
Generally speaking, accountants prepare and examine financial records. But where an accountant works and what they specialize in can vary widely.
Common Job Titles
Accountant, Auditor, CPA, Controller, Comptroller, Financial Analyst, Payroll Manager, Tax Specialist
Projected Job Growth
Washington State: 21%
Median Annual Salary
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET.
An accountant might specialize in working with a specific type of business, like startups, or in a certain area of accounting. Auditors, for example, examine financial records prepared by others to make sure they’re accurate, while forensic accountants flex their detective skills as they hunt for clues of fraudulent behavior.
Thomas Phillips, an instructor in the UW Professional & Continuing Education Certificate in Accounting program, has been a forensic accountant for much of his career. “I love catching the bad guys,” he said, laughing. “When I catch someone who is deliberately trying to cook the books, that makes for an interesting day.”
As computers are used to automate more and more business processes, tech-savvy accountants are also needed to design accounting software systems. “If you can bridge the gap between accounting and IT, if you can speak both languages, that’s a very marketable skill to have,” Phillips noted.
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
Accountants generally fall into one of two broad categories, private and public. Private accountants generally work on staff at a single company, nonprofit or government agency. They often have regular tasks, such as drawing up budgets and preparing monthly financial reports. Later in their careers, private accountants can advance into positions such as controller (top accounting manager in a company), comptroller (top accounting manager in a nonprofit or government agency), treasurer or chief financial officer.
Public accountants, on the other hand, can be self-employed or work as part of an accounting firm, offering services to a variety of external clients including businesses and individuals. Public accountants can be involved in everything from traditional accounting and tax preparation to advisory services like financial planning and corporate governance, meaning measures to ensure corporate transparency and accountability.
The largest public accounting firms, nicknamed the Big Four, are Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Ernst & Young. These four companies alone employ upwards of 850,000 people and perform the majority of the world’s auditing services. In the Seattle area, organizations such as Amazon, Starbucks, the City of Seattle, the University of Washington, Avalara and Nordstrom all recently posted accountant positions.
ACCOUNTING JOBS ON THE RISE
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for accountants and auditors are expected to grow 11 percent from 2014 to 2024. In the Seattle area, the outlook is even stronger, with expected job growth of 21 percent in that same period.
Ron Tilden, a senior lecturer in the UW Bothell Master of Science in Accounting one-year program, credits the strong career outlook for accountants in part to increased regulations in the wake of the Enron scandal and other accounting failures of the early 2000s. “There’s been a significantly stronger emphasis on corporate governance since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for accounting reform,” he said. “This has led to many, many accounting jobs, and I don’t see that changing.”
BECOMING AN ACCOUNTANT
Many accountants hold a bachelor’s degree in accounting or in business with a concentration in accounting. Accountants whose work involves filing reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are also required by law to have a Certified Public Accountant license, or CPA license. Beyond being a legal necessity, though, the CPA title is a well-respected professional distinction. “Having a CPA is a license to practice and badge of honor,” Tilden said.
In Washington state, students who want to sit for the CPA exam must have, at a minimum, 150 semester hours of college education that includes a bachelor’s degree with an accounting concentration. While not necessary to become a CPA, programs like the UW Bothell master’s in accounting are a smart option. “The master’s program gives students more conceptual depth and theoretical grounding in accounting,” Tilden explained.
For students who already have enough college credit and want training geared toward passing the CPA exam, the Certificate in Accounting is another option. “The certificate program is a fast track to the CPA exam,” said Phillips.
Both Phillips and Tilden stress the usefulness of an education in accounting. “Accounting is the language of business,” Phillips said. “Having that training is the foundation for so many other things. I can’t think of a better degree to have than an accounting degree.”