Just How Difficult Is It to Break Into Accounting As a Second Career?

Around these parts we focus heavily on the “traditional” accounting track of school, degree, Big 4 job, CPA exam, and exit to greener pastures, usually in that order. It’s how it’s always been and likely how it always will be because as we know, it’s Big 4 or nothing in the world of accounting. We’re as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing on the Big 4 and forgetting that there’s a whole wide world of other stuff out there.

It struck me the other day while endlessly scrolling through Reddit that we have neglected a chunk of the potential accountant population: folks for whom accounting wasn’t the first choice. It seems I’ve been seeing more and more posts on r/accounting lately that ask “can I a [insert random job here] be an accountant?” The short answer is yep. Unless you’re an accounting tabloid writer who gets paid to pick apart every move accounting firms make, sad to say that bridge is probably burned. Oh well.

Regular Going Concern readers likely already know this but for those of you new to the site or just stumbling across this post while searching “how do I get into accounting as a second career,” I got my start in CPA review. The job was sort of accidental in that I never in a million years would have imagined myself working in accounting nor anything accounting-adjacent because like most civilians, I mistakenly believed there were icky numbers involved (eww). But let’s not get into that, it’s not important. I’m telling this story because I think it’s relevant to the matter at hand: how to get into accounting as a second career.

Picture it. San Francisco. 2007. As I’m taking the bus up the peninsula to my job in the city, I couldn’t help but notice how many homes dotting my route sported For Sale signs in their yards. Hmm. I suppose I heard some buzz of a “housing crisis” while flipping channels on my way to peak VH-1 bad reality TV but didn’t think much of it as it didn’t affect me. And then the shit hit the fan.

My work was inundated with calls from people who, for whatever reason, maybe took an accounting class or two in college but decided to do something else with their lives up until the point that whatever they chose was no longer an option. People from all over, and all walks of life, suddenly scrambling to figure out how to survive in an uncertain job market. OK, “uncertain” isn’t the word for it. The market was certainly crap for a lot of professionals out there. “I liked accounting in school,” they’d say, “I guess it just wasn’t for me so I didn’t pursue it.” Real estate agents, teachers, even guys who tried to pass the CPA exam before I was born were now embracing the profession in droves. Why? Because other than the government, it was one of the few industries still reliably hiring when the economy went to shit back then.

All that to say, accounting is a safe choice. If it can survive total global economic collapse, surely it can survive anything.

Here’s the good news: accounting isn’t difficult to get in to. I know the Wake Forest tryhards are going to get a little butthurt by me saying that but what I mean is, unlike law, you don’t have to go to a top school just to get in the door. Will you be a top PwC consultant with just a degree from University of American Samoa? Well probably not. But you can still be an accountant.

Are you a plumber? A tattoo artist? A circus performer? Doesn’t matter. If you want to be a CPA, all you need are the educational units and the determination. CPA exam requirements vary by state and I won’t be getting into that too much here but NASBA (the national board that administers the exam) has a decent licensing resource here. You can also access their Accounting Licensing Library for $10 to search for a state in which you might be qualified to sit for the CPA exam (you don’t necessarily have to sit in your state of residency, though practicing as a CPA might be another story). Additionally, you can go straight to your state board of accountancy to read up on the requirements in your state.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the educational requirements to become a CPA in my home state of Virginia. Again, this will vary by jurisdiction but generally speaking all 55 CPA exam jurisdictions are similar in that there isn’t one that requires 80 units in accounting with another requiring just 5. 120 hours/24 accounting units/24 business units is pretty standard.

Exam candidates must obtain from one or more accredited institutions:

  • At least 120 semester hours of education
  • Baccalaureate or higher degree
  • Accounting concentration or equivalent: Principles or introductory accounting courses cannot be considered in determining whether a person has obtained the 48 minimum number of semester hours required for an accounting concentration or equivalent.
  • Minimum of 24 semester hours of accounting courses, to include: courses in auditing, financial accounting, management accounting, and taxation.
  • Minimum of 24 semester hours of business courses. As many as 6 hours of accounting courses (not included in the 24 hours of accounting courses) may be considered for the business course requirement.

Note that an overwhelming majority of jurisdictions require a total of 150 units for licensure, the above are solely requirements to qualify to sit for the CPA exam in my state. Once you sit for and pass the exam you can proceed with applying for licensure.

If you’ve been out of school for a while, you can have your transcripts evaluated by a transcription service to find out where you’re deficient and plan from there. I won’t recommend any, Google it.

Obviously some people looking into accounting as a second career will have more work ahead of them than others, but the requirements are pretty straightforward. Back in my CPA review days I remember a nearby school that offered an accounting “fast track” program to get those units quickly, might be worth checking around if something like that is offered at an accredited school near you.

Do you need to be a CPA to be an accountant? Obviously not. But despite declining CPA exam candidate numbers and the ongoing threat of legislation that could but most likely won’t make CPA licensure obsolete, the CPA remains the gold standard worldwide. Passing the CPA exam signals that not only do you understand the fundamentals but you possess the dedication and discipline necessary to join the ranks of certified public accountants before you.

One caveat: remember what I said above about giving up on that dream of being a high-flying Big 4 consultant? Here’s the thing, the profession is fed by an extremely robust on-campus recruiting pipeline. And you, as an older candidate, may not be able to take advantage of the recruiting machine that turns fresh-faced 22-year-olds into bitter honest-to-god accounting professionals. This just means you’re going to have to think a bit more creatively than the junior accounting major who phones in a Meet the Firms event once a semester. Again, it’s not impossible. You can always try contacting the accounting department chair at your nearby big university to see if they’ll let you drop in at a campus recruiting event. Hey, what do you have to lose?

Is your background in technology? Well yay, you’ve already got a leg up. Everyone around these parts knows the coming robot revolution in accounting is a huge deal, but in the last few years we’ve gone from joking about robots taking over your job to seeing automation come into play more and more. This push toward tech-literate CPAs is further exemplified by conversations about necessary changes to CPA exam content in coming years that will (hopefully) better test entry-level CPAs’ skills and knowledge in technology.

Excepting the CPA exam, the barrier to entry in accounting is fairly low (at least when compared to other professional careers like law). And as far as we’ve seen in the ten years since this website was founded, demand for qualified accounting professionals is high in times both turbulent and calm. Well, on second thought, things have been fairly turbulent since 2009. Sort of like how terror alerts since 9/11 are always orange, just varying shades of turbulence. Whatever, accountants will always be in demand.

There are a million specialties and certifications you can pursue as well, but this article has already run longer than anyone around here has the attention span for so we’ll end there. If you are an “outsider” looking to break into accounting and have a specific question for our team of poorly-trained reject Reddit bot AIs, go ahead and get in touch using the contact information below.

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