Welcome to the first Friday in February edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition a future Big 4 soldier isn’t sure what to make of all the myths and rumors swirling around the quad about said four firms. He’s asked me to debunk.
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Back to our Big 4 mythbuster:
I was wondering if there were any truth to the rumors/legends that seem to percolate through campuses about Big 4 accounting. Here’s a short list of stuff that I’ve heard while attending accounting job fairs, business frat/club meetings, and associates from Big 4 and regional firms that come back to campus for recruitment events.
1. During their respective busy seasons, new tax and audit associates at a Big 4 work so many hours that their monthly salaries break out into an hourly rate that is less than minimum wage.
2. It is nigh impossible to study for and pass any portion of the CPA exam while simultaneously working at a Big 4.
3. Internships are virtually the only way for new graduates to break into a Big 4.
4. Becker is better than Kaplan is better than Bisk.
5. Beginning a career at a Big 4 will open more doors down the road than starting at a mid-tier , regional or local firm.
6. At Big 4 firms, advisory associates make more money than audit associates make more money than tax associates.
7. The average Big 4 associate leaves/quits/defects before their 3rd year.
8. Evan after taking raises into account, Big 4 associates that were hired during the brunt of the recession will actually be paid less than new hires this year.
So is there any truth to these rumors? I’m guessing that there’s quite a bit of embellishment that come from associate ‘war stories’ so I’ve tried to take everything with a grain of salt.
Big 4 Mythbuster
There’s a lyric in “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” that goes, “People say believe half of what you see, Son, and none of what you hear,” which we find to be generally a good rule of thumb (with the exception of what you read at this fine publication…most of the time).
ANYWAY, we’ll tackle these one at a time:
1. During their respective busy seasons, new tax and audit associates at a Big 4 work so many hours that their monthly salaries break out into an hourly rate that is less than minimum wage. – Let’s keep this simple: if you calculate an average salary based on this year’s starting salaries and 2,000 chargeable hours, it’s pretty difficult to get down to the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25. Now, can you work far more than the 2,000 hours? Of course but even if you doubled the hours, you’re still above the minimum wage. MYTH.
2. It is nigh impossible to study for and pass any portion of the CPA exam while simultaneously working at a Big 4. – Is it difficult to balance a work schedule, studying, arranging to sit for a section, having a shred of a personal life, finding time to take out the dog AND still pass a portion? Yes, absolutely. “Nigh impossible”? No. People working at the Big 4 pass portions of the CPA every month. MYTH.
3. Internships are virtually the only way for new graduates to break into a Big 4. – When the Big 4 firms were hiring everyone and their dog back in the mid-Aughts, this would have been a myth. These days, with hiring budgets being a little tighter, the internship route is a must. Most interns end up taking the full-time offers which leaves just a few spots, so that doesn’t make for very good odds for any outsiders. TRUTH.
4. Becker is better than Kaplan is better than Bisk. – God, sorry to say but this is fruitless exercise. I don’t endorse any of the CPA review courses (FULL DISCLOSURE: I used Becker and passed and some companies happen to advertise with us.) out there. The companies will present stats that presents their pass success rate in the best light possible. That said, ranking the review courses in some arbitrary order like you’ve done above is meaningless. If you hear from someone on campus that Becker is the best because that’s what they used (Tim Gearty’s handsome wardrobe notwithstanding) or that Roger is the best because that’s what they used (and not because they have a thing for hipster chicks) that doesn’t mean you will necessarily have the same success. And if someone tells you that they’ve tried more than one review course, you should know that this person probably just sucks at taking tests. MYTH.
5. Beginning a career at a Big 4 will open more doors down the road than starting at a mid-tier, regional or local firm. – As a general rule this is true. Having the exposure to the most complex accounting systems, transactions and business models will allow you to work at these companies if you so choose. Working at Big 4 firm (and in some markets, mid-tier firms) will give you that exposure. Does that mean you’re doing yourself a disservice by accepting a position with a regional or local firm? Of course not. It all depends on what your career goals are. But does a Big 4 firm name on your résumé get more attention than a non-Big 4 firm. Yes. TRUTH.
6. At Big 4 firms, advisory associates make more money than audit associates make more money than tax associates. – In my experience, I’ve found that salaries for tax and audit associates are extremely close with a slight edge to the tax side, so you’ve got those two backwards. But yes, Advisory associates are paid the most. ONE-THIRD TRUTH.
7. The average Big 4 associate leaves/quits/defects before their 3rd year. – Again, the “average” number of years that an associate works at a Big 4 firm is a complete arbitrary statistic. I’m not sure when people started throwing numbers like this but it’s pretty useless information. Typically when people state an average number of years that an associate stays, it’s not backed up with any stats. I’d be surprised if the firms themselves even know what the average shelf-life of an associate is. I may be wrong about this and would love to see some stats if they’re out there but for now we’re going with: MYTH.
8. Evan after taking raises into account, Big 4 associates that were hired during the brunt of the recession will actually be paid less than new hires this year. – Pay freezes and meager increases certainly put a damper on salaries in ’08-’09 but this past year saw the Big 4 return to some reasonable increases across the board as well as bonuses in various forms. Starting salaries for new associates will always keep up with the market (as is popular to say) but with coverage of salaries being more transparent than it used to be, it will be impossible for firms to allow new hires to earn more than their superiors. MYTH.
Whew! There you have it; discuss as needed.