Accounting for Success

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Once perceived as a "safe" field for college grads, the accounting profession seems to have lost some of its appeal, according to New York-based CPA Alan S. Bochner. "In 1991," he notes, "there were 55,000 accounting graduates. By 1998, that number dropped to 30,000." Enrollment may have declined because, in part, college course requirements for CPA exam eligibility have gotten tougher. In several U.S. states, the mandatory number of credit hours has climbed from 120 to 150. "They're trying to make it a more prestigious degree," Bochner says, "but that's an extra year of schooling." The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (aicpa.org) has a different explanation for the higher standard. "As an accounting major in college, you must take a stipulated number of accounting courses. Therefore, you don't have a chance to take many electives," says Joe Bittner, manager of career services for the AICPA. "Students were coming out of college well prepared to do accounting problems, but lacking in business and communication skills."

Once perceived as a "safe" field for college grads, the accounting profession seems to have lost some of its appeal, according to New York-based CPA Alan S. Bochner. "In 1991," he notes, "there were 55,000 accounting graduates. By 1998, that number dropped to 30,000." Enrollment may have declined because, in part, college course requirements for CPA exam eligibility have gotten tougher. In several U.S. states, the mandatory number of credit hours has climbed from 120 to 150. "They're trying to make it a more prestigious degree," Bochner says, "but that's an extra year of schooling."

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (aicpa.org) has a different explanation for the higher standard. "As an accounting major in college, you must take a stipulated number of accounting courses. Therefore, you don't have a chance to take many electives," says Joe Bittner, manager of career services for the AICPA. "Students were coming out of college well prepared to do accounting problems, but lacking in business and communication skills."



When plotting a career course, today's college student prefers the MBA degree. It offers a hotter ticket to opportunity and income potential, according to Bochner. "The pay in our field is not great. At one firm I did some consulting for, there were guys with 15 to 20 years of experience making $65,000 or $70,000." That's why many accountants bring in additional income outside of their jobs.

For example, a growing number of CPAs are handling WebTrust or SysTrust work. Bittner explains: "CPAs go in, audit a Web site, and decide whether or not to grant it a seal of approval." And because business software programs are so popular, CPAs are often tapped as system consultants in the development phase. Though Uncle Sam is not exactly a magnet for today's accounting grad, government work is available. "Six hundred forensic accountants work for the FBI," says Bittner. "They concentrate on white-collar crimes like money laundering and bank fraud."

The gradual graying of America has stepped up the need for more elder care professionals, and thus it's become another niche for accountants. "People are living longer. And as they do, CPAs work with their family members, health care organizations, and assisted living facilities to work out legal and financial issues and make sure a person's goals are met." Thus, CPAs can also leverage their expertise by doing estate planning. "If you don't do proper estate planning," Bittner says, "the government can take about 70 percent of your property and other assets. CPAs are well versed in the laws and can help you take measures to produce the best outcome."

Home and Small Business The ability to work for oneself is a highly valued (and often exercised) benefit for CPAs. After graduating from Syracuse University and obtaining his CPA license, Bochner paid his dues by working in the tax departments of two large accounting firms. Since opening his own practice, he has built a large client list and prospered financially. Plus, he doesn't have to worry about being laid off.

Bochner's small business clients call on him to handle payroll issues, submit corporate tax returns, balance checkbooks, make financial projections, and prepare disclosure statements. "I may also advise them on whether to buy or lease equipment and cars," he adds. But there is one service that he will not provide: money management. "There's a tremendous amount of money to be made," he says, "but you may be looked on in a different light, especially if [your client] may buy mutual funds and insurance from you." Upon request, Bochner simply refers his clients to trusted third-party vendors.

Evolution and Survival The accounting profession has evolved over the last few decades--and the computer has made a sweeping impact. "Back then," Bochner says, "a PC wasn't on everyone's desk. You'd take a tax return, send it out to a service bureau, and they would send it back to you." But with accounting software programs like Quicken and TurboTax on the market today, more individuals are filing solo.

Will the accountant's role become extinct? No, says Bittner. "These programs are purely mechanical. They can multiply and divide for you, but they can't say, 'Did you know that you can deduct this or that.' A person may save a few hundred dollars that they're not paying their accountant, but what about all the time it takes to prepare the program? And there are deductions that they may have left out. For parents who have children in college, the recently adopted child tax credit is worth thousands. A computer may not ask the right questions."

Erika Welz Prafder is the president of Real World Careers, assisting college students and graduates in their hunt for quality employment. She also writes a weekly career column for The New York Post.
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