Getting A Job As The Tax Man

By Tara Struyk AAA

No doubt you've heard the old quote by Benjamin Franklin: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." It's a grim notion to all but a lucky few: those who are considering careers as tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents.

TUTORIAL: Personal Income Tax Guide

Job Outlook
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that little or no change is expected in the number of people required for these fields until 2016, large numbers of retirees are expected to create openings at all levels of government. Demand for tax examiners, revenue agents and collectors could also grow as a result of changes in government policy regarding tax enforcement and growth in the number of businesses. Although the opportunities in these fields may lessen, or increase, based on the overall state of the economy, and on changing budget constraints, as long as the government continues to levee taxes, there will be jobs available in these fields.

Becoming The Tax Man
Tax Examiners
Tax examiners review filed tax returns to check for accuracy, and to determine which are eligible for tax credits and deductions. They generally deal with the tax returns filed by individual taxpayers, or those with only a few small business deductions. Their main job is to determine the factual basis for claims and refunds. They also check taxpayers' math to ensure that the amounts reported match those from other sources, such as employers or banks. Examiners also double-check taxpayers' personal information, including name and Social Security number.

Tax examiners are charged with ensuring that the tax credits and deductions claimed by taxpayers are legitimate. As such, they may be in contact with taxpayers to address discrepancies, request supporting documentation or to notify taxpayers that they have overpaid or underpaid on their taxes. Examiners also issue refunds and collect fees, interest and penalties on unpaid tax liability.

Tax examiners can be employed by the federal, state or local government.

Revenue Agents
Like tax examiners, revenue agents audit returns for accuracy, but rather than dealing with taxpayers' returns, they generally handle more complicated income, sales and excise tax returns for businesses and large corporations.

As revenue agents gain expertise, they often specialize in a particular type of return, such as those for multinational businesses. They may also develop expertise in a particular industry, such as finance, insurance, real estate or construction.

Revenue agents are employed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and by equivalent agencies at the state and local government levels.

Collectors
Tax collectors, or "revenue officers," as labeled by the IRS, deal with the collection of delinquent accounts. If a taxpayer makes no effort to pay a delinquent tax liability after being notified by a revenue agent or tax examiner, the case is sent to a collector. The collector then sends the taxpayer a notice and works with the person to settle the debt.

When taxpayers neglect to file a tax return, federal collectors may request that the IRS prepare one for them. Collectors are also responsible for backing up taxpayer claims that they don't have the means to pay their taxes. This investigation process may be extensive, and can include investigating the delinquent taxpayer's liens, mortgages or financial statements, locating assets and requesting legal summonses for other records. It is ultimately the collector who decides whether the IRS can make a claim on a delinquent taxpayer's bank account, real estate or other assets to settle the debt. Collectors can also collect unpaid taxes by garnishing a delinquent taxpayer's wages.

Collectors can work for the federal, state or local government.

A Day In the Life
Tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents work in office settings. At the federal and state levels, these workers will spend much of their time working at private firms, where they have ready access to tax-related records. At the local level, examiners, collectors and agents tend to be stationed at city halls or other municipal buildings. Some travel may be required for all three jobs. Collectors are the most likely to be required to travel regularly as they go to local courthouses, county and municipal seats of government, businesses and taxpayers' residences to find records and assets to settle delinquent accounts.

Tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents tend to work a standard 40-hour work week, but the tax season can be a high-stress time that requires a lot of overtime work for many in these professions.

And, collectors are faced with additional job stress in settling accounts, particularly if they have to confront delinquent taxpayers face-to-face.

Educating the Tax Man
According to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents had a bachelor's degree. However, relevant experience or a combination of education and experience may be enough to land the job. (For more insight, read Invest In Yourself With A College Education.)

To get a career in the federal government or to start out in a more advanced entry-level position, workers must have a bachelor's degree. In state and local governments, an associate's degree, college-level business class or a high school diploma combined with specialized experience may be adequate. However, what is required specifically for each of these three disciplines varies a bit.

  • Tax examiners are best served by a bachelor's degree in accounting, or a related discipline. Work as an accountant, auditor or in tax compliance is also valuable. Tax examiners at the IRS must have a bachelor's degree or one year of experience working full time in a relevant field. The IRS also provides formal training for its employees, and regular updates to keep them up to speed on changes in procedures and regulations. (For more on where an accounting degree can take you, read Accounting, Not Just For Nerds Anymore.)
  • Collectors must have a bachelor's degree to work for the IRS, but at other levels, a combination of education and experience may be accepted.
  • Revenue agents must have a bachelor's degree in accounting, business administration, economics or another similar discipline. A combination of education and full-time business administration, accounting or auditing work may also be acceptable. To work for the IRS, revenue agents must have at least 30 semester hours of accounting coursework along with specialized experience.

Key Personality Traits
Tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents all need to be computer literate and adept at learning new computer applications, as this field becomes increasingly automated. In addition, each job has its own nuances:

  • For tax examiners, confidentiality is a key personality trait. These jobs involve working with personal information; as such, those who are seeking a career in this field must be willing to accept responsibility for maintaining taxpayer confidentiality. Those who work for the federal government are subject to background checks.
  • Revenue agents must be organized and independent. They must rely on strong analytical skills, and will succeed based on their ability to manage time effectively. They also tend to spend time away from their home offices, and so they must be able to work without supervision.
  • Tax collectors need to be effective communicators and negotiators because they are the ones who deal directly with the (often irate) public. Their reports are used to justify attempts to seize assets; therefore, they must be able to work with others in potentially confrontational situations. (Learn the strategies that will help you to come out on top in any negotiation, in our related article Getting What You Want.)

Compensation
Salaries for tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents vary greatly based on the level of government by which an individual is employed: those who work at the local level tend to earn considerably less than federal employees.

As a group, the average income for 2008 was $48,100, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is well above the national income average of $40,690, but below the average for business and financial occupations. (Find the most up-to-date earnings info at the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics page.) Revenue agents earn the most of the group, bringing in $91,507 on average for work at the federal level.

Conclusion

If you'd like the IRS to pay you some money for a change, consider a career working in taxes. Without these front-line workers, governments would be unable to obtain the revenues they need from individuals and businesses. Although, entering this field does not guarantee employment, it is safe to say that there will be jobs for tax examiners, collectors and revenue agents as long as the government continues to collect taxes. According to Benjamin Franklin, it's not such a long-shot.

To read more about tax issues, see Investopedia's Income Tax Guide.

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