Finding The Right Accounting Certification

By Marv Dumon AAA

Getting widely recognized certifications can get you the job, help you to retain that job during layoffs, increase the marketability of your skill sets and provide professional credibility for you and your firm in a highly competitive marketplace. Human resource managers and prospective clients see the time, money and effort to acquire certifications as a testament to an individual's commitment to succeed in a particular profession. That demonstration of commitment and a universally recognized certification often can serve as the tiebreaker between two qualified candidates for a job.

Investing the time and effort to acquire an accounting certification can also increase your salary, bonus and standing within your company. Moreover, these credentials can provide more opportunities for a promotion. For the accounting designation shopper, there are a few select choices widely recognized by the business, finance and accounting communities; there are also numerous others that are distinct to a specific industry or job. Read on to learn more about these varied accreditations and what they can do for your career.

SEE: Accounting Not Just For Nerds Anymore

Top-Tier Accounting Certifications
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
If you are committed to advancing your accounting career, then you should definitely earn your CPA. CPAs work in a variety of specializations within accounting including audit, compliance, tax, forensic accounting, fraud examination, IT systems, risk management, appraisals, among others. This designation has such a high level of credibility that hiring managers and prospective clients tend to question a candidate's background and level of accounting competency if he or she is not a Certified Public Accountant. CPAs help companies comply with bylaws and regulations, reduce risk for the organization, support valuation and appraisal initiatives, improve processes, and create and maintain reporting mechanisms with which management makes important and critical decisions based on the supplied data.

States have different academic and experience requirements, but typically your educational requirement will extend beyond your bachelor's degree to encompass 150 semester hours, with varying amounts of accounting classes. You will need to pass the CPA exam, which is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (a 340,000+ member organization), and undertake more than 40 hours of continuing professional education each year.

There are four parts to the CPA exam:

  1. Financial accounting and reporting
  2. Auditing and attestation
  3. Regulation
  4. Business environment and concepts

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
A Certified Management Accountant is another great certification. There is overlap between the competencies of a CPA and CMA, but CPAs may be better equipped for compliance, accounting for transactions, tax and controls. Certified Management Accountants, as the moniker implies, lean toward financial analysis, organizational performance measurement, budgeting, strategic assessment and ongoing stewardship of the company. The exam is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), which has more than 70,000 members.

There are four major components:

  1. Business Analysis: Global economics, global business, internal controls, quantitative methods, financial statement analysis
  2. Management Accounting and Reporting: Budget preparation, cost management, information management, performance measurement, external financial reporting
  3. Strategic Management: Strategic planning, strategic marketing, corporate finance, decision analysis, investment decisions
  4. Business Application: Organization management, organization communication, behavioral issues, ethical considerations

To earn your CMA, you will need:

  1. to become a registered member of IMA,
  2. possess a bachelor's degree,
  3. pass the CMA exam,
  4. have two continuous years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management,
  5. complete at least 30 hours of continuing professional education annually.

SEE: The Alphabet Soup of Financial Certifications

Helpful Job/Industry-Specific Accounting Certifications
There are plenty of accounting designations out there - just know that not all of them are perceived or treated equally. Managers, executives and prospective clients still attach most of the value and prestige to a traditional CPA. There are, however, niche certifications that are suited for job- and industry-specific roles.

These include:

There are varying requirements to earn each of the above certifications. These requirements, however, will probably not be as intensive, time-consuming and involved as earning a CPA or CMA.

If you want to elevate your standing within the accounting and business community, you should invest time and effort in getting your CPA. Depending on your job and/or industry focus - within the field of accounting, you can augment that designation with one of the above certifications. For instance, those who wish to earn a CISA are heavily involved with accounting and IT information systems. In practice, this can mean transitioning old legacy accounting systems into more efficient (and less costly) databases such as SAP, Hyperion, or Oracle. If you are an FBI agent assigned to uncover fraudulent transactions, for instance, a CFE can help you elevate your understanding on this specific area within the field of accounting. If you are a budding government auditor, you might want to earn the CGAP, which is a certification tailored to the unique issues and challenges faced by government auditors. As mentioned, there is no substitute for a CPA.

SEE: Examining a Career as an Auditor and An Inside Look At Internal Auditors

Other Accounting Certifications
There are a number of additional certifications to choose from, some include:

  • Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) and Fundamental Payroll Certificate (FPC)
  • Accredited Business Accountant
  • Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
  • Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA)
  • Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP)
  • Certified Bookkeeper (CB)
  • Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
  • Certified Forensic Accountant (Cr.FA)
  • Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA)
  • Certified Quality Auditor (CQA)
  • Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA)

Parting Thoughts
Corporate finance and accounting is a competitive field. Most accountants who work for one of the Big Four accounting firms will hit a career plateau early on if they do not obtain a CPA. When an accounting firm bids on a consulting or client project (and demand more than $200 per hour for a relatively inexperienced associate's time), why would a prospective client fork this kind of cash out to this specific firm if the project is staffed with outsourced professionals that are not CPAs? A competing accounting firm can come in and win the contract by promising to staff the project with several CPAs. The fact is, number crunching is typically a commoditized service. Unless you possess unusual insights, and relationships in a specific job or industry, you are better served to earn accounting certifications and improve your station.

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