Tax Accounting 2010 Apr 12 2010

So You Want to Be an Accountant...

By laura lorber

If you love numbers, don't mind a slog and can engender trust, tax accounting might be the career for you. Here's a snapshot of what the career is like:

The Pay

An entry-level tax accountant in public accounting earns an average starting annual salary ranging from $41,250 to $59,750, depending on firm size, and advanced degree holders or certified public accountants get up to 10% more, according to the Robert Half 2010 Salary Guide. Tax directors, senior-level positions at public accounting firms, start at average annual salaries of $84,250 to $160,750, depending on the size of the firm, plus bonuses and incentives, according to the guide.

The Hours

The horror stories are true about 12-hour days, six to seven days a week during tax season -- January through April 15. "You work to get the job done," said Norma J. Lauder, director of the master's in tax program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Chicago. For those on the corporate side, it's a similar peak and valley before and after Sept. 15, when corporate taxes are filed. "You're at the beck and call of your client. If a client has an issue, you do what it takes to get the job done. It's not appropriate to say: 'I'm sorry. I've got to go shopping tonight, I have to leave at five.' Tax is governed by deadlines."

The Benefits

Employers typically provide standard health-care packages and retirement-savings plans. Training programs are often extensive and ongoing. Tuition reimbursement for certified public accounting exam review courses or advanced degrees are common, although many employers require a B-grade or higher and may claw back payments to those who leave the firm that subsidized their education within two or three years of completion.

Many firms offer generous time-off policies on the off-season to make up for the demands of tax season. Flex-time and job-sharing arrangements also may be available, even during tax season.

Micaela Klein, a 27-year-old tax manager at the Deloitte Tax LLP Private Client Advisors practice in Chicago, is pursuing an M.B.A. and sometimes schedules a day off to study for exams. The office also has study rooms for employees working toward their CPA. "As long as you're getting your stuff done, no one really is going to question you," she said.

On-site health clubs may be available at larger companies. "It's just a question of finding time to use them," said Lauder.

The Other Perks

Companies often offer small perks to lighten the strain of tax season. For example, Grassi & Co., a 150-employee accounting firm in Jericho, N.Y., has a carnival-style popcorn machine. "People make a run for it when it's fresh," said Matthew McCullough, 33, tax supervisor. The firm also buys dinners for those working late during the week, bagels on Friday mornings and breakfast and lunch on Saturdays.

At Klein's Deloitte office, dinner is catered Monday through Thursday, and, after partners and clients have left for the evening, employees may change into scrubs or jeans. "It feels like away-camp," said Klein. The boss raffles off Starbucks gift cards on Saturdays and sometimes the office has a pizza party. "It's the little things that make a difference when you're working so hard," she said.

Team-building games are common during tax season at Alloy, Silverstein, Shapiro, Adams, Mulford, Cicalese, Wilson & Co., a 75-employee firm in Cherry Hill, N.J. Employees compete for Visa gift cards and other prizes in scavenger hunts or trivia contests, such as "Are You Smarter Than an Intern?" styled on the TV game show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

"It's a nice break [and] good for camaraderie. It's nice to see people in a different light," said Chelsea Adams, 25, a junior accountant at the firm. An end-of-tax-season day off or party is nearly de rigueur at most firms.

The Career Path

Those looking to climb the career ladder typically earn a bachelor's or master's degree in accounting with a tax concentration, according to Lauder.

While an increasing number of new grads opt for jobs in internal corporate tax departments, most pursue jobs at public accounting firms, since the training, experience and exposure to different industries and specialties can open a myriad of options. Those with an edge are "CPA ready" -- have the 150 college credits needed in most states to sit for the certified public accountant exam -- and can demonstrate outstanding communications skills.

"Your challenge is to communicate tax concepts in business terms so that your non-tax colleagues and clients will understand what you're talking about," she said. "I've been in meetings where there's been a tax person who starts talking about code-section 351, small 'b,' one, big 'A,' and people's eyes glaze over. They tune out, and they don't listen to what you're saying, so you've been totally ineffective."

While a facility with numbers is a must-have, the ability to build trusting client relationships is also important. "You don't need to be everybody's friend, but you need some connection with clients so that they trust you and are comfortable working with you," Lauder said.

Becoming a CPA is vital for advancement at a public accounting firm. A CPA's typical career path may be: associate to manager to director of tax and then to partner. The track to partner typically ranges from 10 to 14 years, although turnover can be high, and employees often opt for jobs in accounting departments within companies or to start their own practice, according to Lauder.

The Best Part of the Job

The job's logic puzzles and math challenges are often a big part of the appeal to those drawn to tax-accounting careers. "It's not just crunching numbers, it's understanding tax law and what makes it work the way it does.... It takes a lot of brainpower," said Klein. Tax accountants also tend to like the job's fast pace and the research involved. They also report a high degree of satisfaction from solving problems for clients. "I like working hard to turn a bad situation into a good one," said McCullough.

The Worst Part of the Job

Tax season's relentless deadlines and long hours can take a toll. The toughest part is "getting here when it's dark and leaving when it's dark," said Adams. "And sometimes the work is overwhelming." Novices typically face a steep learning curve when it comes to managing the work flow that rolls in from higher-ups. "You have no idea when the work is going to hit. It just kind of falls on your desk sometimes," said Klein.

The Hiring Picture

Employers actively recruit entry-level candidates from college campuses, and recruiters often start calling after professionals have a year or two on the job. McCullough, for example, was hired by Deloitte on-campus recruiters and found his current job at Grassi through a recruiter. Job hunters may surf association job boards, such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the National Association of Tax Professionals.

At more senior levels, job opportunities most often are found through networking. They may also be brokered through recruiters for firms looking for a partner or a book of business from a seasoned professional, according to David Bell, a regional vice president in Minneapolis for staffing firm the Mergis Group, a division of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based staffing and recruitment firm Spherion Corp. If a tax accountant has his own firm, said Bell, "the only reason he's going to merge with another firm is to get more equity or make a lot of money."

Write to Laura Lorber

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