Accountants typically work in one of five areas: public accounting, corporate accounting, government accounting, nonprofit accounting, or teaching. Many accountants work in more than one sector during their careers.
There are more than 95,000 accounting firms in the United States. The term accounting firm is somewhat misleading. Traditional accounting organizations now provide a number of services beyond their traditional audit and tax functions. Today, the Big Four and the larger second-tier organizations often refer to themselves as "professional services firms."
There are approximately 46,000 public accounting firms in the United States, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Core services provided by public accounting firms include accounting, audit, assurance, tax, and advisory/consulting services (although accounting firms are increasingly under pressure to divorce their management consulting services from their accounting services because of the potential for conflicts of interest).
The four largest accounting firms are known as the "Big Four" and are well known throughout the world. The firms are Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC. The Big Four have offices throughout the United States, as well as in many other countries. They have a reputation for offering high pay, generous benefits packages, strong continuing education programs, and flexible work programs that help employees attain good work/life balance.
In addition to the Big Four, there are tens of thousands of other accounting firms ranging from small proprietorships to large international partnerships. The difference between these firms and the Big Four is size, often measured in terms of billings. The Big Four each had worldwide billings of approximately $29 to more than $46 billion a year in 2019, according to Statista.com.
In the past regional accounting firms represented clients that did most of their business within the United States, but today, cloud computing and other technological advances are allowing them to also work with international clients. The largest regional firms can be thought of as somewhat smaller versions of the Big Four. And as the category name suggests, these practices tend to be stronger in certain regions. If you’re considering working for a regional public accounting firm, be sure to research the quality of the firm’s practice in your area. Accounting Today (https://www.accountingtoday.com) publishes an annual list of the top 100 firms by revenue, including lists of top firms by region. Plante Moran, for example, was the largest firm (by revenue) in the Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) in 2019, followed by Wipfli; Sikich; and Rehmann. In the Southeast region (Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), Dixon Hughes Goodman; Cherry Bekaert; Elliott Davis; and LBMC were the revenue leaders. In the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota), BKD, Eide Bailly, RubinBrown, and Honkamp Krueger and Co. led the pack. Firms also specialize in various professional services such as tax accounting. For example, PwC is a leading tax accountancy firm. H&R Block and Ernst & Young rank second and third, respectively.
Local public accounting firms operate in a small number of cities and tend to focus on small businesses and individuals. These organizations conduct more tax and tax planning engagements and traditionally handle bookkeeping responsibilities for their clients. Many of these firms are started by entrepreneurial-minded accountants who want to be their own bosses. An increasing number of firms are offering cloud-based accounting services to their clients. According to the AICPA, "Some 11 percent of CPA firms already operate completely in the cloud…and another third use professional-grade cloud solutions—such as bill management, accounting, or payroll applications—in some parts of their practice." Some accountants are also using technology to work as "virtual chief financial officers" for their clients, providing financial assistance from a remote site.
Accountants can also work for public or private companies. Large companies—especially Fortune 500 firms—may have their own accounting departments. These departments prepare financial information (both tax and audit) for public accountants, track company performance for internal evaluation, and work with management on issues related to acquisitions, international transactions, and any other operational issues. Many medium- and smaller-sized businesses have one or more accountants on staff.
Government accountants can work at the federal, state, or local level. Many government organizations have large accounting departments to analyze the performance and allocation of their funds. The Department of Defense, the Government Accountability Office, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) typically hire large numbers of accountants for services and evaluations within the organization. Accountants at the IRS typically review individual and corporate tax returns and offer guidance when new laws (such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act) are passed. The SEC hires experienced accountants to evaluate filings made by public companies to ensure that the companies are complying with SEC regulations. In addition to these agencies, accountants can find great jobs in many other government agencies. At the federal level, for example, accountants can work for the FBI, the CIA, NASA, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture, to name just a few.
Nonprofit organizations are found throughout the country and the world, and they have a strong need for accounting professionals. Accounting for nonprofits is very similar to for-profit accounting; they both follow generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and increasingly International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). In addition to understanding GAAP and IFRS, nonprofit accountants must understand the Financial Accounting Standards Board standards written specifically for these organizations as well as the tax regulations specific to those organizations. (For example, nonprofit organizations are typically exempt from federal taxation.) The accounting departments in these organizations are typically smaller than those in for-profit companies, so an employee may be responsible for more than one area of accounting (e.g., both financial statements and tax issues).
There are many opportunities for those with accounting backgrounds to teach at the high school and college levels. Academic institutions that offer degrees in accounting or related fields are located throughout the country. Job opportunities are good because there is currently a shortage of Ph.D.-level faculty in college business and accounting departments. The shortage is so acute that some top schools are even hiring those with only master’s degrees in accounting and a lot of work experience. To encourage more people to become teachers, the AICPA recently launched the $10,000 William (Bill) Ezzell Scholarship to provide financial assistance to CPAs who are pursuing their Ph.Ds.