Can You Be an Accountant Without a CPA?

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I had an interesting conversation with the other day with the guy who is in charge of talent acquisition for an extremely successful company about hiring accountants.

We were talking about different industries with legal barriers to entry (obvious examples being law and medicine) and we got to accounting. I’ve met a few young high school grads who hate the idea of rotting away in school, but feel they need to in order to get their CPAs if they ever want to be taken seriously doing accounting in any industry.

“Actually, we consider a CPA to be a red flag. We prefer to hire people with accounting skills who don’t have CPAs.”

Surprised, I asked how they’d know that the person can do accounting.

“They’ll show us. They’ll have a track record. It’s pretty easy to check these things with the Internet and with something like LinkedIn.

A CPA tells us that that person is interested in just following rules and counting beans. Sure — it also (hypothetically) shows us that you are capable of doing basic accounting work, but a cursory look at your work history, a phone call, and a look at your profile with LinkedIn Recruiter should also be able to tell us that.

Add to the mix that the people who are attracted to completing CPAs usually aren’t the personality types who are good fits at our company, it just makes more sense for us to go for the guys who know their stuff and are so excited about doing their work that they just go and do it instead.”

This isn’t just some guy at a techy company defining itself by “disrupting” the next industry talking to me, keep in mind. The company he represents is a world leader in their industry and handles literally tons of products every day.

Most young people who want to pursue traditionally-entrenched jobs like accounting and engineering think they have to go to school to acquire the skills and credentials to pursue those jobs. With accounting, being a personal accountant is pretty much impossible without a CPA, and most accounting jobs are either extensions of being a CPA or being a CPA is how you get to them.

But think about what the credential signals. It tells employers to trust the system that you have gone through to imbue you with the skills necessary to succeed at the jobs for which they are hiring. They better do so, too, or else they will have to train you themselves. They view it as a way to find minimally viable candidates.

The problem is that this ends up confusing process and substance. Just because somebody has gone through a few classes and passed a cursory exam does not mean that they are actually qualified to be doing that job. Ideally they will be tried during this time and prove themselves worthy, but they may also just game the system.

What some employers have discovered (like the one above) is that it really isn’t that hard to check on whether or not somebody knows their stuff. A look at a LinkedIn profile, a quick Google search, and a call to some former employers does just as much (if not more) than looking at a resume and a credential alone.

As more people go through credentialing systems like non-and-for-profit universities, the trust wrapped up in the credential is getting weaker for employers. They’re being forced to look for more trustworthy signals outside of these institutions.


This is a great resource for learning accounting for free, recommended to me by an accountant-entrepreneur friend.

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