Public Accountant - Kelsey

"...We are writing a story of what happened to the company that year, so that someone could come in and see it clearly for themselves..."

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Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do?

I am from Charlotte, NC, and an associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which is a public accounting firm. I am a certified public accountant working as an auditor in the insurance practice.

HOw would you describe your job?

  The big picture at each client site includes the same basic premise: how do you make money, how are you spending your money, and what obligations will you have in the future to spend money? We are accounting for risk. Each client does that differently, whether it be a focus on environmental issues or negotiations with customers. For example, a coal mining company may analyze a financial reserve for people injured in mines. There are different risks for each client that we account for.

I work with about 6-7 clients throughout the year. I have worked with chemical companies, companies that make waste equipment, recycling companies, a yarn manufacturer, and a coal mining company. My clients come from a wide range of industries, producing a variety of products. I mostly work with the accounting department at each of the companies.

We usually have an intern, 1-2 associates (first 3 years at firm), and a senior associate that leads the team. A team will have a manager who has a client relationship at a higher level and comes about twice a week, whereas a partner in the firm may visit to the site only a handful of times. As an associate, I work with the employees that process information within the accounting department, whereas a manager would deal with the CFO of the company we are working with.

 WHAT DOES YOUR TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?

Everyday is really different. Some days, I take the light-rail uptown and work out of our office on the 42nd floor of the building. But most days, I am working at the client's headquarters. The client could be in Tennessee, Georgia, or here in North Carolina.

Typically, we work in a conference room, and I spend time sitting at my laptop going through spreadsheets, however, a lot of my time is spent talking with the client and getting to know the business. I ask questions. What they do, and why do they do it? We look at certified financial statements that they have prepared, we do tests based on statistics, and we ask the client to look at revenue transactions. We review initial agreements with customers, invoices, and finally, payments. We do this on a lot of different levels.

I am working alongside employees that mostly process invoices, but will communicate with a controller, VP of finance, or CFO. It is a great opportunity, at 25 years old, to be working with people who have been doing their job for a long time and are much older. This can also be challenging, because to the client's employees, I may look fresh out of college and inexperienced, even though an associate is well qualified and can carry the responsibility. 

What aspects of your job do you like/dislike?

I both like and dislike the travel. I feel like a nomad - I carry a bag with me that holds everything I need. Sometimes, a conference room at the client site could be cold or too hot or has no windows. Sometimes you don't have much control over your work environment, and it may not be as comfortable as you would like. At the same time, I would be restless if I had to sit at the same desk in the same office, everyday. I really like the variety of working with teams everyday because I am always learning a new perspective on things. Sometimes it is hard to leave a team after months of working 80 hour weeks for 3 weeks straight. But, then I am thankful we are no longer working those hours. You do develop relationships with the clients and talking with employees about their life is really interesting. You are always meeting someone new, which I love.

The hours can be tough. My work schedule is similar to a school year calendar. After July, we work on planning for year-end audits. We do a lot of inquiry and gain an understanding of the client. We start testing in the fall, and by January 1, we start year-end audits of all the clients we have. This happens through March. In the fall, I get in at 8:30 am and leave around 6:30. January is our "on-season" so I get in at 8:00 am and leave around 11:00 pm, while on the weekends I leave at 7:00pm instead of 11:00pm.  We will get our work done Monday-Thursday and take Fridays off in the summer for my specific group within the firm.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do?/ Why did you want to pursue this career?

As an undergrad at UNC - Chapel Hill,  I did a case competition (a corporate-sponsored contest where students compete to solve real-world business problems) my sophomore year that helped me gain exposure to the business world. At first, I was more interested in consulting than accounting. I knew I wanted to do something in business and looked at a lot of types of jobs and realized I liked the opportunities public accounting gave me. I liked the idea of working for a big company and having the resources of a big company. Turns out that I was attracted to consulting for the same reasons: opportunities to travel and helping people on a variety of projects. Consulting is a really different culture than accounting, however. I received an internship offer from PwC my junior year.

I got another internship to follow my senior year and then received a full-time offer. I feel like I chose the specific company before I chose accounting. I saw it as a learning opportunity because I could go into work and learn so much about something new everyday. I liked the idea that I would be able to see the operations side of things and that it wasn't a finance job that focused only on numbers. There is certainly a human and operations element to my job and a lot of interaction with people. As an undergradate at UNC - Chapel Hill I saw a lot of public accountants that were years ahead and having time for families. It was a lifestyle choice, too, that I was pursuing.

How many years of schooling/what program did you go to?

After I got accepted and completed my undergraduate business degree program, I applied for and completed the MAC (Master of Accounting) program at UNC. Most programs are set up to do a Master's program. In order to get your CPA (Certified Public Accountant) you need 150 hours; 30 of which are accounting. So even if you had 30 hours from an undergrad degree, most people do not have 150 credit hours to qualify.

Some public accountants have an accounting undergrad AND a Masters degree in accounting. Having a business degree, however, gave me a better understanding of how the company works. I gained the accounting skills through the MAC program and studying for CPA exam. Some MAC programs don't require a specific background. In the MAC program at UNC - Chapel Hill, I took general audit and tax classes, but also soft skills classes like leadership courses.

I graduated with 150 hours and then needed to pass all four parts of the CPA exam. To study for the exam, I watched lectures on DVDs and completed practice questions with textbooks. I received a bonus in addition to my salary for having my CPA and my study materials were paid for, which cost up to $5,000

 

What is the biggest misconception people have about what you do?

Most people, especially business people, think we are nerds that sit at our computer and crunch numbers all day, which to a certain extent I do, but there is so much more! As accountants, we are writing the story of what happened to the company that year so that someone could come in and see it clearly for themselves. We are seeing so many aspects of the company. Being audited by a public accountant is a necessary evil because a company needs to track what they are doing correctly and be able to communicate that clearly. I am an external auditor and no one enjoys being told what they are doing wrong. They may think they work so hard... just to have us find something wrong. I realize that we may seem like the police, but it's necessary.

People often say, 'You are really busy during tax season, can you help me with my taxes?' or 'There is this line on my taxes...." The biggest misconception is that since we have a busy season, coincidentally during tax season, I do taxes, but I hardly do anything with taxes! I do not fill out tax returns. An accountant is a very vague term, similar to being a doctor. It can mean a lot of different things when it comes to what you actually do. If someone asks me about their personal taxes, the only advice I can give them is Turbo Tax, because that's what I use!

What is the work/family/life balance like?

It is certainly hard to fit 60 hours into the week without working on the weekend. But, there are trade offs to a heavier work schedule in that you get almost a month in vacation. I think historically the work/life balance had been tough in public accounting. There are still more men than women, but there are more female accountants in the industry than there once was. Women wanting to have families, in my opinion, may have brought a slight change to the culture. There is much more awareness about the balance of the two now. I am aware of some women who have a reduced work schedule. They are able to work 20 hours per week in the summer to be with children and 60 hrs per week in the busy season.

In my office, we now have initiatives like a fitness challenge at work where employees can gain 'points' for working out and eating healthy. In my specific group we have opportunities to volunteer for a literacy program in the local school district. I have been a part of a number of local partnerships. These initiatives encourage employees towards a healthier balance between work and life. 

What is the salary/benefits like at the entry-level/higher-level?

The salary range is between $50k-55k as a first and second year associate. My firm offers contribution bonuses which vary according to performance based reviews. Typically, there is a pay raise every year with the company. Senior Associates could make between $60k - $70k after working for 3-4 years.

On another note, all of my travel expenses are covered, including transportation, hotel, and food costs when I'm with the client. I have great health care coverage that includes vision and dental, and I am a part of the company wellness programs that allows for extra gift cards to local retailers based on personal points. It may seem small, but that is how I got things for free, like my Nike running shoes!

What would you tell someone who wanted to pursue your career?

First, if you are interested in general accounting, I highly recommend public accounting. When I was going through the recruiting process, partners at the firm told me to think of it like taking the elevator over the stairs. The path forward within a company's accounting department (vs. public accounting) would take so much longer. In public accounting, it is like taking the elevator because you are exposed to so many different industries. Rather than spending all of your time processing, a public accountant is looking at financial statements and operations, similar to what a CFO would do. The hours are tough and that is what scares people, but there is a great opportunity for moving up and forward later.

There is a formal recruiting process for public accounting. It is unique in that every fall they are going to be recruiting for next years' associate class. They always need associates out of college. For instance, in  2012 when the economy was tough and many graduates weren't being offered jobs right away, accounting firms were still hiring people. They come to universities and do recruiting programs early on like case competitions for freshmen and sophomores and leadership conferences for Juniors. The recruiting process starts much early than your senior year in undergraduate school. 

Lastly, I am very happy in what I do because of the group I work in. Statistically, there is high turnover in public accounting. When you are meeting new associates as a recruit, chances are they won’t be there when you start at the firm. I would advise a graduate to look towards the managers and partners that have your shared values since the people you work with matter. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a group that has remained with the company and has little turnover.

What are your long term goals with your career/job?

There are a ton of opportunities at a big firm like PwC, and a different rotation or another role within the firm would be attractive. In the future when I have children, I would like to work less and be able to have a reduced schedule to make both work and family possible. I think this is a possibility at PwC, which is a great incentive to stay.