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Oct 12, 2016

The Five-Year (Sw)Itch

Alyzabeth Smith, CPABy Alyzabeth R. Smith, CPA | Wipfli LLP


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average employee will stay with one employer for less than five years. With the newest inductees to the workforce only staying for half of that time, sweat stains might start showing up on the polo shirts of hiring managers. Part of the reason for this, at least in accounting, is because bright, perceptive, and hardworking new workers want nothing to do with dream-oppressing overtime. When asked about his work schedule, one young employee volunteered that he had done the math and found that he “can only work so much [given his salary] or his hourly wage goes down significantly.”

Among CPAs, switching jobs isn’t the only lane to travel to achieve success. CPAs can also get off the highway and switch career paths: from public practice to private industry, or vice versa.

Moving Between Public Accounting and Private Industry

Proponents of private industry jobs may contend that the name-brand credibility and varied experience one gets in public accounting don’t make up for fewer bonus opportunities and a lack of comp time. Public accounting advocates may claim that a wide variety of work rescues thrill-seeking accountants from the doldrums of 40 predictable hours of work per week.

Both thrill seekers and profit-seekers sit on key tools that can help smooth a transition from one area of accounting to another. While working in public accounting, your bird’s eye view of the inner workings of various industries can help you identify a private sector of interest or specific niche to develop. Hiring managers aggressively recruit members in public practice due to the presumption of multifaceted business exposure. Clients who have benefited from your expertise over the years also may be looking to move from a weekly courting dynamic to a live-in arrangement.

On the other hand, preparing to move into the public accounting environment from industry means sharpening technical skills and identifying an area of expertise to sell to firms. Public accounting firms often have specialists who represent the firm in certain areas. Private industry employees may have already honed an area of expertise that could fill a gap at a public accounting firm. Offering a solution to an outstanding business need is a key advantage for subject matter experts working in private industry and looking to make the switch.

Recruiters can be a good place to start a quiet search for new employment as they have a personal interest in preserving the privacy of your search. That said, anytime an outside party has a financial interest in your placement, you should have a clear understanding of your own career goals before approaching them. Think of it like you were buying a car. Would you want to show up to a dealer with no idea what you want or how much you are willing to spend? A clear understanding of your expectations helps ensure that your mutual objectives are aligned in your recruiter’s mind as he or she is advocating for you.

Get Ready to Shake Off Some Dust

In some organizations, higher-level employees may be removed from daily tasks in order to focus on relationship-building aspects of the business. An estrangement from grunt work may suddenly become visible during an employment shift between public and private accounting. A new job may mean new responsibilities for monitoring technical tasks, processing methods, and blowing dust off of old software skill sets. Starting a new job can be frustrating, but being open-minded and trainable helps.

Equally important are adapting to new people, culture, daily schedules, and new paces of work.

An Ounce of Reinvention ...

Maybe after the switching back and forth between public and private, you decide to set up your own shop. The salary allure might have seemed great, until you divided it by your hours and then realized that you are only making $5 per hour. Providing a specialty service, particularly in a consulting role, can allow you to reinvent yourself as a niche specialist. However, with the free-flying comfort of self-governance comes the adoption of all staff and administrative tasks that you may have previously been accustomed to delegating. Then there’s that pesky task of building a client base.

On the upside, if you decide that manning your own ship isn’t for you, a return to the structured comfort of public accounting or the private sector is an option. If things don’t work out on the first switch, don’t fret. CPAs are like cats: they get nine lives. And if statistics are any clue, you will have many more work lives left.


Alyzabeth R. Smith, CPA, is a staff accountant with Wipfli LLP CPAs and Consultants in Media. She can be reached at alyzabeth_smith@msn.com.

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