Accountants: How to Get Ahead Without Becoming a CPA

The road to becoming a Certified Public Accountant isn’t an easy one.

It requires time, money — more than $3,000 on average, depending on your state — and commitment. With four separate test sections, each with pass rates around 50%, chances are you’ll need to take some of the exams more than once. And while there’s no arguing that the certification has value, the work/life balance for CPAs may not be for everyone.

          There's a balance between experience and education.

The good news is that demand for accountants who aren’t CPAs is strong. If current economic conditions have put your CPA plans on hold, or if you’re not yet sure that the CPA path is right for you, you’ve got short and long-term options.

We spoke with Aston Carter’s Kellyn Campman, a senior technical recruiter who specializes in placing business and finance professionals, to learn more. 

The job outlook for non-CPA accountants

In Campman’s experience, the demand for accountants without the CPA is actually stronger than it is for CPAs.

“It's rare to have a client who only wants someone with a CPA,” says Campman, “and that’s true across all industries.”

The healthcare, consumer products and financial services industries are the top market drivers. Roles that don’t require the CPA include:

  • Staff accountant
  • Accounts payable (AP) specialist
  • Accounts Receivable (AR) specialist
  • Senior accountant

Experience and performance matter

For hiring managers, there’s a balance between experience and education.

“You can move into an accounts payable/accounts receivable specialist role without a degree,” says Campman. “Once you get into the staff accountant or senior accountant level, degrees do become more important.”

Where you want to work can also influence the requirements you’ll need.

“If your goal is to be at the staff accountant/senior accountant level with a large corporation and you don’t have a CPA, hiring managers will focus on your education and previous experience,” says Campman. “For those more advanced roles, a degree in accounting or finance is often preferred.”

But a proven track record can outweigh even the CPA credential.

“I've seen senior accountants without CPAs who have 10 years of experience move into accounting manager and controller level roles,” says Campman. “Sometimes that person receives a higher salary than a CPA in the same position who only has a few years of experience.”

Get ahead without becoming a CPA

For accountants who prefer the non-CPA path, contract work is a way to gain experience across a range of roles and sectors.

“One major advantage of contract work is opportunity,” says Campman. “Contractors can get experience across industries and in different sized companies. Some industries such as healthcare or energy require specific software and enterprise resource planning (ERP) knowledge, but general accounting skills are transferable across most industries.”

With contracts ranging from two weeks for month-end work to contract-to-hire positions, accountants can gain experience faster than CPAs who prefer more permanent placements. Opportunities extend to all career levels.

“We work with high-level accounting and finance folks who have grown in the profession without the CPA,” says Campman. “They top off their career with consulting work.”

Do your homework

Campman advises accountants who have delayed or paused their CPA education to research the field. Talk to hiring managers about what software and ERP systems are in demand. Use a contract position where you work under a CPA to test the professional and personal fit.

“There’s just so much opportunity out there,” says Campman. “Explore what’s available, get some experience and do research on the front end. Avoid a situation where you don’t use the CPA that you took the time and the money to obtain.”

Whether you chose to go for the CPA or not, you’ll still have solid options, he notes. “Whether the economy is up, down or sideways, everyone will always need a good accountant.”