Public accountant (PA) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) may sound like the same job in essence, but the reality is that the are are some fairly significant differences between the lists of PA and CPA responsibilities. Preparing tax returns and producing compiled financial statements can be done by accountants with either title, but most of the nuanced tasks of accounting can't be done by PAs without certification. By contrast, CPAs can perform a wide range of important duties, which helps the job's salary and career outlook stay generally robust. For aspiring professionals seeking accounting careers with a strong future, becoming a CPA may be a wise choice.
This list of duties is by no means complete, but it is a fair representation the diverse set of tasks that a CPA might perform on any ordinary workday.
1. Financial reporting
Because Certified Public Accountants are typically the go-to personnel for detailed auditing and review of a company's financial records, a large percentage of CPA responsibilities fall under this umbrella. Jerry Love, a CPA/PFS based in Abilene, Texas, emphasized the diversity of tasks that these professionals perform.
"CPAs do a variety of services to assist clients to prepare financial statements," Love says. "Some assist with bookkeeping, others assist by looking over the statements prepared by a compiled service, which offers no assurance on the financial statements."
2. Reviews and audits
Depending on the level of assurance needed for a particular financial statement, a CPA or team of CPAs may be called upon to review or audit the reported information. Review is a less extensive examination process and offers only a moderate level of assurance, but it can be just right for companies with relatively simple finances. Audits are much more methodical and extensive inspections of financial statements, so they can take quite a while and cost quite a bit to outsource, but they also offer the highest level of assurance that a company's statements are complete and accurate.
3. Preparing tax returns
Even though non-certified PAs may also perform this task, the deeper knowledge and more extensive expertise gained through CPA training can give clients an extra measure of confidence that their return is being prepared in the best possible way.
"CPAs are the most trusted advisor," Love says. "CPAs who prepare tax returns spend many hours reviewing tax laws to stay current with changes and help clients pay the appropriate amount of taxes."
4. Ensuring regulatory compliance
Multinational banks and other large companies sometimes have whole departments dedicated to maintaining compliance with governmental regulation guidelines. CPAs may constitute or lead these teams, or, in smaller firms, may undertake the bulk of compliance duties as individuals. "A CPA seeks to assist a client in many aspects of their business, which may include many aspects of not only financial reporting but compliance with other regulations including wage and hour laws, IRS rules and regulations and many state/local rules," Love explains.
5. Creating and overseeing budgets
CPAs in certain organizations assist management with creating budgets, either in a developmental or analytical capacity. A well-trained CPA can help a great deal when budgeting is complex or requires taxation expertise, but the creation of budgets can also be done by financial management personnel and may not be on every company's list of CPA responsibilities.
6. Compensation and benefits consulting
Employee compensation and benefits make up a large percentage of the operating cost of most businesses. CPAs who work in business advisory firms might review a company's existing labor and benefits packages or design new ones from scratch. Contracted CPAs might also analyze executive wage and benefit data to ensure that a company's compensation structure is sorted into as fair a distribution as possible.
7. General financial administration
Occasionally, a CPA may be called upon to perform a wide range of fiscal tasks for an organization. "A CPA may be engaged to be the client's entire back office," says Love, "to open mail, prepare payroll, pay vendors, make deposits and basically be the entire accounting function." CPAs may also be contracted to ensure that a company's back-office administration services have been performed completely and accurately, rather than carrying them out themselves.
Taking the first steps toward a CPA career
There are a few other items on the full list of possible CPA duties, but these are some of the most common. If you're looking into accounting schools, keeping this batch of responsibilities in mind can help you make sure that your chosen curriculum will fit your employment goals once you pass the CPA exam and get out into the workforce.
Jerry Love also advises CPAs to never stop learning. "As you graduate from college," he says, "you have mastered a vocabulary and the concepts to being a process of learning how to apply these concepts. Once you begin your career, there is more to learn as you begin to apply your education."
1. Certified Public Accountant Job Description, America's Job Exchange, http://www.americasjobexchange.com/certified-public-accountant-job-description
2. "What's the difference between a 'Certified Public Accountant' and a 'Public Accountant'?," Colorado Society of Certified Public Accountants, Jan. 3, 2013, https://cocpa.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/whats-the-difference-between-a-certified-public-accountant-and-a-public-accountant/
3. Jerry Love, Certified Public Accountant & Personal Financial Specialist, Interviewed by the author on Nov. 20, 2014
4. "Audits, Reviews, Compilations," Mueller Certified Public Accountants and Business Advisory, http://www.muellercpa.com/services/audit-assurance/audits-reviews-compilations
5. "Compensation and Benefits Consulting," Padgett Stratemann CPA and Business Advisory, http://www.padgett-cpa.com/services/human-resources-consulting/compensation-benefits-consulting
6. Accountants and Auditors, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm