Public Accounting vs. Industry—Personal Marketability

In the Public Accounting vs. Industry blog series, NCACPA member Abby Smith outlines how a career in public accounting is different (or in some cases, not so different) from one in industry when it comes to: work-life balance, technical resources, training, development of business acumen, human capital, control of information, and stress level. Abby offers a balanced perspective, drawing on her experiences in both worlds.

A new post in the series will be added every Tuesday through the end of April.


By: Abby Smith, CPA

My personal marketability is really important to me. I want to continue to develop and sustain skills that are highly sought after whether I’m being considered for a promotion or a job with another company. In public accounting, I always had many opportunities available to me. I knew I was able to easily move as needed to protect my own financial well-being. When I thought about transitioning to industry, I wondered if I would be recruited as heavily. Would my future job opportunities be limited once I stepped out of the limelight?

After a year in industry, my opportunities easily measure greater than before my transition. Many companies look for experienced candidates that have both public accounting and industry experience. There is uncertainty regarding industry novices as to whether they can succeed without the structured metrics and standardized reports presenting revenue managed, accounts receivable turnover, and billable hours available to compare themselves to hundreds of other people in their same position. So, someone coming straight out of public accounting can be considered “green.”

Public accounting has a way of promoting people through the pipeline who can follow in the footsteps of their leaders very well without being big self-starters or outside-the-box thinkers. I’ve seen successful people leave public accounting for a “cherry job”—a boost in compensation for a significant reduction in overall working hours. Yet after a year or even less, they head directly back to public where the client request lists have templates, expectations for communications, resource scheduling, project timelines that are structured and clear, and the familiarity of a billable hours reports showing who worked the most. It’s a more comfortable scenario than using unfamiliar, less structured metrics as value indicators.

Similarly, I’ve seen people who started in an industry position straight out of college and later decided they wanted to experience public accounting. For a novice, there is uncertainty as to whether someone from industry can stand up to the physical and mental demands of public accounting. This being said, there is a similar uncertainty even within public accounting when a professional begins their career in a local or regional firm and decides to transition to Big Four. People hiring a candidate that is transitioning across the Big Four always seem more certain that the candidate will do well.

Surprisingly, in my experience, the professionals that start in industry or a smaller accounting firm and transition to the Big Four do very well, whereas hiring across Big Four is completely hit or miss. The uncertainty seems to all come from the internal dialogue at these large firms and the subliminal messaging that begins in college regarding the best place to start a career. The uncertainty typically results in a push for lower-level positions to test out the candidates first. Fortunately for people moving to public accounting, promotions happen at least annually and public accounting firms are quick to recognize and promote a high quality candidate with the hopes of keeping the professional on board.

Overall, there are not enough accountants in the marketplace, so by getting a CPA license professionals open themselves to many opportunities, especially if they are willing to consider geographic moves or moves across companies. Undeniably, public accounting experience is deeply ingrained in the minds of many professionals as a must-have, although there is plenty of room for industry professionals to move about in the marketplace.

A broad foundation with many types of experiences produces the largest number of opportunities, although not necessarily the most direct promotions or highly compensated positions. People that go straight into public accounting and enter immediately into a specialization are typically promoted faster and therefore receive compensation raises more quickly, but have fewer options if the market turns. The highest level of marketability seems to stand for someone that can prove they can function in all types of environments.

Stay tuned for next week’s post when I conclude this series with a post on stress level!


Abby SmithAbby’s career began in 2005 at a small public accounting firm in North Georgia, where she largely worked with clients in the music and entertainment industry, as well as in real estate. In 2007, Abby joined a regional public accounting firm based in South Carolina, where she focused on pass-through entity taxation for partnerships and subchapter S corporations in the health care, real estate, agricultural, and not-for-profit industries. Abby joined KPMG in 2010 to focus on alternative investments, a melding of pass-through taxation and not-for-profit unrelated business taxation. Since 2014, Abby has worked with TIAA assisting with US tax compliance, structuring objectives for alternative investments, and specifically building out TIAA’s REIT expertise and US tax analysis of financial instruments.