Public Accounting vs. Industry—Training

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

Training most often comes in two forms: classroom-type, theoretical training and on-the-job application of principles. Public accounting firms excel at classroom theoretical learning. When a new campus hire starts his or her first job in public accounting, a full month is set aside just for classroom trainings. CPAs are required to obtain at least 40 hours of classroom training—more commonly referred to as continuing professional education (CPE)—per year. In a typical year working in public accounting, I accumulated between 80 and 100 hours of CPE, sometimes more. Many courses were highly technical, but many other courses focused on soft skills, marketing, and selling.

Industry is quite different in this regard. It takes a lot of effort to locate 40 hours of CPE in a year and find time to sit through the courses. Because I have more control over the classes I take, I choose courses that are directly relevant to my field and that are often highly technical in nature. CPE courses are offered by public accounting firms for clients, by industry groups with paid memberships that have CPE for an additional fee, and similarly through state accounting societies, such as NCACPA.

First- and second-year associates experience the largest differences in classroom-type training between public accounting and industry. Because industry accounting departments put a much lower focus on theoretical training, the department budget generally does not include room for entry-level staffers to purchase and attend tailored off-site CPE. Some CPE is available from public accounting firms that provide in-house presentations for clients. CPE can also be available through a quarterly legislative update series—again—provided by public accounting firms for clients. Any CPE hours still needed are obtained through state societies. Because much of the CPE available is whatever can be found for free, there is a lack of directly relevant classroom training available.

The second type of training—and what I believe is really the more beneficial type of training, especially in a professional’s early years—is on-the-job training. In public accounting there is so much work to be done that first-years are often discouraged from spending too much time researching positions or coming up with their own thought processes for anything that can be relied on same as last year (SALY). This sets many people up for an ironic turn of events later in their career when they are told to never take SALY and always think through and understand positions before signing off on a deliverable. Industry does a better job of sparking intelligent thought into deliverables prepared by professionals early in their career by introducing more responsibility and smaller workloads. Nothing beats reading an actual tax return or a set of financial statements like it’s the best novel you just couldn’t put down and then asking questions to team members and researching the technical authority to find and understand answers.

Classroom training is certainly beneficial and it is important to get other people’s perspectives on accounting pronouncements and regulatory changes, but each accounting professional needs the skill set of being able to read a pronouncement and apply his or her own thought process and conclusion on how it applies to actual work. I see immense value in on-the-job training to supplement CPE in both public accounting and industry careers.

Stay tuned for next week’s post when I cover development of business acumen!


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.