Accountants, CPAs and CMAs

As long as people need to know how to keep records of purchases and expenditures, accountants, CPAs (Certified Public Accountants), and CMAs (Certified Management Accountants) will be in demand. CPAs can work in a variety of fields, including auditing, business management, payroll, taxes, and information technology. CMAs often perform different functions from CPAs, such as financial planning, analysis, and support, and their licensing is more centralized. Whereas CPAs are licensed and certified by the state, CMAs are certified by the Institute of Management Accountants.

In my experience, certification has opened a lot more doors. It’s given me more flexibility and more options.

Mike RamosDirector of Continuing Professional Education for AICPA

In order to become a CPA, you will need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited institution, but because of the relatively new 150-hour rule, a traditional 120-hour bachelor's degree program will not be enough to satisfy the certification requirements. The 150-hour rule, applicable in more than 80% of states, requires CPA candidates to earn 150 hours of education — what those hours must consist of often varies by state. To become a CMA, you will need a bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited university, and you'll need to meet various experience requirements as well. There is nothing keeping you from getting more than one certification or licensure if you haven't decided which accounting field you'd like to pursue, and the further you climb up the business ladder, the more likely it is that you will be expected to hold both major accounting certifications.

Getting CPA Licensure and Certification

In order to legally perform all accounting functions, such as auditing and taxation, you must be certified through your state board. While you can still be an accountant without being certified through the state or through a professional organization, you will not be able to legally perform the same functions as a certified accountant. In addition, as a certified accountant, you may make more money on average and will likely have more credibility than a non-certified accountant.

Mike Ramos, director of continuing professional education for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), said there are many reasons why someone might want to become certified. "In my experience, certification has opened a lot more doors. It's given me more flexibility and more options," he said. "Many accountants are successful in their fields, but certification and the experience that goes along with it signifies a certain level of competence and achievement."

The AICPA recommends that the additional 30 hours needed beyond a traditional 120-hour undergraduate degree be earned at the graduate level with a master’s degree, and states on its website that students who earn a graduate degree in accounting also do better on the Uniform CPA Examination required to become certified than students who do not hold a master’s degree.

For candidates who do not want to or are not able to earn their master’s degrees to meet the 150-hour requirement, Ramos said some firms offer programs for new hires that allow accountants to work for the company and gain experience while taking online courses to complete the full hour requirements before applying to take the CPA exam. After completing the required 150 hours of education, CPA candidates must meet other requirements set by their individual state accounting boards before they're eligible to take the CPA exam.

The licensing and certification process for CMAs is similar to that of a CPA. Though the required two-part exam can be taken while you're in school, in order to become certified, you must graduate with a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution and have two years of accounting experience under your belt, before or after taking the exam. Because you can take the CMA exam while you are still finishing up your degree, it is a great way to show potential employers that you are serious about the field and are committed to furthering yourself through education and certification, said Dennis Whitney, senior vice president of the Institute of Certified Management Accountants.

"It's important that the public know there's a test involved for someone to get the initials after their name," he said. "[Certification is] an objective validation of competency. You can get an accounting degree from any school, but your education might not be great. The CMA exam verifies that you know what you're supposed to know. A professional certification goes beyond the test. It shows a commitment to the profession."

Maintaining CPA Licensure and Certification

To remain a CPA in good standing, you are required to earn CPE, or continuing professional education, every year. Programs must be certified through the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, and can include seminars, lectures, and college courses related to modern accounting, as long as they "maintain or improve professional competence," according to the board's website. A college course counts for 15 hours of continuing education per semester credit hour.

Once you take the exam, you have those skills, but the learning never stops. You need to stay sharp.

Dennis WhitneySenior Vice President of the Institute of Certified Management Accountants

Ramos said continuing education is an integral part of maintaining certification because it can help CPAs understand and adjust to the changes that are constantly taking place in the field, typically in accounting laws, tax codes, and technology. "CPAs see themselves as providing knowledge, not just data, to clients, to allow decision makers to have all the information they need," he said. "To provide that high level of value, you need a high level of competence. We live in a complex and changing world and have to stay on top of the changes."

Because there are many paths CPAs can take and many areas in which they can specialize, continuing education options fit a wide range of focuses and needs. CPAs can take courses that focus on areas such as oil and gas or auditing Fortune 500 companies. CPAs can earn continuing education via conferences or through the Internet.

On the other hand, CMAs are required to participate in 30 hours of CPE every year to maintain their certification, two hours of which must be regarding accounting ethics. "It's really unfortunate, but everyone needs to be reminded of ethics," Whitney said. "It's a very important job. A CMA is the key person protecting investors and helping a company grow through analysis. Once you take the exam, you have those skills, but the learning never stops. You need to stay sharp."

Programs must be certified through the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, and can include seminars, lectures, and college courses, as long as they are related to modern accounting. A college course that is 10 weeks or longer counts for 15 hours of continuing education per semester credit hour. Online courses through community colleges and other schools are becoming increasingly popular because of the convenience the programs provide.

A good thing about continuing education for CMAs, Whitney said, is the flexibility CMAs have within the requirements. Some courses could be indirectly related to accounting, but very specifically related to a CMA's personal career goals. "Most people want to grow and develop in their profession, and they'll want to strengthen their skills in accounting, leadership, management, or business writing," he said. "Those are all very important parts of the job."

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