Home Online Business Blog Public vs. Private Accounting: Career Paths, Skills Required and Industry Outlook

Public vs. Private Accounting: Career Paths, Skills Required and Industry Outlook

28 Mar
Businessman sitting at workplace desk near laptop thinking about a decision

In today’s business world, accountants need to know more than their way around spreadsheets and financial statements. With fast-growing jobs such as forensic accounting, there is a growing need for talent with the right mix of accounting expertise, finance knowledge and tech skills.1,2 With a talent shortage in the accounting industry, this can be a tall order. Employers are making big changes to attract and retain high-quality candidates, especially those with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Increasing salaries and offering perks such as work-from-anywhere are just two examples.1 That’s good news if you’re interested in advancing your accounting career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts 6% growth for accountants and auditors from 2021 to 2031—that translates to 136,400 openings each year.3

If you’re looking to break into the accounting industry, or to advance your career in accounting, you will want to understand the differences between public and private accounting to better understand your career options. This post explores key differences between public and private accounting, competencies and career paths for each and industry trends.

Introduction to Public and Private Accounting

If you aim to make your mark in accounting, you have two distinct career paths: public and private accounting. Public and private accounting both require extensive knowledge of relevant laws and regulations, strong organizational skills and a high math aptitude. 4

Public accounting refers to a field of accounting in which firms provide a wide range of accounting, auditing, tax and consulting services to their clients. These clients can vary widely, including individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies. Public accounting firms range from small, local operations to large, global organizations.

Private accounting, also known as industry accounting, refers to the practice of accounting within an individual company or organization, rather than providing services to external clients as seen in public accounting. Private accountants work at non-accounting companies of all sizes in various industries, from small startups to multinational corporations, and they handle the internal financial matters of these organizations.

Whether you choose public or private accounting, each career path comes with unique benefits and challenges. So, how do you decide which one is right for you? Make a list of your goals and priorities and take time to understand the differences of each path. Then, determine which one fits your professional goals, personal preferences, and desired work-life balance.

Career Paths in Public Accounting

Public accountants operate at the forefront of financial services. With more than 46,000 public accounting firms in the U.S., there are plenty of opportunities from which to choose. 5 For example, you will get to engage with diverse clients ranging from individuals to government entities. If your clients are spread out geographically, your role might also involve travel.

Through exposure to various industries and regulatory frameworks, you can quickly acquire new expertise and increase your marketability. But you need to be prepared for the fast-paced nature of public accounting, especially during tax season. That translates into challenges, such as demanding deadlines and high client expectations. 5 On the other hand, the potential for career progression is significant, with many individuals moving from entry-level positions to senior roles in their firms after six years.5 Others decide to take their public accounting experience and transition to senior roles in private companies.6

Common job titles include:

  • Auditor
  • Audit Manager
  • Consulting Staff
  • Senior Accountant
  • Tax Manager

Career Paths in Private Accounting

On the flip side, private accountants focus on managing internal financial data and strategies within organizations. This role requires a deep understanding of the industry and business operations, enabling accountants to contribute strategically to the company’s financial success.

While private accounting offers stability and the chance to build long-term relationships within a company, there is limited exposure to diverse clients and fewer networking opportunities. The career trajectory in private accounting typically progresses from staff accountants to managerial positions, offering a steady climb up the corporate ladder.

Common job titles include:

  • Controller
  • Information and Technology Accountant
  • Financial Analyst
  • Managerial Accountant

Skills Required for Public Accounting

Many professionals like senior accountant Brent Gantt find public accounting rewarding because of the opportunities to help people, especially during natural disasters and other crises. Such situations require you to handle high stress levels and venture outside your comfort zone.

During the pandemic, he was working in the state of Alabama Comptroller’s office in Montgomery and was tasked with the responsibility of administering coronavirus relief funds.7 To ensure grants were appropriately distributed, he collaborated with diverse stakeholders—ranging from state senators to town clerks.7 His tech skills were also tested as the grant administration process required a software-based system.7 By meeting these challenges, public accountants like Gantt can quickly enhance their analytical, communication and problem-solving and tech skills.

Required competencies:4.

  • Deep understanding of applicable laws and regulations
  • Cross-functional and external collaboration
  • Specialized knowledge in areas such as auditing and tax preparation
  • Meeting professional standards set by organizations, such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
  • Ability to create financial reports based on generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) or International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)6

Skills Required for Private Accountants

You might aspire to work at one of the global accounting firms. Landing a position with Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC means you will interact with high-profile clients but might need to leave your initiative and creativity at the door. Because there is such a strong focus on billable hours and processes, your ability to make an impact may be more constrained.8 Small accounting firms offer an alternative for both a newly minted accountant and a seasoned certified public accountant (CPA). You still get to work with diverse clients. However, with specialized knowledge, you could have opportunities to make a significant impact on your organization and the profession.8

Required competencies:4

  • Strong communication and problem-solving skills
  • Solid grasp of financial concepts and principles
  • Advanced accounting software knowledge
  • Superior organizational and time-management skills
  • Specialized knowledge or certifications, such as Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) or Certified Financial Analyst (CFA).6

Industry Outlook and Job Demand

With the digital business world becoming increasingly competitive and complex, there is a need for CPAs to become trusted and strategic advisors in the work environment, according to the Illinois CPA Society. 2

Understanding the current trends in job duties and demands in the public and private sectors is crucial for prospective accountants. Job demand and salary expectations vary, but both sectors are experiencing the impact of technology through automation and digital transformation and pressures to adapt accordingly.2

In response to these changes, accountants must acquire new knowledge to stay competitive in the job market. Here is what you need to know about the latest industry developments:

Public Accounting Trends

Automation, expansion of advisory services, and cybersecurity and data privacy continue to be in high demand, which means increased opportunities to specialize. Trends that impact public accounting include:2

  • Diversifying firm services beyond traditional auditing and tax consulting to include comprehensive advising
  • Gaining specialized expertise to develop data protection strategies to protect client assets and ensure compliance with evolving data privacy regulations
  • Using advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to automate mundane tasks and allow accountants to spend more time with clients

Private Accounting Trends

Increasingly, private accountants are assuming the role of strategic business partners within their organizations. That shift requires you to have expertise in strategic financial planning, cross-functional collaboration and technology integration.

Trends that impact private accounting include::2

  • Fostering sustainable business growth through strategic financial planning and analysis
  • Collaborating beyond finance to gain a holistic understanding of the business and contribute to its organizational success
  • Leveraging technology to increase the accuracy of reporting and derive actionable insights from large datasets to develop better financial strategies

Unlock Career Advancement Opportunities in Accounting

Both public and private accountants are needed in today’s business landscape. Find your place in the accounting profession with William & Mary’s Online Master of Accounting (MAcc) program. With its robust curriculum, this program shapes you into a decision-maker with influence. Our innovative scholars and experts have deep experience teaching students to assess a company’s processes and think critically to solve problems. They teach you how to see beyond the numbers to glean insights from data and make informed business decisions.

This online program empowers you to complete your coursework, interact with faculty and fellow accounting students and connect with a strong alumni community—all in a way that seamlessly integrates with your life and schedule. Whether your ambitions lie in public or corporate accounting, you could be prepared to sit for the CPA exam and advance your career in as few as 16 months. More importantly, though, you will learn to become the accountant and leader you are meant to be.

Don’t wait to start moving up. Schedule a call with one of our admissions outreach advisors today.