Accountants have been struggling with the decision for decades. Do you look to find work at one of the Big Four powerhouses – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Deloitte – or settle into a job in the private industry, providing tax or auditing support in a different sector?
Those who’ve sampled both offer conflicting advice. Truth be told, each road provides a host of benefits and a handful of drawbacks, depending on what you’re looking for in an employer. To get a better idea of the differences between working as an accountant in the public and private sectors, we reached out to Jane Durant, a CPA and partner at WinterWyman Search.
The Lure of the Big Four
Training: “The training at the Big Four is second to none,” said Durant. Not just in terms of polishing rudimentary tax and auditing skills, but also developing an in-depth knowledge of a particular niche. Whether it’s working with hospitals, mutual funds or other industry-specific firms, the Big Four provide both a foundation and specialization that can come in handy when eyeing career progression.
Special Colleagues: “If you work at the Big Four, you’re surrounded by incredibly smart people,” said Durant, who cut her teeth early in her career with a large public accounting firm. “If you’re a slacker, you’re gone.”
Money: “Salaries at the Big Four are very good,” said Durant, “although they’re not as strong at the low- and mid-level considering the hours that you’ll work.” Senior managers and partners can make several hundred thousand dollars a year, however.
Prestige: “Everyone knows the Big Four,” said Durant. “There’s an element of status.” Indeed this is true. Vault.com recently conducted a survey in which it asked accountants to rank the level of prestige associated with firms other than their own. It was left up to respondents to interpret what prestige meant to them. The Big Four held the top four spots, and the voting wasn’t all that close.
Exposure: Not just market exposure, but people exposure. “It’s about the connections you make,” said Durant. “You’ll work with bankers – people who end up on boards of companies.”
The Lure of the Private Industry
Quality of Life: The hours aren’t near as consuming in the private sector, said Durant. “While you will still be managing month-end, quarter-end and year-end work, the hours are nothing like what you’d experience while working for a Big Four firm,” she said. “If you have interests outside of work, are thinking of starting a family, or just want more time away from the office, the private sector may be of interest."
The data corroborates the story. In the same Vault.com survey, only one of the Big Four – PricewaterhouseCoopers – ranked in the top 20 accounting firms in terms of work/life balance, and PwC barely made the list.
More Options: While the Big Four often offer specialization, working outside of a big accounting firm, well, gets you out of a big accounting firm. “There are a wide range of industry opportunities,” Durant said. “Cutting edge bio/pharma companies, explosive growth technology companies, worldwide medical device manufacturers, top retailers – all of these industries are targeting professionals from Big Four firms. Whatever your area of specialty, you can review a range of job descriptions in the industries that interest you.”
They Want You, Bad: Accounting and finance positions were ranked by employers as some of the hardest to fill in any industry, according to a new survey from Manpower Group. They’ve been amongst the top 10 hardest to fill positions for the past three years. “Finance departments desperately want and need what you have to offer,” Durant said. “Private companies are hungry to hire audit professionals with experience ranging from one to two years to ten plus.”
The Money Isn’t That Bad: “The compensation may be better than you think,” Durant said. “You do not necessarily have to take a step back in compensation when you make the move from public to private accounting.”
You Won’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: If you work at the Big Four, you likely partner with many different clients. It’s better for exposure, but can limit your expertise. “Going to private industry, you will be responsible for one company in one industry,” Durant said. “You’ll know where you are going every day, you’ll be deeply involved in the industry and you’ll know your business inside and out.”