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CPA, CMA, CIA or ACCA – which accounting qualification will get you a job in the U.S.?

Are you a CPA or aren't you?

You want to obtain an accounting qualification that will ultimately get you a job or advance your career at a bank, asset manager, management consultant, Big Four professional services firm or another accounting/audit firm in the U.S. Which one should you go for?

We’ve searched through our candidate database to find resumes from accounting professionals in North America that contain one of the following mainstream accounting designations: Certified Public Accountant (CPA); the Institute of Management Accountants’ Certified Management Accountant (CMA); Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA); Association of Chartered Accountants (ACA); the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants’ Certificate in Business Accounting (CIMA Cert BA); and Certified Internal Auditor (CIA). We’ve worked out the proportion of people holding each one.

The chart below shows which qualifications are the most popular in the U.S.

We also looked at the top job sectors where various credential-holders end up. While the large majority classified their role as “accounting & finance,” the CIA had the highest percentage in consulting, the CMA had the largest representation in asset management, and the ACCA had the largest segment within investment banking/M&A.

Getting one or more of these to add to your resume could also help you land a job in risk, compliance, internal auditing or more strategic roles at a Wall Street firm. Both the buy side and the sell side want to hire accountants, and salaries have been rising for some roles.

The CPA is the top accounting qualification in the U.S.

“Clearly the CPA is far and away the most highly sought after [in the U.S.],” said Steve Saah, director of permanent placement services at Robert Half. “For a lot of finance, analyst and planning type roles, they’ll look for an MBA along with the CFA, but even within a financial services firm, for a general accounting function such as SEC reporting, the CPA is clearly far and away the most sought after.

“A lot of employers are doing things to attract candidates with the CPA,” he said.

U.S.-based firms are working under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), for which the CPA is the designation of choice, whereas most of the rest of the world operates under international financial reporting standards (IFRS), where some of the other credentials, such as the Chartered Accountant (CA) or CIMA Cert BA, may carry just as much or more weight as the CPA does.

“The others all add value and may be something that certain employers would be interested in having depending on the function – it is really dependent on what the specific job is,” Saah said. “There are certifications that go along with specific function.”

For example, if an organization was looking to hire an internal auditor, the hiring manager might look for a CPA/CIA combination, or they might want a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

“For internal audit roles specifically, hiring managers want people who have been exposed to the core accounting side, where the CPA/CIA combination would be attractive, as well as the IT side, where the CISA would certainly give a boost to people pursuing an internal audit career,” Saah said. “But for other roles those could be completely irrelevant.”

For example, for Treasury roles, hiring managers want a Certified Treasury Professional (CTP), whereas in the payroll department, they want a Certified Payroll Professional (CPP).

“A lot of people want to put initials behind their name to look impressive, how valuable each credential will be to the hiring firm depends on the role,” Saad said.

A lot of other certifications out there that are very specific to banking, such as Certified Bank Auditor (CBA), Accredited Senior Appraiser (ASA) and the Certificate in Loan Review.

However, if you’re looking for an accounting job in the U.S., don’t overthink it. When in doubt, go for the CPA.

“Most of the types of roles we see related to a traditional accounting function go back to the CPA as being the most in demand, without question,” Saad said. “What hiring managers who have come up through the ranks of public accounting are really looking for is the CPA – it’s a lot more valuable than any other accounting qualification.”

However, others warn accountants not to have tunnel vision when it comes to credentials.

“While the CPA is a license for public accountants, the CMA is the leading credential for management accountants – the area in which the majority of U.S. accountants work," said Jeff Thomson, the president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). "Management accountants work in [various] organizations, performing decision support, planning and control duties.”


Photo credit: Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

AUTHORDan Butcher US Editor
  • Dr
    Dr Ron
    25 January 2018

    CPA, CMA, CIA or ACCA – which accounting qualification will get you a job in the U.S.?

    Hello Dan,

    While the June 19, 2017 peace is self-explanatory, it may not address the entire question of which accounting designation is best for the U.S.. Giving recognition to CIMA's CMA, ACCA, and ACA is laudable, but what about the Canadian CPA. The latter is the closest designation to the U.S. CPA given the Canadian CPA and its Canadian legacy CMA and CA are the only three designations that have implemented and passed the NASBA 150 SHrs-requirement scrutiny. Education is a component not sufficiently discussed, as management accounting (MA) is lightly covered in the U.S. CPA syllabus. This feature is important because most professional accountants work in the discipline of MA and must know about advanced MA.

    Because of the article's timing and the merger of the three Canadian legacy designations (CMA, CA, & CGA) under the CPA banner effective Jan 1, 2012, there may be a need to update the article. Not that the 800-lbs CPA gorilla would yield its rank to other designations, but because MA is regulated in the UK and Canada, there is an aura of authenticity about MA designations due to their official recognition in legislation. Popularity of the CPA among faculties, headhunters, and corporate accountants, themselves CPAs, skew or distort any statistical results, surveys, and perception. To know about advanced MA, one must have studied and practiced it. Hence, MA knowledge and insights must prevail. The new CGMA is an add-on, unlike the other MA designations, and not discussed.

    Management accounting is not legislated in the U.S., and it might take some time to achieve that status, or possibly never. Whether certain efforts between NASBA and SBOAs to change the wording of some or all SBOAs result in some form of positive recognition of MA, it should not be expected for one to see specific MA designations embedded is such legislations. Given the rigor of legally recognized MA designations, and the fact that the majority of professional accountants in the U.S., UK, and Canada work in the MA territory, it may be worth to delve into the syllabus of MA designations rather than rely on the opinions of a few. Getting to know and work in MA is a privilege for all of us who have achieved the status of management accountant. Thank you in advance for taking care of this important matter.

    Dr FCPA, FCMA, Prof Ron Guay, PhD, MBA, CPA, CMA,

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