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The ABCs of Certifications

Now more than ever, it's critical that accounting professionals keep their skills and knowledge current. Uncover the basics for pursuing credentials.

May 15, 2008
from Robert Half Finance & Accounting

Now more than ever, it's critical that accounting professionals keep their skills and knowledge up to date. Factors such as an increasingly global business environment, rapidly changing technologies and corporate governance reforms have dramatically impacted the profession and created a brisk demand for individuals with cutting-edge competence and expertise. For clients and employers, certifications are proof that accounting professionals have the knowledge and commitment to be leaders in their field. The following ABCs of certification make a strong argument for pursuing credentials.

A: The Attractions of Certification

Employers have been adding accounting staff in recent years in response to increased workloads, but they are highly selective in their choice of candidates. Certain designations have become especially desirable in the current market. These credentials include certified public accountant (CPA), accredited in business valuation (ABV), certified information technology professional (CITP) and personal financial specialist (PFS).

In the future, businesses are likely to place even more emphasis on certifications as a way to differentiate among top candidates with similar qualifications and work experience. In the current era of specialization in the accounting field, employers will continue to look for candidates who can demonstrate knowledge in niche areas that they acquired through not only on-the-job experience, but also the formal education and training gained during the certification process.

B: The Benefits of Certification

Among the chief benefits of gaining certification are improved career prospects and enhanced earning power. In a Robert Half survey of chief financial officers (CFOs), a large majority of respondents said certification was valuable for an individual's career advancement.

Another benefit is the ability to differentiate oneself from the pack. Those three letters after your name tell employers that you have the required skills to perform the job or service and that you take your career seriously enough to invest time, money and effort into ongoing professional development. Increasingly, firms are getting behind this kind of commitment to professional development. They recognize that in order to have a more skilled workforce, they need to support the ongoing education and accreditation of their employees.

C: The Categories of Certification

In the realm of public accounting, three credentials stand out:

Certified Public Accountant (CPA): This designation is given to an accounting professional who has passed the Uniform CPA Examination and has received a CPA certificate and/or a CPA license (if required) from the State Board of Accountancy in the state in which the individual intends to practice. Each state has its own education and experience requirements that must be met before a candidate is permitted to take the exam and obtain a certificate/license. The Uniform CPA Examination is administered in computer-based format in authorized testing centers across the country. You can obtain additional information at www.nasba.org or www.cpa-exam.org.

Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV): Administered by AICPA, this designation is granted only to CPAs who exhibit substantial skills and knowledge in business valuation services, which focus on setting an economic value on a business. To obtain the credential, candidates must have a sum total of 100 points from the following three categories: experience, life long learning and the exam (view more information on the ABV Credential Point System (PDF)). Those who are Accredited Senior Appraisers (ASA) can waive the requirement to take the exam. Those who have earned the Certified Business Appraiser (CBA), Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) or Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA) have the benefit of taking the four-hour exam rather than the eight-hour one. More information is available at
www.aicpa.org/bvfls.

Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA): The National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (NACVA) certifies CVAs to perform business valuations as a service to both the consulting community and users of their services. Applicants must hold a valid CPA license, be members in good standing of NACVA, complete a five-day training program, submit three personal and three business references and pass a comprehensive two-part exam. For more details, visit www.nacva.com.

In addition to these credentials, CPAs may also pursue certification in other specialties of accounting and finance, such as taxation and information technology. Here are some of the leading designations:

Personal Financial Specialist (PFS): This credential has been established by AICPA for financial planners who want to highlight their experience and expertise. Professionals with this designation are recognized for combining financial planning with business acumen and for being competent, trustworthy and objective. To earn PFS accreditation, a CPA must have business experience in at least one of six financial planning disciplines, fulfill lifelong learning activities and pass one of the following exams: CFP, ChFC, CFA or NASD Series 65, 66 or 7. Additional information is available at http://pfp.aicpa.org/.

Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA): This credential is offered by the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation (ACAT) to professionals who handle sophisticated tax planning issues, such as ownership of closely held businesses, qualified retirement plans and complex estates. Enrolled agents (EAs), CPAs, licensed accountants, attorneys or those with a graduate degree in taxation are pre-qualified for the ATA designation. More information is available at www.acatcredentials.org.

Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP): The same professionals who are pre-qualified for the ATA credential also pre-qualify for this designation, which is awarded by ACAT to those who have demonstrated a thorough knowledge of existing tax code and the preparation of individual, corporate and partnership tax returns. Individuals must have three years of work experience in tax preparation. Details may be found at www.acatcredentials.org.

Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP): This designation is issued by AICPA to CPAs who demonstrate a broad range of technology skills and apply them to achieve business solutions. To obtain the certification, CPAs must possess at least 2,000 hours of business technology experience and at least 200 hours of technology education, both earned within a five-year period. See www.aicpa.org/infotech for more information.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is one of the world's first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. The company has more than 360 locations throughout North America, South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and offers online job search services at www.roberthalf.com.