Industry Outlook

Employment for accountants and auditors is expected to grow by 6 percent from 2018 to 2028, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), or about as fast as the average for all careers. This growth is expected to translate into 90,700 job openings for accountants. Robert Half Finance and Accounting reports that "demand is high and supply is low for accounting and finance professionals in the United States." It also identifies the following careers as in-demand: accounting managers, business analysts, financial analysts, financial analysts, internal auditors, payroll managers, senior accountants, and staff accountants.

Job opportunities with public accounting firms have increased in recent years—after a lull during the Great Recession. The top 10 public accounting firms employed 268,398 people in 2019, according to Accounting Today—an increase of about 27 percent since 2015. Robert Half Finance and Accounting reports that “candidates with experience in tax and audit are in particular demand, and salaries are increasing.”

An April 2020 report from Research and Markets indicated potentially sluggish in the industry through the next two years due to the dampening effect of the coronavirus pandemic, projecting that the global accounting services market would grow from $574.5 billion in 2019 to $576 billion in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate of 0.3%. Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 led to many business shutdowns and pauses. The same report expected a recovery beginning in 2021 with a CAGR of 6% to reach $687.7 billion in 2023.

Corporate revenue and profits continue to grow, and accountants and auditors will be needed to verify financial transactions—especially in the wake of regulatory changes such as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The DOL reports that accountants and auditors "who have earned professional recognition, especially as certified public accountants, should have the best prospects. Job applicants who have a master’s degree in accounting or a master’s degree in business with a concentration in accounting also may have an advantage."

Specialists will enjoy better job prospects than generalists as a result of "growing business complexity, knowledge requirements, regulatory and legal change, and client expectations," according to the Intuit 2020 Report: Future of the Accounting Profession. "Globalization, the health-care industry, aging baby boomers, and an increased emphasis on sustainability and sustainable business practices will create new opportunities for specialization." Additionally, management accountants, forensic accountants and auditors, as well as the aforementioned internal auditors, will increasingly be needed to discover and eliminate waste and fraud. There will be a shift away from tax preparation because of the increasing number of tax-preparation firms and software.

The employment/recruitment agency Randstad reports that “employers are looking for candidates with strong public accounting and general ledger software skills, and the demand is growing for bilingual professionals as well.” It says that demand is strongest for accounting clerks, accountants, analysts, audit managers, and vice presidents of finance/controllers.

Job opportunities should also be good for accountants who want to become entrepreneurs. Inc. recently named accounting services as one of the best industries for starting a business right now. It reports that "small and independent firms that help companies manage cash flow by keeping on top of accounts receivable are increasingly in demand…and profit margins can be especially high for solo entrepreneurs or those who run their businesses from home."

Along with these good prospects for growth, however, accountants can be expected to be held to higher standards. The industry has dealt with its fair share of scandal over the past two decades, resulting in intensified government scrutiny of accounting practices; as a result, accountants and auditors will be called on to display a great deal of transparency in reporting on a company’s financial activities. The credibility of accounts and business practices are less likely to be called into question. The growing trend towards the use of International Financial Reporting Standards, which use a judgment-based system to determine the fair-market value of assets and liabilities, will also result in a demand for professionals in this field.

Technology will continue to significantly change the face of the industry, with the invention of complex computer systems, software, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence (including machine learning). Basic data collection and number crunching jobs will be replaced by technology, while those that require computer experience, and analytical, forecasting, and problem-solving skills should become more common. In addition, employers increasingly seek applicants with strong interpersonal and communication skills. The best positions will go to those with skill in accounting and auditing computer software or expertise in specialized areas such as international business, specific industries, or current legislation. Accountants who have graduate degrees in accounting or specialized business areas will have the strongest job prospects. “If you want a career with a lot of room for salary growth, it’s imperative you invest the extra time and money, and get a master’s degree,” advises Accountingweb.com. “Luckily with online programs, and flexible class scheduling, it’s becoming easier to pursue advanced education while working. Some places will even help subsidize your education.”

Firms will continue to merge in order to remain competitive, and they will specialize to find their niche in the marketplace. Accounting firms will find themselves competing against other non-CPA companies for the same business and will continue to seek alliances to build a stronger business.

PwC reports that "U.S. financial reporting will undergo an unprecedented level of change within the next several years." Accounting professionals who are "knowledgeable in international standards [known as International Financial Reporting Standards], regulations, and processes will thrive," according to the Intuit 2020 Report: Future of the Accounting Profession. International Financial Reporting Standards, IFRS, are considered less "rules-oriented" than Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (which are used in the United States) and allow accountants more room to exercise judgment when preparing financial information. On the negative side, many U.S. accounting firms believe that IFRS leave them more open to lawsuits and that they may be too cost-prohibitive and time-consuming to implement in the United States.

In addition, PWC noted in May of 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic would have direct and indirect effects on business, determined by factors such as "location, customer and supplier diversification, and the duration of the outbreak. With unpredictable changes in global markets, commodities prices, and other volatile circumstance, "the first quarter is likely to be particularly challenging from an accounting and reporting perspective for many companies."

The outlook for accounting will be good despite a radically changed banking industry and the continuing increase in the number and complexity of financial transactions. Expect the accounting industry to grow in the following four key areas:

  • International accounting. Accounting firms are expanding rapidly into Eastern Europe, Russia, China, East Asia, and Latin America. Future expansion is predicted to occur in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. Accountants will also be needed to assist with international mergers and acquisitions.
  • Investigative accounting. This will be a large growth area given the scope of fraud committed in recent years and the likelihood of future fraud as business transactions become more complex.
  • Financial/estate planning. The number of Americans aged 65 or older is rising, and many members of this group will seek accounting assistance to make investment decisions and manage their finances.
  • Environmental accounting. This specialty is emerging as accountants consult with corporations to ensure compliance with rapidly evolving environmental policies and avoid lawsuits.