Benefits of public sector accounting careers

Accounting professionals who want to contribute to society and social justice could consider jobs in government, which can also offer career and personal benefits.
By Beth Y. Vermeer, CPA, Ph.D., and Thomas E. Vermeer, CPA, Ph.D.

IMAGES BY ZAK00/GETTY IMAGES
IMAGES BY ZAK00/GETTY IMAGES

As workers search for better opportunities and the demand for public sector workers continues to increase, accounting professionals working in the private sector should consider whether switching to a career in the public sector could meet their needs for professional advancement and job satisfaction.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of public sector job openings in 2021 was the highest in the past 20 years. In fact, a September 2021 public finance workforce study by the National Association of State Treasurers Foundation found that nearly one-third of the public sector finance workforce is over the age of 55.

The public sector can offer accounting professionals: (1) an opportunity to contribute to society; (2) a better work/ life balance; (3) generous retirement plans and health insurance; (4) paid time off; (5) flexible working schedules; and (6) reimbursement for pursuing an advanced degree and CPA licensure.

Working for the public sector can also offer a chance to contribute to social justice. (See the sidebar “GAO Examination Leads to Public Hearings.”) This is an important aspect of the job for Erik Simonson, an assistant state auditor in the Washington State Auditor’s office in Olympia, Wash. “I think bringing accountability to government is a noble calling, and I find it a very meaningful part of my work,” he said.

Working in the public sector requires certain credentials but offers a variety of opportunities. As accounting professionals gain experience and advance their careers in the sector, they can work in different functions, such as executive management, budgeting, and pension management, but auditor and comptroller functions in federal, state, and local governments are often the entry-level positions.

VARIED OPPORTUNITIES

Similar to for-profit organizations, the public sector offers opportunities to accounting professionals in organizations of all sizes.

For example, Walmart, the largest U.S. publicly traded company (in terms of revenues), reported annual revenues of $573 billion in fiscal year 2022. California, the most populous state, reported $433 billion in primary government and component unit revenue for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020. The U.S. federal government reports financial information in trillions rather than billions.

Of the 90,126 federal, state, and local governments reported in the 2017 Census of Governments, there were 51,296 special districts. They are typically smaller governmental units that serve a specific function, such as school districts, water authorities, or parks districts, where you can work in a smaller setting, often directly with patrons, and be exposed to all facets of the organization.

Regardless of size, the public sector can challenge you as a professional, enhance your problem-solving and analytical skills, and more readily advance your career.

For example, Brett Gantt, a senior accountant in the State of Alabama Comptroller’s Office in Montgomery, has administered funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act delivered to the state through the federal government during the pandemic. This involved working with members of the Alabama League of Municipalities, state senators, mayors, and town clerks and implementing a software-based grant administration process.

“I really felt that my job was making a difference in people’s lives throughout this process,” Gantt said. “It allowed me to build relationships and encounter a great deal of situations that I truly felt helped me grow as a professional and an accountant.”

THE RIGHT FIT

To determine what type of public sector career is the right fit, accounting professionals should first determine whether they want to begin their public sector career in accounting or auditing.

Public sector accounting positions

In the public sector, the accounting function is often under the comptroller’s office. The National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers (NASACT) defines the functions of the comptroller’s office to include cash management, data warehouse, debt management, disbursements, financial reporting, internal control oversight, investment management, financial management system operation, payroll, pre- and post-audit, quality assurance, tax reporting, and transparency. Although these functions are similar in the public and private sectors, the objectives of the accounting function are different in the public sector. Rather than a primary focus on maximizing profit for owners, the public sector’s accounting function is more concerned with whether elected officials have raised and expended the public’s money consistent with the laws and the public’s best interest. This focus results in an increased emphasis on budgets, which are formally included in governmental financial statements.

Public sector auditing positions

In the federal government, each agency has an Office of Inspector General (OIG). Each OIG has an office of audits (that performs financial and IT audits), an office of evaluations (that performs inspections, evaluations, and/or program analysis), and an office of investigations (that performs criminal investigations). At the federal level, there is also the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). It is known as the “congressional watchdog” because it provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, nonpartisan, fact-based information to help the government save money and work more efficiently. Most recently, the GAO has been evaluating the $4.8 trillion COVID-19 response legislation and has made more than 200 recommendations to improve the federal government’s effectiveness in dealing with public health issues and the economy.

While public sector auditors also perform financial statement audits, there is an increased emphasis on compliance, operational, and performance audits. For example, public sector auditors often perform accountability audits that determine whether agencies are complying with laws, administrative codes, and their own policies. In these engagements, the audit team understands an agency’s risk management processes and unique functions as part of that government, with a particular emphasis on information technology controls. These audits develop strategies to improve a government’s business practices and also provide assurance that public funds are used effectively and efficiently. Similar to the private sector, a public sector auditing career typically involves more travel than a public sector accounting position, but this travel provides significant exposure to a government’s many functions. These experiences can lead to opportunities for advancement within the government and an ability to find the best career fit.

FINANCIAL BENEFITS OF THE PUBLIC SECTOR

When assessing the financial benefits of any job, it is important to consider the total benefits provided. Compared to the private sector, the public sector typically offers very attractive retirement plans and superior health care benefits with lower costs. In addition, many public sector employees retain their health insurance after retirement. Other perquisites such as sick and vacation leave, paid holidays, bereavement leave, paid parental leave, education leave, and tuition reimbursement for advanced degrees provide additional financial benefits that are sometimes unavailable in the private sector. In addition, many governments provide flexible work schedules, which may mean working four nine-hour days and one four-hour day per week or working nine hours per day for nine days and getting a day off every two weeks.

“My employer has allowed me to continue my education by pursuing a master’s degree in accounting with a forensic accounting concentration,” said Shaye Doherty, an associate auditor at the Commonwealth of Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts in Richmond, Va. “Not only have they reimbursed me for classes I have passed, but they have provided me 24 hours of education leave each year.”

The public sector is also aware of the demand for accounting professionals, and many governments are increasing their salaries to be more competitive at attracting talent. (See the table “Salary Information for State Audit Agencies and Comptroller Offices” below.)

salary-information-state-audit

CREDENTIALS AND EXPERENCE REQUIRED

State audit agencies generally employ more CPAs than state comptroller offices (mean of 29% versus 10%), which should be expected given their different objectives. Also, only 53% of the states require that a division head/audit manager in a state audit agency have a CPA license. (See the table “Certification at State Comptrollers and Audit Agencies,” below.) Although a CPA license often involves an increased salary and other career benefits, it is not always required to advance in the public sector.

certification-state-comptrollers-audit-agencies

Governmental accounting is unique to the sector and quite complex, as evidenced by separate accounting standard setters for state and local governments (i.e., the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB)) and the federal government (i.e., the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB)). However, not having experience in governmental accounting is not a barrier to obtaining a position in the sector. Governments understand that most accounting professionals have no experience in the sector and provide on-the-job training that teaches the unique aspects of governmental accounting and auditing. Of course, if you have some education or experience in the sector, make sure you highlight this in your cover letter or résumé. (See the sidebar “Job Opportunities in the Public Sector.”) There are many ways to grow as a professional by learning the accounting standards and operating practices in this unique and complex sector.

GAO examination leads to public hearings

In 2022, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which employs many CPAs, examined IRS audit rates for taxpayers and found that, between 2010 and 2019, audit rates for taxpayers with annual income under $25,000 decreased by 61% while the audit rates decreased by 86% for taxpayers with income of $5 million or more. These findings led to public hearings examining taxpayer fairness across the IRS before the Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways & Means Committee.

Job opportunities in the public sector

Where do you find accounting and auditing job opportunities in the public sector? For the federal government, USAJOBS is the official employment site for all federal jobs.

When searching for a federal job, job seekers often consider whether the U.S. Department of Defense or a civilian agency, such as the department of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, or Transportation, better fits their professional and personal interests. For state and local government jobs, search that government’s official website to determine where available jobs are posted. Also, the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers (NASACT) promotes job openings at the state level in its weekly news updates. You can contact NASACT to subscribe to the weekly news updates.

In any new professional endeavor, it is helpful to work with an experienced mentor who provides advice and helps guide you through the process. If you have a family member or friend who is knowledgeable of the public sector, reach out to them. Professional organizations often will match you with a mentor. The Association of Government Accountants (AGA) has a student/young professionals program. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has a student program. AICPA & CIMA have an apprenticeship program and a Finance Leadership Program. Contact these organizations to find a mentor who can assist you with your interest in employment in the public sector.


About the authors

Beth Y. Vermeer, CPA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting in the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. Thomas E. Vermeer, CPA, Ph.D., is a professor of accounting in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


AICPA RESOURCES

Articles

Places and Job Candidates Don’t Always Match in Government Finance,” JofA, Sept. 21, 2021

Government Reporting and the Future: A Q&A With GASB Chairman Joel Black,” JofA, Oct. 16, 2020

Websites

Government and public sector homepage
Global Career Hub


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