The Chicken-and-Egg Problem: Experience or an Accounting Degree?

By William Kernan, Member of the IMA® Young Professional Advisory Committee, Founder/Owner WTK Management, LLC

We are all familiar with the age-old question of what came first – the chicken or the egg? And while I do find this question and the debate over what actually did come first intriguing, I’d like to pose a different, yet similar question.  

Who would you hire for an accounting position: candidate “A” with experience and a business degree; or candidate “B” with little to no experience but holds an accounting degree?

Qualified Candidates Can Be Overlooked

From my experience, today’s employers tend to gravitate toward applicants similar to candidate “B;” people with little to no experience but have an accounting degree. Many employers turn to recruiters to make hiring decisions, giving them a list of 25 demands and little else to go on. Under this process, even if you are a perfect match for 24 of the demands, you stand a risk of being overlooked if you don’t have an accounting degree.

For example, it may not matter that you’re a corporate accountant if your degree is in a field other than accounting. Professionals holding management degrees might be in trouble too if you decided to learn about all of the parts of an organization and not just about the corporate accounting department. Even hands-on training by a CFO or CEO does not protect you from being overlooked by a recruiter.

I’ve worked 11 years in the corporate world, specifically in corporate accounting, and when I was younger, I thought to myself, “Why should I get an accounting degree and sit for the CPA?” I didn’t have a passion for taxes, and my plan wasn’t to become a CPA. My interest was in corporate governance, so my logical thought was to focus on organizational behavior, management, marketing and leadership. Little did I know that years later this line of thinking would hurt my career and make it difficult to pursue new accounting opportunities.

Creating Your Own Experience

Therefore, in order to advance and have the career I wanted, I took it upon myself to create my own opportunities. I started my own business helping other small businesses understand their accounting cycle, including the development of monthly cash flows, statement of earnings and balance sheets. I went back to school, where I currently am a student at the University of Chicago in the school’s Financial Decision Making certificate program.

I will also be sitting for the CMA (Certified Management Accountant) offered by IMA (Institute of Management Accountants). Even though I have been successful continuing to work in corporate accounting, owning a small business and continuing my education, I am still hearing from recruiters that I do not meet their checklist, largely because I have a management degree and not a degree in accounting

My resume and experience speak for itself. Not only have I strengthened internal controls within organizations and helped decrease costs, I have saved stakeholders close to $2 million over the life of my career – $1.5 million of which was cash brought back to a company thus saving it from bankruptcy. Even with all this, my background is still not deemed good enough!

You might be wondering what exactly is on this recruitment checklist. Perhaps recruiters have become too automated in their selling techniques. I honestly don’t know what the answer is to this problem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? If so, what have you done to overcome the scrutiny of recruiters?

And I also ask – what candidate would you hire?

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The IMA Young Accounting Pros Blog features the insights of IMA's Young Professionals Committee. Committee members share advice and experiences on careers, continuing education, work/life balance, and other issues affecting young accounting and finance professionals.

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