Generalists, armed with a broad array of skills, used to be a mainstay within small and mid-sized accounting firms. But in a progressively dynamic field, with constantly changing standards and practices, public accounting shops are increasingly looking to bring on board specialists to keep pace.
“The role of the generalist – someone who does everything or dabbles in everything – is going by the wayside,” said J. Rolland Vaive, founder of Ottawa-based tax and public accounting firm Vaive and Associates.
One specialty area of growing demand is assurance work, which underwent a dramatic change in perceived importance in the aftermath of several accounting scandals – think Enron and Nortel – in the early 2000s.
“There was a shift in the thinking emphasizing that you can’t cut corners on an audit,” Vaive said. “As a result, the standards that were enforced upon the profession – the amount of work, the nature of the audit – changed dramatically.”
Audits became more rigorous and technically challenging, opening up compelling opportunities for accountants. Vaive said the accounting area has developed into a “real specialty.”
There are no shortcuts to becoming a recognized expert, he said, but accountants can become audit specialists by accumulating career experience at firms that give their staff opportunities to gain hands-on experience.
The rewards go beyond the opportunity to work on highly engaging files. It opens up additional career opportunities outside public accounting, as audit specialists can go on to work in government departments and agencies such as the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
It can also unlock global travel opportunities not available to accountants who specialize in other areas. Unlike, say, tax – where Canadian practices are dramatically different than in the U.S. and other jurisdictions – there is a high degree of harmonization of auditing standards around the world.
In all cases, accountants with an audit specialty are likely to enjoy good salaries and be in constant demand.
“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” Vaive said. “In the Ottawa market, everyone is looking for people with an audit specialty. You’re a valuable commodity.”