Can We Please Refer to Accounting as a Profession?
By Steven E. Sacks
“A profession by any other name…” (With apologies to William Shakespeare)
Profession n. calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.
Maybe I am just cranky, or maybe I have a valid point. Far too often I hear accounting being referred to as an industry rather than profession. Let us be honest. Accounting is a profession that requires years of study and experience, culminating-if one desires- in a CPA credential, if successfully passing an arduous two-day, four-part online exam. This does not even include the yearly continuing professional education requirements of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and state boards of accountancy to maintain a license to practice as a CPA.
How often do we read or hear accounting referred to as an industry? In my opinion, too often: and, it is always an incorrect reference. Accounting, is in fact a profession, and like any other profession (e.g. legal, medical, or education), requires specialized knowledge and training.
We would never refer to doctors as being in the medical industry. Neither would we say lawyers are in the legal industry. The long-held view refers to them as being part of the medical profession and the legal profession. Moreover, CPA firms and law firms are referred to as professional service firms, not industry service firms. There must be something to this that supports my contention.
CPAs possess and apply specialized skills to each unique business situation. These skills are not generic and far exceed solely debits and credits. A CPA does not provide “one-size-fits-all” services that can be offered by anyone. CPAs are trusted business advisors who deliver personalized, customizable services to their clients. Whether it is advising a clothing manufacturer, construction contractor, restauranteur, hospital CEO, or corner baker, the knowledge a CPA must have, combined with effective interpersonal skills, integrity, and other critical traits, also makes him or her a valued partner to the business owner. Some years ago, a Harris Poll positioned the CPA as the closest confidant of an individual or business. Granted, the last decade had the accounting profession taking its lumps, but its image has mostly been repaired. (Note to public: Blame the individuals, not the profession.)
An industry by definition describes a precise business activity (e.g. semiconductors) or a more generic business activity (e.g. consumer durables or building supplies). It involves a systematic, repetitive behavior or action with the intent of producing something of value. Examples of industries include home construction, food packaging, minerals mining, book publishing, steel production, and shipping. Coal mining and oil extraction and refining are industries, reflecting a supply chain of raw materials to finished products. While knowledge of performing these activities is necessary, there is no evolving body of knowledge that requires continuing education or exams, or even an ever-expanding body of knowledge.
Before I hear cries of “foul,” allow me to readily accept the fact that a car mechanic is part of a profession; plumbers and electricians are also professionals. Why? Each one requires certification and licensure because of the unique knowledge and skills required to perform their work, and the mainstream public relies on them everyday. The average person cannot dismantle a car, wire a house, or install piping. I know that I cannot and so I hire these professionals. However, car manufacturing, public utilities, and water management are industries.
My intention is not to question the value of the jobs that millions of our fellow citizens provide, but, considering all the necessary expertise and requirements to keep abreast of never-ending standards promulgation, compliance rules, laws, ethical requirements, business practices, and evolving use of technology, why would accounting be considered anything other than a profession?
When selecting a professional service firm, such as a CPA firm or a law firm, the consumer will undoubtedly be looking at the experience, skills, and reputation of the firm. While certain CPA services have been given the pejorative “commodity”—unfairly to not—the issues and challenges business owners face, such as cash management, mergers and acquisitions, organizational development, succession planning, and valuation are what CPAs embrace and what separates them from other business consultants. Further, the CPA’s ability to successfully partner with a client, based on his or her top-down understanding of the business, is tempered by adherence to professional ethics and recognized standards.
Advice and technical assistance is not a standardized process of professional service; it is based on the unique needs of each client. It is not McDonald’s hamburgers or Pizza Hut pizzas— an institutional-style, one-size-fits-all approach. CPAs have the necessary depth and breadth to address a rapidly changing business environment. Even if a CPA firm provides only attest and tax services, while another CPA firm down the block also provides value-added consulting services, both firms still share a common thread: compliance with laws, regulations, standards, and ethics: all the underpinnings of serving the public good and protecting the public interest. This, to me, defines a profession.
So why do many business writers, speakers, accounting software vendors, and publishers, among others, constantly refer to accounting as an industry? You got me.
Steve is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a practice that addresses business communication challenges that individuals, firms and organizations face. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com for more insights.