The report of the death of the MBA has been greatly exaggerated, to steal a line from Mark Twain. The decrease in enrollment in these programs (according to The Wall Street Journal, full-time MBA programs shrank by 9 percent between 2014 and 2018) points to considerations of career value relative to investment.
We are witnessing a strong job market (meaning more undergraduates are finding jobs directly after school) coupled with a war for finance talent. New graduates who find themselves in entry-level finance and accounting jobs may choose to opt for a certification to upskill in an agile way to meet the fast-paced challenges of employers in a digital age. Their employers may pay for these certifications (I strongly encourage corporate training departments to sponsor certification programs) or they may not. But students graduating in this digital age will quickly learn their career advancement depends greatly on the money they are willing to invest in themselves. Promotions or new jobs are often the result of having attained a prized credential, even if it was at the employee’s own expense.
The fact is businesses have begun to focus more on specific, in-demand skills to enhance general degrees. In a competitive job market, candidates who are able to differentiate themselves through a certification stand out. The credentials gained through a certification can help distinguish yourself from the competition and demonstrate mastery of particular skills. Many pursue certifications because they are part of the growing gig economy, where the letters behind their name provide a signal to prospective clients that they have the knowledge they say they do.
So if you are an accounting and finance professional which certification do you choose? There are many to choose from so I have provided a list with a high-level overview of what they are designed to do:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA): This is the most-established and probably the best-known certification and license in the accounting profession, with a focus on auditing, providing insights on public companies and preparing tax returns. Though more general than other certifications, the CPA retains prestige in the finance profession and indicates that one has mastered the fundamentals of accounting.
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA): More specialized than the CPA, the CFA equips you with the skills you need to work in investment management and financial analysis. This certification is ideal for those who seek jobs with Wall Street firms and investment or hedge funds. The financial analysis component of the CFA shows employers the certification holder can think critically and strategically.
- Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA):Like the CFA, the CAIA prepares you for a career as a financial analyst. This certification, however, is even more specialized than the CFA, focusing specifically on investments other than equities and bonds, such as real assets, commodities, structured products, intellectual property and insurance-linked securities. A more generalist financial analyst may not choose to become a CAIA, but it does offer a niche within the profession for those seeking a specialty or advantage.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA): The sole internationally accepted certification for internal auditors, CIA holders serve as auditors, but specialize in providing auditing services internally within their organizations, giving them a unique role as companies’ financial “watchdogs” with the key responsibility of being independent and objective. The CIA involves mastering risk and control, information technology and the ability to work with both internal staff and external clients.
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA): The CMA is the ideal certification for finance professionals who want to work in senior executive roles, such as CFO or COO. As with the CFA, passing the CMA exam shows mastery of analytical skills, while also encompassing such aspects as cost and risk management and even technology and data analytics. This places CMAs in the category of financial management specialists who also have a well-rounded and relevant set of capabilities.
- Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis (CSCA): For those who have already earned their CMA but are interested in more thoroughly developing their strategy skills, the CSCA is a certification worth pursuing. It allows you to identify where your organization can gain an advantage and help develop and execute a competitive strategy accordingly. The CSCA enables the management accountant to become a business tactician.
All these certifications offer the flexibility of engaging with the program on one’s own time. They are designed for working professionals. Their high-level of specialization demonstrates to employers and prospective employers that one has given some thought to their career, mastered essential skills, and prepared for the future. Those who pursue certifications on their own are often viewed as proactive and go-getters, the top 10% of the accounting and finance workforce. In a competitive job market, where every added skill helps, certifications are an effective way to show you have what it takes to manage change, learn new skills, and lead other people.