If you enjoy working with numbers, a career as a bookkeeper or accounting clerk could be in your future. This office and administrative support role earns a median salary slightly above the median wage for all occupations and offers the comfort of an office work setting, without requiring an extensive post-secondary education. However, at least some college study is often necessary, and having an associate’s degree can offer you better job prospects and advancement opportunities.
The Work of a Bookkeeper
Bookkeepers and accounting clerks are responsible for basic financial reporting. They record income and expenses, or credits and debits, in a company’s financial accounts, also known as the general ledger, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Bookkeeper is a similar occupation to accountant, but there are several differences between bookkeepers and accountants.
Generally, bookkeepers handle the daily tasks of keeping track of a company’s financial transactions and accounts and producing basic financial reports. Accountants, who have more education and training in both technical and theoretical aspects of the field of financial reporting, have more high-level responsibilities. A business might have an in-house bookkeeper who handles the financial accounts on a day-to-day basis as well as an accountant at a public accounting firm who assists with tax forms and quarterly and annual reports. Accountant is a professional role, while bookkeeper is typically categorized as a paraprofessional role. Bookkeepers and other paraprofessionals fulfill roles which include handling some aspects of a professional task but don’t require full professional licensure qualifications.
Because their work is integral to the business operations of all kinds of companies, many different industries employ bookkeepers. The largest employers of bookkeeping and accounting clerks include professional services, which accounts for 12 percent of the occupation; retail trade, which makes up 10 percent of this workforce; and wholesale trade, healthcare and social assistance and finance and insurance, all three of which industries account for seven percent of bookkeeper jobs.
The BLS reports that there are 1.7 million bookkeepers, accounting clerks and auditing clerks currently working in the United States.
Associate’s Degrees in Bookkeeping and Accounting
Technically, a degree is not a requirement to work as a bookkeeper, but some college study is, according to the BLS. Some students pursue an undergraduate certificate in accounting, but more commonly, aspiring bookkeepers earn an associate’s degree. Many accounting associate’s degree programs are career-focused, which means that they emphasize applied technical accounting knowledge over theory and concepts, though they can often be used as a stepping stone to an advanced degree, as well.
When you study accounting and bookkeeping at the associate’s degree level, you may take coursework in business and finance principles, how to produce financial documents and specialized accounting topics such as managerial accounting and taxation. It’s more important to be good at working with numbers – and with tools such as calculators, Excel spreadsheets and accounting computer programs – than it is to excel at high-level mathematics.
An associate’s degree in accounting can also lay the groundwork for a bachelor’s in accounting degree, taking the place of your freshman and sophomore year at a four-year school.
A Future in Accounting
When you start off your career with an associate’s degree in accounting, you can be working full-time in your field in just two years. You will grow your skills through on-the-job training. As you gain experience, you may also choose to leverage your accounting associate’s degree by pursuing professional certification. Once you have worked for at least two years in the field, you can take the four-part professional exam to attain the Certified Bookkeeper credential from the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers or the Certified Public Bookkeeper credential from the National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers. Certifications in specific skills and programs, like QuickBooks and Excel, can also be valuable.
If you decide during your bookkeeping career that you want to make the leap to a full-fledged accounting role, you already have a great deal of knowledge to help you. Though the minimum education needed to become an accountant or auditor is typically a bachelor’s degree, some employers will accept years of relevant work experience in lieu of a formal college education for junior accounting roles, the BLS reported.
However, even if you are able to get an entry-level accounting role without a four-year degree, your opportunities for advancement will be limited unless you go back to school. Fortunately, if you already have an associate’s degree, you’re not starting with a blank slate. You can transfer the credits and coursework you’ve already completed to a four-year program. Associate’s to bachelor’s degree programs can often be completed in two years or less, and some accelerated bachelor’s degree programs can reduce the time it takes to earn your degree even more.
Since you have so much experience – both life experience and bookkeeping experience – you might find a competency-based degree program to be a great fit for you. These programs allow students to earn college credit toward their degree by testing out of classes in which they already have a solid background in the subject area.
Earning your degree and becoming an accountant offers significant benefits. The job outlook is far better for accountants, with the BLS predicting a faster than average job growth rate of 10 percent over a decade. Salaries, too, are a great deal higher for accountants, who earn a median wage of $69,350.
For those with great computer and basic math skills and dedication, a bookkeeping job could ultimately turn into a well-paying career in accounting.