If you’re interested in a career in accounting, you might wonder how far you could get in the field with an associate’s degree. A two-year degree in accounting from a community college or a junior college can prepare you for junior roles in the field of office and administrative support. You will most likely need more education if you want to work as a full-fledged accountant, but you can quickly get started in a career such as bookkeeper, accounting clerk or auditing clerk.
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A bookkeeper, or bookkeeping clerk, handles the daily tasks of recording financial transactions and managing documents such as sales receipts and invoices. Bookkeepers may manage tasks such as payroll, invoice processing, bank deposit preparation and payment of business expenses. The financial reports a bookkeeper generates are simpler than that expected of an accountant and may include basic balance sheets that keep track of credits and debits. Generally, bookkeepers handle basic accounting tasks, while businesses turn to accountants – and particularly, to certified public accountants (CPAs) – for help with strategic business decision-making and complex accounting issues.
The accounts handled by bookkeepers – in other words, the “books” they keep – are known as the “general ledger,” according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Accounting and Auditing Clerks
Bookkeepers often work for smaller organizations in which one position, or a small number of positions, can be responsible for all or most of the company’s financial records. Larger companies with more complex business operations are more likely to hire a larger number of accounting clerks who can work in more specialized roles. For example, accounts payable clerks handle the processing and payment of incoming invoices, while accounts receivable clerks handle outbound invoices and payments received for the company’s services. A smaller company might have one bookkeeper handle both sets of responsibilities, while larger companies need more employees to handle the larger workload.
Much of an accounting clerk’s job duties depend on his or her level of experience. In entry-level roles, accounting clerks handle tasks such as posting details of transactions, figuring out interest owed and making sure accounts are paid on time, the BLS reported. Accounting clerks with more experience may be responsible for more complex tasks, including balancing billing vouchers and keeping account data up-to-date. Auditing clerks examine financial documents to check that the math is correct and that the documents themselves follow the organization’s coding procedures.
What an auditing clerk does upon finding an inaccuracy depends on the severity of the error. Auditing clerks fix small errors themselves but inform accountants and other senior staff if they find big discrepancies that need to be investigated or addressed in more depth.
The Difference Between Accountants and Bookkeepers
A bookkeeper or accounting clerk is not an accountant, so it is important for students to decide what they want to do with their accounting degree before they enroll in an associate’s degree program. Bookkeepers and accounting clerks fall into the category of accounting paraprofessionals. This means that they are trained to assist a professional such as an accountant or an auditor.
Accountants, on the other hand, are professionals who act as financial specialists. They, too, prepare financial statements and reports, but they bring to the task a strategic perspective based on a thorough background in business and in the principles and practices of various specialties within accounting. In some circumstances, bookkeepers and accounting clerks can move into accountant roles once they have gained a great deal of experience and proven themselves on the job, often over several years. However, in most cases, the minimum level of education needed to become an accountant is a bachelor’s degree, and some employers even prefer candidates with a master’s degree, according to the BLS.
Salary potential is another big difference between bookkeeper roles and accountant roles. The median salary for bookkeeping and accounting clerks is just $39,240, compared to the $69,350 median wage for accountants, the BLS reported. Accountants also enjoy a positive job outlook with a 10 percent increase in job opportunities expected over a decade, compared to the job losses the BLS predicts for bookkeeping and accounting clerks. Of course, accountants spend two to three additional years in school beyond what a bookkeeper must spend, but the payoff of those extra years of study is significant.
If you want to be an accountant, you could earn your associate’s degree at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college to earn your bachelor’s degree.