There will be a demand for state tax professionals for the foreseeable future, due to the ever changing rules among states. State tax is a segment of tax which most commonly can include dealing with state income taxes, transaction taxes (like sales taxes), and property taxes. This may be an area of tax which requires a professional to spend substantially more time doing tax law research, compared to other areas, due to states and cities all having their own tax rules. There are also many career paths which can be pursued, which are discussed in the responses below.

Date of Interview: 09/04/2021

Interviewee: Anonymous

Basic Information

Your occupation

Accountant

Current employer

A global services company with about $7 billion in annual revenue.

Industry you work in

My company primarily does professional services, but I do not work for an accounting firm. I work “in-house” in the corporate tax department.

City you work in

Chicago

Compensation

Accordingly to Glassdoor.com, $157,263 is the average base salary for a Senior Tax Manager in the United States.

A State Tax Senior Manager is a specialization within Tax which may result in slightly higher compensation in some cases. Senior Tax Managers are often eligible for bonuses which may range from 10-20% of their base salary.

New graduates with an accounting degree working as a Tax Analyst or Tax Associate (both common entry level job titles) should expect a base salary ranging from $55,000-$65,000.

Experience

Years at your current job

3 years

Years working in your field, including time at previous employers

11 years

Where did you work before your current job?

A “Big 4” accounting firm; an online retailer/wholesaler; a manufacturer and seller of mobile tracking hardware and software.

Education/Credentials

Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education? If yes, was it required for your job?

Answer: I went to college and it was required for my career.

What was your college major?

BS in Accounting

What college did you go to?

Northern Illinois University

Did you go to graduate school? If yes, was it required?

Yes, I also got a MS in Accounting, but it wasn’t necessarily required. My professional license requires 150 credit hours (30 beyond what you typically receive with a Bachelors). Some people pursue a minor or accumulate extra credits which accomplishes the 30 hour requirement, too. The additional 30 hours don’t have to be in anything special, as long as you have an accounting degree. If you have your undergrad degree in accounting, plus those extra 30 hours, then you can take the CPA [Certified Public Accounting] exam in Illinois. Some states may have slightly different requirements to be a CPA.

Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?

I have a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license.

What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?

I could have just had a Bachelor’s in Accounting. However, the path I took, which included being promoted to the manager level at a public accounting firm, required that I have a CPA license. The CPA license requires a minimum number of accounting courses (which you’d typically get with a Bachelor’s in Accounting) plus an additional 30 hours to be eligible to take the CPA exam. In theory, someone could eventually be promoted to my level (Senior Manager) without public accounting experience, but it would generally take a longer amount of time. I became a Senior Manager after working for 8 years. So the additional schooling is not required, but it makes it a quicker path.

Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?

I think it definitely helped. At the time, my school was ranked #11 in the country for accounting programs, I believe. The ranking is not terribly important, but what helps tremendously is that there is a significant amount of recruiting that happens from my college’s accounting program. All the major accounting firms, plus many large companies in the Chicago area, recruit from internship and career fairs. There are even specific career fairs for the accounting students. If you have decent social skills, grades, and extracurricular activities, then you will get job offers before you graduate.

I had many offers to do internships and my last internship turned into a full-time offer before graduating.

Job Demand & Stability

Did you have any internships?

I did three internships. The first was in the accounting department of a small manufacturing company in Wisconsin. My brother helped me get a job there, since he worked there as an engineer at the time. It was a good resume builder, since I was still pretty young. I think it was the summer after my sophomore year of college.

I also did two internships at a “Big 4” accounting firm – one in audit and one in tax. I had a full-time offer from the firm after finishing my audit internships, but I was curious to try tax, too. I did another internship in tax and ended up starting full time in tax. This was all at the same firm.

If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?

I could probably get a job at a public accounting firm within a matter of weeks. The market is so hot right now. If I wanted a job similar to what I do now, it would take a little longer, only because I am farther along in my career and there’s usually only one person at each larger company that does my job. It would not be difficult. At any given time, there are open roles, but I’d probably be a little picky just to ensure the job description would be to my liking.

Advice For Success

What advice would you provide to someone considering a career in tax?

I suggest becoming eligible for the CPA exam before starting a demanding full-time job. It’s very common that folks struggle to complete the exam, which is essentially four separate tests that must all be completed within 18 months. If too much time elapses, you put yourself at risk of needing to retake sections that expire. If you secure a full-time job, many companies and firms will pay for your prep materials and testing fees. Some even provide a bonus if you finish the exams before starting work or within a certain period of time (often that’s one year). It’s hard to make time to study for the exams when you are working a full time job in tax, because you might be working a lot during certain times of the year.

To increase your chances of getting an internship, participate in extracurricular activities on campus. My school required all accounting students to join a professional accounting society (Beta Alpha Psi, Student Accounting Society, ALPFA, etc.). Since everyone was required to join, I figured that wasn’t enough to set me apart. I joined Beta Alpha Psi and ran for a VP role in my second year. This allowed me to help organize volunteer initiatives for the group. I’m confident in saying it helped rocket ship my resume to the top of many lists, since I got to know many of the accounting firm recruiters that had involvement in sponsoring these events and it just showed extra effort on my part. Do something extra like that to set yourself apart and to get face time with recruiters. All of the officers I knew, from the various groups, had tons of internship options to choose from.

Don’t be afraid to try new things when the opportunities arise. Even though tax is a niche field of accounting, it’s still a huge universe with many areas. I rejected an opportunity in audit so I could try tax. Just to name a few possible paths:

  • Public accounting firms – there are small, medium, and very large firms. The smaller the firm, the more varied experience you will get. If you want to eventually run a tax department at a company, it helps to get varied experience and the smaller-medium sized firms will provide that opportunity. The downside is that they are not always put on the same pedestal as working at the larger firms and the exit opportunities may be slightly less abundant if you’re looking to work for a Fortune 100 company. Working at a “Big 4” firm (which are the largest four accounting firms) gives a leg up on exit opportunities that may often prioritize a candidate with Big 4 experience since, such experience can more likely ensure a candidate is a relatively high performer.
  • Government accounting – I do not have first hand experience in this area, but I have worked across the table from many state employees. My understanding is they have very favorable schedules (i.e. 40 hour work weeks while other types of tax professionals often work much more). The pay can be decent, but compensation increase would not be as rapid, compared to working in public accounting. These types of roles could be had by working for the IRS, state or local governments.
  • Corporate Tax – the conventional wisdom is that promotions and raises do not come as quickly compared to working in public accounting, but advancement in jobs title and compensation can be had at the right company or by job hopping after gaining a couple years of experience at each place. The reason that promotions may not be as rapid working in a corporate tax department is that promotions are not always available, even if someone has the right experience and knowledge. There may not always be an opening of the budget to support an employee of a higher level.

Nature of Job and Schedule

Describe what you do

I lead a team of three staff members, and various teams of consultants that help us file tax returns. I oversee tax compliance and special projects for all state and local taxes for the company. This includes state income/franchise taxes, gross receipts taxes, sales and use taxes, and property taxes. There are many other types of taxes we deal with as a company, but we have many others in our tax department that are responsible for the other areas. 

A normal day might involve things like discussing information that our tax consultants need to complete various filings or projects; meeting with my staff to discuss next steps on projects (e.g. audits, tax planning strategies, tax system updates), talking to other departments or customers about taxability questions, researching the tax laws using the Internet or various databases, and meeting with my manager to talk through priorities and status updates. I also spend a fair amount of time reading about tax law changes which impact our business. State tax laws change all the time.

Describe your daily and weekly schedule

I start working around 8:30AM and I finish up around 5:00-5:30PM. If there are big deadlines, which are typically in the Fall or in the Spring, then I may work a little later, or do some additional work later in the evening after my kids are asleep. Normal work hours are Monday-Friday. Certain people in our tax department may work weekends around major deadlines. It’s fairly rare for me, but it happens periodically.

The hours I work these days are much more relaxed than earlier in my career, when I worked in public accounting. Generally speaking, the hours, when working for a specific company, are much better compared to working in public accounting, where someone would have numerous clients they need to attend to.

What parts of your job are repetitive?

It is a lot less repetitive than most would think. We are required to file certain tax returns on a recurring basis (monthly, quarterly and annually), but a lot of the return preparation, or “compliance” as we call it, is outsourced to tax consultants. Otherwise we would need a larger team to handle these responsibilities. Instead, I spend a lot of time working with data and technology that we can use to improve internal processes to make our reporting more efficient and accurate. I also do planning work to prevent our business from paying more taxes than required by law. 

We have started using a data analytics tool called Alteryx. I spend a fair amount of time working with my staff to discover uses and design ways to use this software to improve our data and reporting. Accountants still rely heavily on using Excel to perform tons of tasks, but we are looking for better tools that can handle large amounts of data more efficiently.

What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?

Every state has its own set of tax laws, whether related to income taxes, sales taxes, or other taxes. There are even a lot of cities that have their own taxes and rules. As a result, I am learning new things all the time. My team has to research new rules almost daily and I often help them or validate their findings. When we are buying a new product or service, or selling something new, then we need to see how the tax rules apply to those items.

I also have to do continuing professional education (CPE) to maintain my CPE license. CPA’s have to complete 120 hours of training every three years. The topics can vary quite a bit – anything from ethics, to new technologies, to new tax rules.

Describe the setting you work in most

I’ve been working at home exclusively since the pandemic. I have a home office setup with big extra monitors. Before COVID, I was going to the office usually four days per week. Our team would often work from home on Fridays. I’ll probably be working from home for a while still and don’t ever plan to return to the office full-time. We’ll likely do a couple days a week in the office, but things are still a little unclear.

Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job

A significant portion of my job requires working with other people. I speak to my team on the phone and over IM’s every day, multiple times per day. I work with state taxing authorities on a regular basis. That includes emails and phone calls with these individuals each week typically. I also deal with a lot of consultants. Most large tax departments work with tax consultants quite a bit so we have a lot of status meetings and we talk through various issues that come up.

What’s a little unique about my role is that I deal with transaction taxes. Transaction taxes (e.g. sales taxes) impact our customers, so I deal with a lot of folks in our business that are customer facing. Once in a while, I also engage with customers directly, if need be. I believe working in the transaction tax area always allows me to get to know a lot more about our business, compared to other tax accountants in our department.

A lot of these interactions were in-person prior to COVID, but lately everything has been done over phone calls, video conferencing, and e-mail.

Does your job require travel?

My current job doesn’t require much travel. I only had to take one trip in my first year at this company. I travelled a lot more when I worked in public accounting – for training, conferences, and to visit clients. I would probably be going to conferences that would require travel at least once per year if it weren’t for COVID. I’m guessing that will come back again at some point.

Likes/Dislikes/Other

What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?

I’ve developed some good friendships at my job. That usually happens wherever I have been. The camaraderie is definitely enjoyable.

I find the opportunities to grow and develop my team to be rewarding. Over time, I’ve been able to see them take on more responsibility and we’ve built a lot of trust. Building a team with a lot of trust and dependability is a good feeling.

There are certain projects that can be rewarding. Some are just a necessary part of the job, but there are times I can come up with creative or innovative arguments to substantiate favorable tax positions the company takes. There are also interesting technology projects we work on. We have automated a lot of cumbersome tasks so we can spend our time doing more interesting things. That can be a good feeling.

What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?

Dealing with state governments can be frustrating. Sometimes fixing the smallest issues can turn into a huge time-sink, because the states are not streamlined in their processes at all. Believe it or not, sometimes we even have to fax documents to these places. That’s not an everyday thing but it just goes to show how behind the times they are.

It can also sometimes be difficult to find the data that we need to accomplish a task. That becomes easier after being at a company for a few years. Getting to know IT people, and other folks in the business can be helpful to overcome these challenges.

Does your job provide work/life balance?

I’ve had better work-life balance at other companies, but its definitely still better than my time in public accounting. My current role has a larger set of responsibilities than what I’ve had at previous companies. The first couple years were worse since I inherited a lot of messes, resulting from poor practices in the past. As I’ve worked to make a lot of improvements with my team, life has gotten easier.

I definitely have a lot of flexibility. Taking time off is relatively easy to do, and I can adjust my hours within reason.

How much time off do you take from work?

I took a couple months off when we had our last baby. Aside from that, I probably take three weeks off each year. Sometimes ‘its just a couple days here and there and more time around the holidays. Since a lot of things have been improving (like I mentioned before), I anticipate being able to take closer to four weeks each year. Technically, I have unlimited vacation time – that’s the policy where I work.

Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?

The flexibility is pretty good. We have a good vacation policy. It’s not unique to where I work, but I often get treated to nice meals and outings by our consultants. This could be a fancy lunch, golf outings, or getting to ride around on a chartered yacht for an afternoon.

Why did you pick your job?

I’ll back up to the beginning. I picked accounting because I learned it was a versatile degree that could lead to many different paths in business. I was interested in a job in the business world and accounting seemed like a great degree to get, compared to other options that had less versatility. Accountants can eventually work in tax, accounting, finance, government, etc. There continues to be a large demand for accounting graduates and they can make a good living.

I chose to start my career in public accounting because I thought it would teach me a lot and open many doors for me. That was completely true. I spent six years in public accounting, but I don’t think someone would need to even spend that much time in public accounting to build a strong network and learn a lot.

I then chose to leave public accounting and work in industry [i.e. a public/private company instead of working for an accounting firm] since it allowed me to have a better work/life balance, as my we were ready to start a family. I think it’s possible to have a family, while working in public accounting – a lot of people do. However, the demands of the job are constant and more sacrifices must be made between professional and personal life.

What would you do if you had to change careers?

I would probably consider doing computer science, or being a data scientist.