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Accountants: Tax season's hottest job

Benjamin Franklin summed up two things that remain constant in life: Death and taxes.

But while there is no way to avoid death, a skilled accountant can be trusted to hunt for every legal deduction and credit available to lower your tax bill and reduce the risk of an IRS audit. No wonder government data suggests accountants will be in demand for years to come. However, there is more to this finance career than just the tax season.

Ten months of taxes

Of course, accountants can focus on different fields of practice, but taxes are a major component of many accounting careers. Paul Herman has been an accountant for 25 years. As the principal certified public accountant for his firm Herman & Company, he says tax season extends far beyond the April 15th filing deadline.

"People think of tax season as January through April 15th, but there are a lot of returns that go on extension," said Herman. "Tax season really runs through October 15th."

According to Herman, up to 40 percent of individuals file for an extension on their tax returns, which means the work continues into the fall months. In addition, business returns have their own set of requirements, including quarterly payroll tax payments. While November can be a quiet month with no filings due, work ramps up again in December as accounting firms prepare for the start of the next tax cycle.

Accounting: Learn the 'language of business'

While tax season may be prime time for many accounting firms, accountants do more than calculate adjusted gross incomes and itemize deductions. Herman's firm also offers clients retirement and estate planning as well as bookkeeping services. The American Institute of CPAs says accounting careers may also focus on fraud prevention and detection, forensic services, and auditing, among other specialties.

John Herndon is an adjunct accounting professor and consultant who has a special focus on venture capital. Last year, his graduate students at California State University, East Bay, took their lesson out of the classroom and into the real world. His class learned to write business plans, create forecasts and assess markets on behalf of nine start-up businesses. Ultimately, the students' material was used to land a $525,000 angel investment for a tech firm.

The lesson is that accounting goes far beyond taxes or even tallying numbers on a spreadsheet. Accounting is intertwined in business at virtually every level.

"I was always interested in business," said Herman when asked why he decided to study accounting. "My dad always told me accounting was the language of business."

The secret life of accountants

Though accounting may seem like a stuffy occupation, Herndon says that's not true.

"Accounting is always changing," he said. "You need to be ready to change with it. Go into accounting with an open mind."

At Herman's accounting office, no two days are alike. His typical duties may include answering e-mails, preparing documents or meeting with clients, either in his office or off-site. Herman says being able to help other people is very satisfying, but he also cautions students to prepare to work hard, especially during tax season.

"Realize if you are going to go into accounting, the time demands are significant," said Herman.

During peak times, working on the weekends or into the evening hours is not uncommon. However, accountants working for smaller firms may find they are able to negotiate a more flexible schedule once the tax season rush is over.

Despite the recent rocky economy, there appears to be no shortage of businesses looking to hire accountants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth for accountants and auditors to be 16 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all jobs. In 2010, these professionals earned mean annual wages of $68,690.

How to prepare for accounting's hot jobs

Most accounting positions require at least a bachelor's degree in accounting, and some employers may prefer job candidates with a master's degree. Certain tasks, such as filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, are reserved for certified public accountants. Earning this credential requires 150 semester hours of school -- generally somewhere between a bachelor's and master's degree -- and a national exam.

Herndon suggests students look for programs that offer a diversity of accounting courses to allow them to explore a variety of specialties within the field. In addition, he says professor experience can make a difference.

"How versed are the professors? Are they just teachers or do they consult too?" said Herndon. "That is pretty darn important."

Herndon stresses that teachers with consulting experience understand how accounting practices work in the real world and may be able to better help students transition from the classroom to the workplace. Herman adds that an internship can be an invaluable tool to discovering what accountants do on a daily basis and what to expect in your new career.

Accountants may make a name for themselves during tax season, but they have a career that keeps going all year round.