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Financial controllers hold high-level leadership roles and oversee businesses' accounting activities. The demand for financial controllers continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 17% growth in financial management careers from 2020-2030.
Financial controllers generally work in the private sector and oversee organizations' finances. The most qualified candidates typically hold advanced degrees, industry certifications, and years of accounting or financial experience.
If you are interested in how to become a financial controller, continue reading to learn about the typical steps, education, and certifications to obtain this position.
Steps to a Financial Controller Career
We list the typical professional and educational requirements for becoming a financial controller. Aspiring professionals can follow these steps to pursue work in the field:
- Earn a Bachelor's Degree: Earning a bachelor's degree in accounting or finance provides a strong foundation for advanced accounting study and industry work. These degrees typically take four years to complete.
- Obtain a Master's Degree: A graduate degree, like a master's in accounting or an accounting MBA, allows enrollees to specialize in their field. Advanced credentials can help candidates secure high-level accounting careers. Master's programs take about two years to complete.
- Take the CPA Exam: Once accounting students have satisfied the 150 credit requirement, they can sit for the Certified Public Assistant (CPA) exam. If test-takers pass the exam, they earn CPA certification.
- Earn CPA Licensure: Professionals can earn CPA licensure by fulfilling the requirements from their state's board of accountancy. Once they obtain their licenses, accountants can seek employment and legally practice public accounting.
- Obtain Professional Accounting Experience: Prospective controllers need extensive accounting experience. Working for firms, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations can provide the practical experience that future controllers need. Accountants should obtain at least five years of public accounting experience.
- Pursue Employment as an Assistant Controller: Many hiring companies seek financial controllers with assistant controller experience. Professionals may work in these positions for several years before advancing to senior financial controller roles.
Required Education for a Financial Controller
Financial controller candidates can improve their chances of landing a job by pursuing graduate degrees. A bachelor's degree in accounting typically meets the minimum requirements for controller positions. However, hiring managers often prefer applicants with master's degrees in accounting or MBAs in accounting or finance.
Since controllers must demonstrate leadership and financial guidance, an MBA offers well-rounded preparation for this management role. These versatile degrees cover financial analysis, taxation, forecasting, and business strategy.
Earning a graduate-level degree can lead to more opportunities for professional advancement. Holding a master's or MBA communicates industry expertise to employers. A controller who holds a master's degree can also negotiate for promotions and higher salaries.
- Read about bachelor's degree programs in accounting
- Read about master's degree programs in accounting
- Read about MBA degree programs in accounting
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Certifications and Licensure for Financial Controllers
While not required, financial controllers can pursue certification and licensure to indicate proficiency in the field. The CPA certification indicates successful completion of the CPA exam, while a license permits individuals to practice public accounting professionally. Continue reading to learn about more certification opportunities.
Some employers may expect applicants to hold CPA credentials. Depending on the organization's function and size, employers may prefer other certifications, such as chartered financial analyst (CFA) or certified management accountant (CMA).
Certifications demonstrate candidates' industry qualifications and expertise to prospective employers. Holding certifications can also help financial controllers advance into executive-level positions. Professionals can seek certification through organizations like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants or the American Association for Investment and Financial Management.
CPA, CFA, and CMA certifications require applicants to demonstrate work experience and pass the respective exams. Learn more about specific accounting certifications and exams through the links below.
- Learn how to earn a CPA certification
- Learn how to earn a CFA certification
- Learn how to earn a CMA certification
Working toward a finance controller position takes years of study and work experience. Hiring requirements vary among companies, but candidates should include all academic and industry experience on their resumes. Accounting professionals can increase their chances of securing controller jobs by pursuing optional educational opportunities.
- Management Accounting Degree Concentration: Financial controllers oversee departments and need a strong educational foundation in management. An applicant with a specialization in management accounting can stand out among their competition.
- Ph.D. in Accounting: Earning a Ph.D. in accounting demonstrates the highest level of achievement in accounting education. Professionals who hold these degrees can pursue advanced positions in the industry.
- Mentorship Programs: A professional looking to secure an assistant controller or financial controller position can benefit from a mentorship. These programs often help enrollees gain confidence, develop expertise, and expand their professional networks.
Required Experience for a Financial Controller
Prospective controllers must indicate their job readiness through their resumes and accomplishments. Education, certifications, and work experience demonstrate that candidates understand generally accepted accounting principles and tax law.
Since most companies value experience and education, internships can positively impact future career opportunities. Accounting internships and practicums can help prepare professionals for careers in the industry.
Students often participate in these programs for college credit or following graduation. Both options provide accounting professionals with practical experience and the opportunity to build their professional networks.
Should I Become a Financial Controller in Accounting?
Those considering becoming a financial controller in accounting should explore the career's pros and cons.
- Careers in financial management offer lucrative salaries and a positive job outlook.
- The education and experience required for controllers develops expertise in the field.
- Controllers can diversify their interpersonal and analytical skill sets by working with numbers and people.
- Working as a controller provides valuable management experience that helps professionals advance their careers.
- The path to becoming a controller can take more than a decade to complete.
- Controller positions may have steep requirements, including college degrees, certifications, and years of experience.
- Controllers oversee their department and an organization's finances, which some candidates may find overwhelming.
- Candidates often need to spend several years as assistant controllers before applying to financial controller positions.
The Job Hunt
Applicants can increase their chances of landing controller jobs by taking advantage of school and industry resources. Universities typically offer job fairs for students and alumni to interview with hiring companies. Internship and mentorship programs can provide connections, recommendations, and opportunities to advance professionally.
An accounting professional exploring how to become a financial controller can also use the job boards and resources provided by the organizations listed below.
- American Accounting Association Career Center: This accounting organization offers career resources, job postings, and networking opportunities for employers and prospective employees.
- iHireAccounting: Candidates can use this online job board's industry-focused, user-friendly search with trending job titles, cities, and skills.
- eFinancialCareers: This job board offers industry news and advice, job postings, plus recruitment resources.
- American Association of Finance and Accounting: AAFA provides staffing and recruitment resources for job-seekers and accounting employers.
Read more tips on job searching:
- How do you professionally network in accounting?
- Is it worth working with a recruiter?
- How do you write a resume?
Controllers obtain valuable management experience that supports future career advancement into executive roles. Company treasurer and Chief financial officer (CFO) roles can be natural next steps for experienced financial controllers.
- Similar to a financial controller, a treasurer oversees financial planning and staff management. Treasurers also hold more personnel responsibilities, including evaluating staff members.
- Treasurer positions require similar education requirements and work experience as controller positions.
- Company treasurers make an average salary of $80,280 as of September 2021.
Chief Financial Officer
- A CFO holds the most senior position within an organization's financial department. Typical responsibilities include financial planning, managing accounting teams, and developing corrective solutions.
- While CFO positions require similar education credentials to controllers, these roles typically require additional management experience.
- CFOs earn an average salary of $137,110 as of October 2021.
Questions About the Financial Controller Career Path
What degree do you need to become a financial controller?
A bachelor's degree in accounting may satisfy the minimum requirements for financial controller roles. However, hiring companies generally prefer candidates with graduate degrees like a master's in accounting or an MBA with an emphasis in accounting.
How long does it take to become a financial controller?
Education and experience requirements may take about 10 years to complete for aspiring financial controllers. However, work experience requirements vary among employers.
What certifications do you need along the financial controller career path?
While certifications are optional for financial controllers, some may obtain CPA licensure. However, some companies may prefer professionals with CMA or CFA credentials.
Are financial controllers in demand?
The BLS reports a positive job outlook for financial controllers. Projections indicate that financial management careers will grow 17% from 2020-2030.
What is the difference between a CFO and a controller?
A CFO holds the most senior financial leadership position within an organization. Typically, a controller reports to and collaborates with the CFO.
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