J2Talk

September 20, 2022

When is the Best Time to Leave the Big Four Accounting Firms? 

By
Lauren Kemp

Who are the big four?

Deloitte

Deloitte is the number one accounting firm in the United States and the world. They began as separate companies of William Deloitte, Charles Haskins, Elijah Sells, and George Touche, but they eventually merged to become Deloitte & Touche. Today, the firm is known as “Deloitte” and has several subsidiaries, including Deloitte & Touche LLP, Deloitte Consulting LLP, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP, and Deloitte Tax LLP. The company is regularly voted as one of the best employers to work for by Fortune Magazine; they hire many entry-level workers from universities and have higher than average base salaries for new employees at $70,698. The company reported revenues of $35.2 billion in 2018 and continues to see annual growth of around 7%, even during an economic recession. 

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC)

PWC ranks second among global accounting firms. Samuel Lowell Price founded it in London in 1849. The company merged with Hoyland and Waterhouse and Coppers & Lybrand to form the company as it is known today. The company has maintained consistent growth over the past decade and comes close to meeting those of Deloitte. Similarly to Deloitte, PWC thoroughly trains current and prospective employees. Their program is online, free, and open to the public. This option is desirable for those earning consulting professional education (CPE) credits. 

Ernst & Young

Ernst & Young is the third highest-rated accounting firm in the world. The firm was created via the merger of Arthur Young & Company and Ernst & Ernst. The merger took place in 1989, and the company is now present in more than 150 countries and has more than 700 offices. They offer services such as assurance, taxes, advisement, and transactions. The company is regularly seen among the top five in DiversityInc Magazine’s top 50 places to work. Like the other big four firms, they offer training programs online and in person, but the materials and class resources are not open to the public. 

KPMG

KPMG is the final big four accounting firm. It has more than 670 offices in more than 150 countries. The firm was founded in 1911 when William Barclay Peat & CO. merged with Marwick Mitchell & co. They have the lowest growth rate among the top four accounting firms, which hovers around 2%; however, they are still continuously growing, merging, acquiring other firms, and making new partnerships. This firm has also been regularly recognized as one of the best places to work by DiversityInc Magazine and has a culturally diverse work environment. KPMG offers services such as audits, advisory services, and tax services. Their website provides free resources for those who wish to learn more online and who seek to earn CPEs. They also offer in-person classes, seminars, and symposiums. 

Why do employers desire big four experience? 

  • Invaluable exposure: Candidates who have experience working for one of the big four accounting firms have been exposed to the tangible/operational side of the business and have a thorough understanding of how business functions, how to identify and solve problems, and how to implement new strategies. 
  • Exceptional training: Many employees who leave the big four accounting firms do so because of long hours and intense pressure that impedes their work-life balance. However, they leave this area with the training and knowledge to excel outside the big four. Candidates from the big four can operate and deliver under pressure, meet deadlines, produce detailed work, and seek to explore more significant opportunities. 
  • Industry exposure: Candidates coming out of the big four track will have vast experience in public accounting; they will also be exposed to the industries their clients operate in. This simplifies the transition to the client side or other business opportunities as they will have a plethora of accounting experience. 

Pros and cons of big four experience

Many employees in associated industries seek to work for the big four. Below are some pros and cons stemming from big four experience.

Pros of big four experience

  • Talent: The big four hire talented and bright employees that are motivated to succeed in the industry. Collaboration among teams is high, so exposure to national and international talent is likely. 
  • Availability to clients: Exposure to top-tier clients is readily available through employment of the big four accounting firms. This involves current processes and controls with prestigious companies, some of which are exclusive to these significant accounting firms. 
  • Responsibility: New employees can progress within the company quickly and begin to oversee junior-level workers. This involves managing their workload, career development, handling reports, and assessing their progress. Few careers offer this management level early in one’s career, adding valuable employment experience beyond the big four accounting firms.
  • Job security: As seen during the beginning o the pandemic, many people in accounting and finance found themselves unemployed due to unforeseen circumstances. The big four remained relatively untouched by layoffs and continued to grow despite economic instability. In most cases, employment via one of these firms is a secure option. 
  • Resume building: Working for one of the above-stated firms gives you a boost compared to other candidates that lack the same experience. If you decide to move on from the big four, you do so with a seal of approval that can garner higher respect and open the door for more opportunities.  

Cons of big four experience

  • Time commitment: If you are involved in the accounting or finance industry, you have heard the term “busy season.” Working during busy seasons often involves ~11 hours daily, occasionally on the weekends, extending for weeks. Although this produces exceptional work experience highly sought after by employers, it can lead to burnout and alter the work-life balance.
  • Pressure: As mentioned above, the big four firms have some of the most prestigious corporate entities as clients, meaning the client demand is greater, expectations are higher, and you may have to work far harder to deliver the expected work.
  • Annual leave: During busy seasons, annual leave/personal time off is unavailable, meaning there is a portion of the year in which you will work continuously. This can cause burnout and also negatively affect work-life balance.

Our suggested timeline and why

At J2T, typically, when we work with candidates, the sweet spot of extinct the big four is in the 3-5 year range (or before a promotion to management). The leadership skills start to develop during this period, and they typically have their CPA license by that time. Employees get an opportunity to work on complicated clients, see a variety of industries, and senior some of their engagements.

Building your arsenal of skills and experiences is essential to accelerate a successful accounting career. Most of the critical components that industry clients like to see: intellectual curiosity, exceptional work ethic, technical accounting experience, problem-solving and time management, and deadline orientation become developed within those first few years. Once employees hit 3-5 years, they are well suited to tackle challenging senior accountant and manager-level roles. Most companies prefer their leaders to have spent a few years In public accounting and have a strong track record of “hands-on, responsible” experience in industry accounting. 

Once a public accountant moves into a manager-level role, they struggle to make a strong exit into the industry. This is in part because most industry hiring managers prefer those tangible skills gained in an industry accounting role and are more likely to compare them with their peers that have a blended background encompassing experience in a “hands-on” role within an accounting team. 

Excellent opportunities exist for these 3-5 year professionals in financial reporting, SEC and technical accounting, internal audit and compliance, general accounting, finance, and consulting. Any of these routes will help round out and elevate a big four background in the job market.

What to do after leaving the big four

For those that decide to leave the big four, there are several common career paths after departure. 

  1. Operational Accounting: Operational accounting is specifically attractive for candidates with big four experience that want to pursue a career as a controller as the position involves month-end closes and journal entries. 
  1. Technical Accounting: Those in technical accounting will assist in complicated accounting transactions such as business combinations, mergers and acquisitions, and derivatives. 
  1. Internal Audit: This path is similar to working for a big four company, but internal audit offers a lot to offer outside the big four. This career has a greater work-life balance outside the big four and allows you to interact with all levels of the company as you conduct an audit. 
  1. Finance/FP&A: Many people who exit a big four firm do so to move into finance. This is not always an easy journey, but CPAs and accountants do grow into finance roles somewhat frequently. 

The big four accounting firms equip employees with the hard and soft skills to excel in their desired careers upon exit. Generally, employers seek candidates who have 3-5 years of experience in the big four due to the advance it provides in knowledge, skills, and abilities within the accounting and finance industries. 

Written by Lauren Kemp

Lauren Kemp, Communications and Marketing Specialist at J2T, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Management with a minor in Latin American studies and a Master of Science in Innovation and Management from Montana State University. Lauren hails from Montana and enjoys reading about the history of her home state. Her bucket-list items include touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and taking an immersion trip to Chile to experience Latin American culture first-hand.

J2T is a recruiting and staffing firm that solely focuses on accounting and finance roles. J2T Flex facilitates all operational accounting needs, both direct hire and contract or contract-to-hire needs. On the direct hire side, J2T Recruiting specializes in senior positions starting at Sr. Accountant up through CFO in direct employment and contract or contract-to-hire conditions encompassing everything in the corporate accounting and finance organizational chart. J2T is a women-owned business exclusively serving the Colorado and Montana markets with the overarching goal to serve you in all areas of the hiring experience.