How They Got Here: CPAs Who Joined the Profession Later in Life Reflect on Their Journeys

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jun 30, 2015

In the May 2015 issue  of The Trusted Professional, we asked managing partners about the advantages and challenges of hiring a newly licensed CPA who chose accounting as a second career. Here, we speak to career changers themselves about what it’s like to take a more circuitous route to the profession.  


Jennifer Pickett 
Controller, Albany

What line of work had you been in? Jennifer Pickett
I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT] in New York City and graduated with degrees in apparel manufacturing and fashion buying and merchandising. I’d wanted to start a clothing company that met the needs of working women, but left the industry to raise a family. My husband and I had four children during our time in New York. We had our fifth when we moved to Albany to be closer to relatives. 

What made you decide to shift to accounting? 
I took three accounting classes at FIT, so I already had some familiarity with it. My husband had his own business at the Commodities Exchange, and I prepared his taxes. When he became a trader, he needed to hire a CPA because mark-to-market accounting is so specialized. After I found a way to save $15,000 on our taxes one year, the accountant recommended that I go into the profession myself. 

When we moved to Albany, there wasn’t much opportunity in apparel manufacturing, so I started working part time as a tax preparer. Several years later, when my youngest was ready for preschool, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in accounting at the University at Albany.  During the four years it took me to complete the program, I also ran my own business, providing bookkeeping and tax services. I interned at UHY and KPMG, and eventually landed at LCS&Z, LLP,  where I was exposed to many facets of the public accounting world. I also became heavily involved with the NYSSCPA’s Northeast Chapter and began teaching finance and accounting courses at UAlbany and Sage College. My experiences in the last five years prepared me well for my current position as controller for Monolith Solar Associates in Rensselaer. 

What was the biggest difficulty you faced? 
The hardest part for me was the work–life balance—going from being a full-time mom, to being a part-time student, to working full time. When I started working full time, it was tax season, so I went from being home a lot to barely being home at all. It was difficult giving my family what they needed while still being able to focus on my new job. I couldn’t have done it without the abundant help from my husband and my mom. 

Studying for classes and the CPA exam was tough. I found I couldn’t study at home because there were so many distractions, so I camped out at Panera Bread. I worked part-time at KPMG while studying for the exam and, as a result, was able to pass all four parts in six months. I see so many new graduates jumping right into full-time work and then never having time to study for the exam. Taking that six months to get the exam out of the way helped me tremendously and enabled me to focus better on my new career. 

How do you think your background has informed your accounting career?
I had much more life experience than most people fresh out of college, and my employer took that into consideration and was happy to pay me more for it. Having a family and homeschooling my kids gave me a lot of leadership experience and honed my organizational skills. I was able to move into a managerial role quickly because of this. When I got involved in the NYSSCPA and became an officer, that helped even more. My interest and experience in manufacturing also gave me an edge in the audit and tax profession because I can approach problems from both the real-world side and the more academic accounting side. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a similar transition? 
Anytime you transition from one area to another, you should have a passion for your new field—not just a desire for change—because you’re going to need to be really committed to make the jump. It takes a lot of work and commitment to meet all of the educational and licensing requirements, especially if you’re transitioning in the middle of your life when you have other responsibilities. It would be good to get some experience in tax or bookkeeping to make sure you like it, because it takes a certain kind of person to thrive in public accounting. I enjoyed working in the fashion world and staying home with my kids when they were young. Now, I’m enjoying my new life as an accountant and am thrilled that I made the choice.

 


 

Stephen T. LoVullo
Audit Partner, Buffalo

What line of work had you been in? Steve LoVullo
I was a journeyman plumber. My father had a plumbing business, and I started working with him when I was in the seventh grade. At first, it was just in the shop, but by high school, I was going on jobs. After I graduated, I wasn’t sure what degree I wanted to pursue in college. My mother was an accountant, and an uncle suggested I follow suit. I looked at him like he had two heads—I didn’t want to go that route. But he told me that it was a good business background to have and that it would help if I wanted to run my dad’s business, so I took his advice. 

What made you decide to shift full time? 
I hurt my back and developed knee problems. My doctor told me that I had better find another line of work soon, or I’d be walking with a limp. But I enjoyed what I was doing so much—I loved handling tools—that I continued to work as a plumber for another three years. Eventually, it got to the point where I couldn’t even bend down to wash my face—I had to squat. So, I finally decided to switch to accounting full time. My father’s response was, “That’s a woman’s job!” Since my mother was an accountant, for him it was something that women did.  But I convinced him to let me try it a while and see how it goes. I went to work for what is now Lumsden & McCormick, LLP, and sat for the CPA exam two years later. 

After I passed, my father called me and said, “Now when are you going to quit?” I told him, “Dad, I’m not quitting. I think I like this.” 

What was the biggest difficulty you faced? 
The biggest challenge was financial. I went from making $24,000 a year as a plumber to $9,600 as an entry-level accountant. I was a single guy living at home and I’d been accumulating sizable amounts of money. It took a while to start making that much again but, eventually, I did, and then some. 

How do you think your background has informed your accounting career?
It’s interesting. I work with commercial clients—businessmen—and one thing I learned from being a plumber was how to think like a businessman. It allows me to connect with my clients on another level. 


 

Charles J. Young
Tax Supervisor, Rochester

Charlie YoungWhat line of work had you been in?
One of my good friends is an officer in the sheriff’s department. I did a few ride-alongs and thought it would be a great job. I joined the force at 21, and stayed there for 20 years as an officer in the road patrol. 

What made you decide to shift to accounting?
In 1986, I got my taxes done at H&R Block and ended up having to write a check to the government. I didn’t like that and decided I’d try to do my taxes myself. I read IRS Publication 17 [Your Federal Income Tax for Individuals] cover-to-cover and found it pretty interesting. The following year, I took the H&R Block tax course and started doing taxes for family and friends. I found that I really liked it. I eventually started a part-time business doing tax returns while I was at the police department.

All the while I was working as a police officer, I had been taking evening courses in business, computer science, math—all sorts of things. I knew that since I could retire from the department after 20 years of service, I’d want to leave and try something else. When I retired, I went back to school full time for my M.B.A. at Rochester Institute of Technology. That particular program qualified me to take the CPA exam. I interned with the firm that is now EFP Rotenberg LLP, and I’ve been there ever since. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced? 
Being an older, nontraditional student was a little hard to overcome with certain firms. It’s not something I can put my finger on, but I felt like I didn’t get a good vibe with some of the recruiters at job fairs. The CPA who ultimately hired me for an internship, though, said he decided to take a gamble on me because I had a maturity he liked. 

Over the past eight years, I’ve developed, quite organically, a specialty in tax resolution and tax controversies that was recognized in the firm and led to me developing a niche for myself and becoming a very important asset for the firm.  

How do you think your background has informed your accounting career?
I like learning and took a lot of different courses throughout my police career, so my background is a lot broader than most. My past experiences, especially, prove helpful during tax season. It’s a very stressful time, but having been through different kinds of stress as an officer, I was equipped to deal with it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a similar transition? 
Recognize what differentiates you from everyone else and use it to your advantage. In my case, as I’m sure is true for others starting their second career, it was maturity and life experience. 


 

Gerald S. Silberstein Gerald Silberstein
Accounting Program Coordinator, Albany

What line of work had you been in? 
My first bachelor’s degree was in biology, and I ran a laboratory for three years after college. During my senior year, however, I noticed that my grades in my major were lower than my grades in other subjects, so I went to the counseling center to try to figure out what else I might want to do. I took an aptitude test and was told that I’d make a mediocre doctor, lawyer or businessperson, but that I’d be one heck of a computer programmer. 

There was a school across the river with lots of computers where I could get something called an M.B.A. Since I did like the accounting and economics courses I’d taken, I enrolled.  From there, I became a consultant for what was, at the time, the third largest health care consulting firm in the United States. 

What made you decide to shift to accounting? 
A lot of the hospital boards of directors wanted to hear the letters CPA after my name. Ultimately, I liked accounting so much that I went back and got a bachelor’s degree in it so that I could sit for the CPA exam—around the age of 35. I passed all four parts the first time. Then I said, “Now I want a Ph.D.” So, I went back and got it in accounting, finance and statistics.  

I was teaching within four days of submitting my dissertation. Frankly, I did not want to practice traditional accounting. Instead, I was interested in using accounting as a tool for research. I did maintain a small retail practice of my own for a while, doing mostly tax and consulting, but my primary focus now is on teaching and research. I’ve been at the Sage Colleges for three years full time, and one year part time before that. It’s something I really enjoy. The best part of my job is being able to change a student’s life.

How do you think your background has informed your accounting career?
My research is in the area of health care finance and accounting, which involves a lot of statistics. This is why it was so important for me to develop the skills that I did. For example, right now, I’m looking at hospital charges in New York—a 10 percent sample of the 2.5 million discharges a year. I’m doing my best to predict, upon admission, what range of charges is going to be attributed to an individual episode of care. My preliminary results actually allow me to explain about half of the total variation of the data, which, frankly, is astonishing. It may mean we can at least predict the ranges people can fall into with some degree of accuracy. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a similar transition? 
You’ve got to want to be a CPA. It takes dedication. It takes effort. I’ve seen this myself going through the process and I’ve seen it in my students. You have to have a fire in your belly to make it happen. If not, well, I’ve also seen a lot of people fall by the wayside. 

cgaetano@nysscpa.org


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