Which Accounting Designation Is BEST for Me? (Part 1 of 5)

Today there are so many differentiated accounting streams you can follow at Universities, Technikons and Colleges, that you’ll most probably be left reeling when considering the breadth of options from which to choose. The distinctions are critically important, however, as your decision today ultimately directs your future career path!

As an Accountant in South Africa, the Professional Institution you register with determines the letters you get to add at the end of your email signature (e.g. Sarah Jones, CA(SA)). The knock-on effects of these few magical letters are far-reaching. Often, for example, it determines the type of interest you tend to attract from recruiters.

Ultimately, the Professional Body endeavours to set a benchmark of quality and professionalism for their registered members and strives to ensure (to stakeholders who rely on the accountants) that these standards are met. In layman terms, it means that if a bank employs an accountant registered with SAICA as a Chartered Accountant (CA(SA)), it can rest assured that the individual has achieved a certain level of technical ability and possesses the required professional competencies.

Each Professional Body places immense importance on the message they convey to outside stakeholders (i.e. employers, SARS, international institutions, etc.). By choosing to register with a specific Body, you are effectively aligning yourself with the Institution’s professional brand. It is therefore vital that you have an understanding of how the business community perceives the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different ”Institutional Brands”.

For illustrative purposes, suppose each professional accounting institution is a different type of car. We all agree that the car someone drives profoundly shapes your perception of the person behind the wheel. Suppose I roll with a Mercedes Gelander Wagon (one can dream!): you immediately know I can accelerate to exhilarating speeds, while not losing the ability to navigate rocky 4×4 trails. I have neither compromised on speed, power, comfort nor the utility of travelling through any terrain. It came at a HEFTY price, and to keep the luxury vehicle on the road is an expensive task. At least I know the manufacturing is flawless and the after-purchase service, exceptional!

What if I pitch up with the classic Toyota Hilux? Immediately you notice that I compromised on speed compared to the G-Wagon, as well as on some of the high-end comforts of the latter. What I do have, however, is a car that offers most of the off-road capabilities that the G-Wagon has to offer, with the ability to roam most of South Africa with confidence (albeit not with as much comfort or speed!). Best of all, it’s much more affordable and comes with a manufacturing warranty.

Needless to say, we could choose to take on the road with a VW Polo and still enjoy many of the luxuries the previous two vehicles offer, but one thing is sure: in no way was it built to roam the outskirts and off-roads of the country! It is, however, the perfect vehicle for travelling on our tar roads and, consequently, should get you anywhere you normally would need to go. It’s safe, reliable and inexpensive (not only in the purchase price but also the cost of keeping it on the road). So, although it is less versatile than the G-Wagon and the Hilux, it serves its driver well, as long as you keep to the beaten track!

To bring all this into perspective  – we believe the professional accounting institutions can be compared to the different car manufacturers. Mercedez delivers a product (the G-Wagon) that delivers the highest output and provides the best warranties to its customers; on the other hand, Volkswagen (VW Polo) promises its clients a dependable car for day-to-day travelling purposes, but refrains from marketing the product as an off-road mountain climbing monster 🙂

Deciding on the Professional Institution you train with has many of the same dynamics at play. It informs stakeholders as to your output abilities and the results that can be expected from you: Are you serviceable for most general tasks? Are your able to step it up a gear in terms of technical and other proficiencies if the job demands it? Given the vital information each qualification relays, each Professional Institution has the responsibility to maintain a uniform standard of competency and skill across all of its registered members.

To this end, each Institution institutes different minimum academic requirements (undergrad-, post-grad, Board Exams etc.) and varying continuous professional development criteria to ensure members are always on par value with quality as promised in the unwritten “social contract” signed by the Professional Body and outside stakeholders. (Imagine a HUGE manufacturing recall? It will immediately influence the reliability of the manufacturer, and most definitely decrease the demand for the product should the “manufacturing factory” (Professional Body) continue to ship broken automobiles (sub-standard candidates)). (In the accounting world it could relate to accountants acting grossly unethically #Steinhoff #KPMG #SAICA)

So, how does the market for Polo’s and G-Wagons compare? Well, the total number of Polo’s sold in 2017 far outweighs the total number of G-Wagons sold. The implication is that for the typical South African, the Polo’s every-day functionality and economic price was a far better option than the luxury and versatility of the G-Wagon. Sure enough, everyone would probably have liked to purchase the latter, but the cost is a key consideration and the former is perfectly sufficient for the intended use.

For accountants, the story is exactly the same. Each flavour of accountant has a different function in the economy, and although everyone would like to have the best paying job, the remuneration needs to fit the perceived value-add of the function fulfilled. When choosing an Institution, keep in mind, therefore, that each supplies the global economy with candidates offering a different utility. Neither Institution is better than the other – each brings something vitally important to the table.

So how do I choose?

In South Africa, there are 4 Professional Accounting Institutions that are regarded as the “Main Stream Vehicles” of the accounting industry. Some are stronger and faster, but come at a heftier price. In the weeks that follow, we plan to explore each Institution’s admission requirements; their promise of quality to stakeholders regarding their members; and also, what each body offers to you as the aspiring accountant.

The “Main Stream” Institutions are as follows:

  • South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA)
  • South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA)
  • Certified Institution of Management Accountants (CIMA)
  • Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA).

Check out the next post in the series which takes a deep dive into what SAICA has to offer; how to become a member; and the different designations it offers members!!