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Accounting In Small Town U.S.A.

By Elizabeth J. Nolan

For many people, going from Athens, Greece to Paris, France sounds exciting, but going from Athens, Texas to Paris, Texas doesn't. For some people though, driving those two-lane, blacktop roads of east Texas is exactly where they want to be. Most articles discussing the attractive career choices and exciting job opportunities associated with being an accountant emphasize the "professional" in the practice of public accounting; the "big wig" on the corporate ladder for industry; the "bureaucrat" in the governmental position, or the "agent" in a regulatory or law enforcement position. Few articles ever actively encourage the accounting student to consider accounting in a small, local practice. But, there are real accountants, doing real accounting in every little nook and cranny that calls itself a town, village, city, or hamlet. Any accountant that enjoys this lifestyle, will lead a life that is just as fulfilling and interesting as the lives of their more worldly associates.

Sometimes accounting professors complain, "There are students who graduate and just stay in their little towns." They imply that this group of graduates are not living up to their potential. I feel just the opposite. Those graduates practicing in their small town are doing a real service, in a professional manner, in a respected field, aiding friends and community. Many of these accountants also take an active part in church and civic organizations, assuring the accuracy of these records, introducing ideas such as budgeting and separation of duties, and teaching concepts such as understanding the use of financial statements for decision-making purposes. Their often free or underpaid advice allows these clubs to continue serving the community. Their assistance keeps the city on track, makes audits easier for the external reviewer, and leads to less expense for the taxpayer.

Accountants in a small town firm are primarily involved in income tax preparation, audits of local governments or non-profit organizations, and advisory service for small businesses. But, this isn't as dull as it sounds. The questions and problems of small town business folk are numerous and diverse. This type of accounting practice demands that a person be able to think quickly, research well, and dare to consider novel or innovative approaches in answer to unique questions.

Small town accounting is not something that a college course can prepare you for. You will have to keep up with passing fads like worm farming, raising emus, and running catfish farms. You will have to learn some important non-accounting concepts like the difference between fencing wire and bailing wire, or the qualities that make it a race horse and not just common breeding stock. You will need to stay informed about the diverse types of business activities practiced in your community. For everything from farming to retail, non-profit to manufacturing, you will need to be current on any laws, tax regulations, or other related business problems affecting your clients.

Communication skills are very important. You will be called upon to give luncheon talks to civic groups and you will have to gently teach a lady, recently widowed, how to write a check. You will need to write concise, explanatory notes for your client to all kinds of agencies about all kinds of problems. And you may be called upon, in court, to clearly explain the intricacies of accounting to judges, lawyers, and jury members who don't have a clue.

You will work long hours (but so do many people in the other types of accounting professions), although, frequently, you can pick your own hours. You will find that you are well paid for what you do, if you are not afraid to charge what you are worth. You can work your way up so that you are your own boss or, at least, you are in a position to choose who your co-workers are. Job security depends on your honesty, your ethics, and the local economy.

You can practice accounting in a small town without passing the Uniform CPA Exam, however, this designation will open doors for you and allow you to perform audits for additional income. Additionally, this certification will assist you in getting that first job where, hopefully, you begin working with an accounting mentor who will get you in good with the community and teach you the tricks of the trade.

Small town life has a dynamic all its own and you had better understand that dynamic before you decide to work there. An understanding of local politics and who's who in your town is important. In a small town, who you know can make or break you. It will probably be better if you live in or near the community, because it emphasizes your interest in and attachment to the location. You will be an important cog in a small wheel, and you are going to be recognized and noticed wherever you go. If you don't want everyone knowing your business (sometimes before you do) this is not the place for you.

Other problems for the small town accountant: If you want consistency in your job, don't try to make it here. If you donĄŻt like pressure or deadlines, what are you doing in accounting? If you don't want to associate with people on a day to day basis, you may be able to work in a small townĄ­but only if you can find the perfect secretary. It is more likely that you will succeed if you are somewhat outgoing. You need to be honest and able to keep secrets. You will end up in the middle of conversations and feuds that would make the local paper jump or joy, but you will have to learn to keep these secrets just that---secrets.

Accounting in the small town can be the perfect job. Your work can be interrupted by your spouse or kids, or a day perfect for fishing, and your clients won't mind, as long as their work gets done in time. You can dress down. Save the black suits for clients' funerals. You will go to these, because you are more than just their accountant, you are part of the community, part of their family, and part of their lives. If this sounds tempting, this may be the job for you.

Elizabeth (Betty) Nolan is an assistant professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma. She also maintains an accounting practice in Durant, population @ 13,000.

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