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National Compensation 2013

In 1970, a couple of years into his commerce degree at Queen’s University, Paul Cherry’s career came into focus: he was going to be a professional accountant. His calling set, Cherry jumped at the offer of a summer job at Coopers & Lybrand for $550 a month — a “pretty darned sweet” package, he recalls. As he contemplates today’s CPA compensation, Cherry’s memory dims trying to recall his salary as a newly minted CA. All he can say is that the professional accountant has come a long way.

The 2013 CPA Canada national compensation survey will be published and available on the CPA Canada site this month and the numbers are, once again, impressive. No matter the mix of accounting bodies, the profession’s wage-earners are equal to the challenge when compared with their counterparts in finance and professional business services.

“I look back to the salaries of the early 1970s and I can’t say I’m shocked that we’re doing so well,” says Cherry, OC, FCPA , FCA , chairman of the IFRS Advisory Council and former chair of the Canadian Accounting Standards Board. “In the intervening years, from our leading role in setting national and international standards — which reflects our growing importance to all things business — to professional accountants finding themselves in what seems like every public, private and government sector, we’re needed. I guess we should be paid in ways that echo whatever the business world deems worthy of that need.”

Compensation by business sector

The survey found that the mean average compensation calculated from all working sectors, age ranges and regions in the country is $141,000. CPAs employed in industry top the compensation list at an average of $163,000, followed by professional services at $142,000. Industry’s mining and oil and gas CPAs lead all sectors (except for holding, conglomerate) with hefty mean averages of $194,000 and $203,000. “That accountants in extractive industries receive the highest salaries is entirely unsurprising,” says Kevin Johnson, CMA, managing vice-president at corporate headhunter Robert Half in Alberta. “These sectors have been hot and in demand. As a result, for me, these surveys are important vis-a-vis watching the progress of the gap between mining, oil and gas and other sectors.” Prior to joining Robert Half, Johnson — a past chairman of CMA Calgary’s board of directors — earned his practical experience at PanCanadian Petroleum Corp. (now Encana) as a senior business analyst. “Like all salary surveys, their real worth to the accountant is benchmarking — seeing what’s up in each area and where you, the employee, stand in the crowd and whether you’re happy with it.”

This yardstick is skewed if the survey’s mean average is all CPA s use for measuring their progress. The median in these charts better describes where the majority of CPAs fit. The median is the compensation middle-point, the 50th percentile value for the 21,147 respondents to the survey.

Because this study is a first for CPAs, Kevin Dancey, president and CEO of CPA Canada, views it as a moment-in-time snapshot of the profession — 2013 — and just one of many pivot-points to come in the ever-evolving transition to the CPA. Looking to past surveys is of little help, and the profession’s future is even less definable in terms of divining trends from the survey. As he looks at averages and contemplates any deeper meaning from the survey, he chuckles: “There are always dangers in averages. I think of averages as the guy who swam across the flooded street and drowned. The average depth of the water was three feet. Well, that average wasn’t terribly relevant to him.”

And a description of how an average is derived (and what it comprises) has to be made. The survey includes CEOs and veteran partners earning from $800,000 to well over $1 million in salary alone. “Those have huge impacts on the mean,” says John Tabone, principal, member value and research services at CPA Canada. “Also, if you look at the median, 50% of people are making less than that median. So if you’re thinking, I’m doing bad because I’m not making the mean, well no. If you’re around the median, you’re much like the typical member of the profession. And the reality is that that is still a pretty darn good salary compared to the average salary of most other professionals.”

Making compensation comparatives to other designations is problematic. Unlike the CPA Canada survey, studies from competing designations do not follow the full career cycle of their graduates. MBA surveys, for example, detail salaries for those who have just entered the job market or who are at mid-career. According to studies by Payscale.Com, mid-career MBAs earn a median income of $104,000, if you average the designation’s major specialties of finance, international business, marketing, technology, accounting and business management. “The MBA is clearly a stepping-stone or leg-up to entry in these areas,” says Leigh Gauthier, director, careers, full-time MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “There is a trust and respect for their expertise that demands a certain remuneration. Yet, how the degree affects the person throughout a career — in maintaining his or her upward trajectory and compensation — is a hard one to determine.”

Compensation of owners/age

The difference for Dancey is that the CPA is a profession, not simply a degree. As a profession it requires qualifying practical experience, continuing professional development, unified qualifying exams and a strict code of conduct. “As a result, how helpful is it to try to compare a designation with the progress of someone with a professional credential?” he asks. “Looking at doctors and lawyers could be better, but they have little in common [relative to expertise and interest] with the CPA’s skillsets in accounting, tax, business, finance and management.”

“Because it is a profession, one with sometimes almost obsessive areas of interest,” says Cherry, referencing a career working on standards, “the ‘what’s your worth?’ thing doesn’t come into play for more than a few of us. It’s more ‘are you happy in your work?’” Early in Cherry’s career, he moved from working on fast-track compensation packages to crucial yet less lucrative work building groundbreaking national and international principles that guide accounting practices. “Still, it’s rather nice to see young people coming out as professional accountants with sizable starting salaries.” The survey reveals that the median compensation for CPAs younger than 35 is $83,000. And the steady climb in compensation through the majority of careers is heartwarming. “If you look at under 35 [$97,000] and compare it to the 55 to 64 age range [$192,000], by the mean average it pretty much exactly doubles,” says Paul Long, manager, marketing and market research at CPA Canada. “And when you look at this from the median, it’s roughly a 60% increase.”

The Graduate Management Admission Council (owner of the Graduate Management Admission Test) reported that the median salary for new 2012 MBA hires in Canada was US$81,443. Gauthier, who directed Rotman’s 2013 Full-Time MBA Employment and Salary Report, says that the median base 2012 salary for its newly minted 2012 class is $85,000. “Their average age was 27 and they had four years of previous postgrad work experience,” she adds. The tuition for Rotman’s two-year program is $87,532 for its 2015 graduating class.

The top earners remain owners in industry and partners in accounting firms. Yet all other categories of ownership have a similar percentage difference between compensation at the median and 75th percentile, compared to owners and partners in non-traditional business and public practice. Sole practitioners’ total compensation rose $53,000, or 53%, from the 50th percentile to 75th percentile. Partner compensation increased $97,000, or 57%, and owners/partners of non-accounting businesses saw a 52% increase of $86,000.

Indeed, of the 21,147 CPAs who took this survey, 16,743 respondents were receiving compensation from positions outside professional public practice firms. Overall, the professional accountant is fully entrenched at the most influential and highest levels of authority throughout the business world.

Compensation by Major City

Compensation - all PAs

Sole Practitioners

About the Author

Robert Colapinto


Robert Colapinto is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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