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When to hire a CPA and when to hire a CIA

Jan 20, 2022

Outsourced accounting services can help your business with a wide variety of roles and responsibilities. From tax planning to financial management to satisfying required regulatory requirements, accountants fill a host of business needs.

But if you’re not steeped in the world of accounting, it can be a challenge to understand different credentials and specializations. Which type is right for your project? Here we introduce the background and capabilities of two core accounting professionals: a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA).

Specialists and niches

Accountants are trained with a broad financial education and can then niche down into a specialized practice area. They can become licensed at a state or national level, demonstrating they have a particular set of skills and education in their field.

At a high-level, CPAs are your go-to for financial reporting such as tax preparation and financial statements. They’re also the professionals who will oversee any regulatory examinations such as SOC, SOX, FDICIA and employee benefit plan audits. CPAs can typically perform a wide range of accounting tasks, including auditing.

Internal auditing, however, is a different niche. CIAs serve more as consultants, helping companies that want to evaluate their internal processes and controls. A CIA can review a variety of internal processes, including compliance procedures, risk management, IT systems, disaster recovery, quality assurance and more. They can also play a role in SOX/FDICIA readiness engagements to ensure the appropriate controls over financial reporting are in place prior to an entity reaching the asset size requiring them to be compliant with SOX/FDICIA reporting requirements.

When do you need a CPA?

Not all accountants are CPAs, but only CPAs are qualified to fulfill certain roles, such as providing reviewed or audited financial statements, quality of earnings reports, attestation services and tax services.

To become a CPA, a professional needs to meet certain educational, experience and examination standards. Each state sets its own criteria for education and experience, but the Uniform CPA Examination is a national standard. The CPA exam is a four-part series of tests covering 1) Auditing and Attestation, 2) Business Environment and Concepts, 3) Financial Accounting and Reporting, and 4) Regulation. CPAs must complete at least 20 hours of qualifying continuing education per year, and a total of 120 over three years (more in some states).

When do you need a CIA?

A CIA is an internal audit professional who has met the education, experience and examination standards set by the Institute of Internal Auditors. This is a globally recognized certification. Professionals who receive the CIA designation may opt to further specialize with additional certifications in Financial Services, Control Self Assessment, and Government Auditing.

Internal auditors assist businesses looking for proactive assistance in ensuring that everything is in order. CIAs act as consultants, helping ensure your processes comply with applicable laws, regulations and best practices.   

A strong internal audit function can help you uncover whether employees are taking shortcuts or circumventing procedures. An auditor can also note improvement areas, such as inconsistencies or redundancies. They’ll also work as a guide and coach, assisting your control owners to tailor practices to your organization.

When do you need both?

CPAs can assist on internal audits where their GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) knowledge can come in handy. At Wipfli, our CPAs who conduct external audits will often consult on internal audit engagements for other clients. A collaborative effort can often provide the greatest impact.

Wipfli brings a consulting approach to internal audit

Be sure your team has the knowledge and skills to fully evaluate risk and coordinate redundancies among the various compliance and risk activities required for your organization.

Wipfli advisors can help your organization improve or establish an internal audit program. We offer co-sourced and outsourced services as well as one-off engagements for special audit areas or projects.

Learn more about Wipfli’s internal audit services.

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Author(s)

Claire M. Jarchow, CPA, CIA
Senior Manager, Internal Audit
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