By Cesar Canizales
Army veteran and North Lake College graduate Wesley Wilson experienced a life-changing moment on a battlefield in Afghanistan in September 2011. His convoy had just been ambushed; fortunately, he escaped injury. Once back on base, he decided he was ready to move on with his life.
"It put everything in perspective. I thought: if I'm going to live my life, what's the best thing I could do? What do I really want?" Wilson asked himself. "First thing, I wanted a family, but I didn't want the military life."
Wilson left the Army, moved to Texas and enrolled at North Lake to study finance, but after talking to friends and family, he decided to major in accounting instead. "I liked the idea of a better work-life balance that a job in accounting offered. Being a financial advisor meant selling a lot, meeting clients after hours, and bringing in new clients," Wilson recalled. "I wanted something more stable where I could work from 9 to 5."
Numbers for the Dallas-Fort Worth indicate that Wilson should find the accounting job he wants in the area. In March 2016, more than 4,200 accounting positions were posting (non-duplicated), according to EMSI. The Dallas-Fort Worth area added 8,400 accounting and auditing jobs between 2001 and 2015 alone.
In the U.S., the number of jobs for accountants and auditors climbed 10.9 percent between 2001 and 2015; in the DFW region, that number grew 29.6 percent during the same period. And in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the median hourly earning is $33.31 per hour, compared to $32.20 per hour nationally.
Wilson, who worked in graphic design in the Army, took his first accounting course in 2014 at Brookhaven College and enjoyed it. He enrolled in his second accounting class at North Lake with faculty member Stephanie Swaim.
"She's a great instructor," Wilson said about Swaim. "We did practical exercises, and she taught me what I would be doing as an accountant."
Swaim, who also studied at North Lake before she became an instructor at the college, said students in accounting need to learn that what they are studying matters on a day-to-day basis, so she tries to find context in the material she teaches.
"If you're just studying something, you have no idea what it's about. You have no concept of how you might use the information, and it becomes difficult to learn it," Swaim added. "If I just tell them how to apply the material, it's difficult to absorb it, so I try to bring context and relevance to the material."
Swaim said every business needs accounting, and she compared businesses to sports. "Every sport has a score, and accounting is score-keeping for business. You figure out how much is coming in and how much is going out. If students can think about accounting in the way you keep score in business, then they can compare statistics, just as they do in baseball," she stated.
Accounting is a very client-driven business, according to Swaim, and accountants "need to be collegial and detail-oriented. If anything slips through the cracks, it can generate significant errors," she explained.
Wilson said his Army experience as a graphic designer prepared him for a career in accounting: "It taught me to think outside the box, how to talk to people and to be diplomatic."
Cencelia Pierre, an accounting faculty member at Mountain View College, said, "In accounting, you can 'get it' or you can learn it, and some students just 'get it.'" She added that she knew from early on that accounting was for her, and she can tell when students "get it."
"They see how credits and debits work. They have a good work ethic, and that ethic in academia carries over into their work," Pierre said. "I love students who walk into my office because those are the students who have a keen interest in learning. Students who seek me out, ask for help and ask questions--they get it instinctively, or they roll their sleeves up to get it."
Pierre teaches the CPA Starter program for the Dallas County Community College District. The program is designed for people who already have a bachelor's degree or higher credential, and it is required by the state in order to get a Certified Public Accountant's license. Mountain View is one of only four institutions that are allowed to administer the program. Pierre said her students have a variety of academic backgrounds.
"We have a lot of students who have undergraduate degrees in accounting. Others have degrees in economics and finance – and some even have law degrees. The ones with law degrees realize there are not enough jobs for attorneys and that there are more opportunities for CPAs, so they take our course," Pierre added.
Valerie Marembo enrolled in the CPA Starter program after she earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in business administration from a university in Canada. She said one of the best things about accounting is that "accountants are always in high demand. I never had a tough time finding a job. It's highly transferable, and you can work anywhere in the world."
Marembo said she hopes to work in corporate America, and eventually she wants to work overseas, maybe in China, after she takes the CPA exam later this year. "I want to travel, and that's a big sell in accounting," she stated. "The work pays well, and with little tweaks, I could do it anywhere."
Swaim said accountants can choose from several areas of specialization. "Accountants, like lawyers, learn a bit of everything and then specialize. When I was an accountant, I went into audits. Tax and forensic accounting are specialties, too."
Wilson, who is enrolled at the University of North Texas in a dual bachelor's and master's program, said he would like to go into tax after he gets his CPA credentials. "Eventually, I would like to work for the federal government because I could retire in 14 years, since the government would count my military service," he added.
Pierre said students also can opt to get an accounting certificate. "That would give those who are sharp and committed a foot in the accounting world. They can go to a small company and work as bookkeepers, or they can go to corporate America and become entry-level accounting clerks," she added. "But those who earn an associate degree in accounting have an edge over those who complete a certificate. In the corporate world, the associate (degree) commands a little more respect. Obviously, it depends on the individuals involved and how well they sell themselves."
Wilson said the firefight he was in was an "eye-opening experience. Every time I left the base, I would think about what I wanted to do with my life. It put everything in perspective." He found his passion in accounting and hopes to start a family in the future, too.
For more information about the accounting programs at North Lake and Mountain View colleges, contact Stephanie Swaim at
email@example.com or Cencelia Pierre at