The Internal Revenue Service, a bureau within the Federal Department of the Treasury, is one of the major employers of professional accountants in the United States. There are a number of specialized rolls within the agency that fall within one of four IRS divisions. Each of these divisions has a unique purpose and responsibility to serving a different segment of the tax paying populace:
The Wage & Investment Division (W&I) provides services to help individual taxpayers understand and comply with tax laws. W&I employees can focus on one of four areas: customer assistance, relationships and education (CARE), customer account services (CAS), compliance, or electronic tax administration and refundable credits.
The Small Business and Self-Employed Division (SB/SE) examines individuals and small businesses to determine their tax liabilities.
The Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division (TE/GE) makes sure tax-exempt organizations and government entities comply with tax laws.
The Large Business and International Division (LB&I) works on tax cases involving large corporations and multinationals.
As federal government employees, all professionals working within the IRS are paid under the General Schedule (GS), which ranges between GS-1 and GS-15. Each grade within the General Schedule has a set pay range, which changes from year to year. Within each grade there are step increases based on length of service and performance evaluations.
This table represents the 2011 version of the General Schedule. It will serve as a reference for the IRS jobs described herein, as each has its GS grade noted.
Annual Rates by Grade and Step
General Schedule Salary Table for 2021 as published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The information shown here includes the 1 percent increase that took effect at the beginning of the year. Locality pay is not reflected in the figures shown here.
Internal Revenue Agents
IRS agents, often referred to as auditors by the tax paying public, interact with individual taxpayers, businesses, tax-exempt organizations, and other entities to ensure they comply with all tax laws. Agents will often travel to the taxpayer’s residence or place of business when determining their Federal tax liability in the course of conducting an audit.
Entry-level internal revenue agents generally audit the tax returns of small businesses that operate in similar industries. As a result, agents develop their expertise specific to the industries in which they work.
Minimum requirements for these entry-level positions:
- U.S. citizenship
- Four-year degree
- Minimum of 30 semester hours of accounting
New IRS agents start within the GS-5, 7, or 9 grade, depending on qualifications. Education and experience are among the most significant qualifications resulting in this pay variance. Holding a graduate degree or CPA license will help candidates qualify for GS-9. Agents will advance to the GS-11 grade without competition, based on their performance alone; however, agents do compete for promotions to more advanced positions in which they can look forward to GS-12 and 13 pay grades.
Many members of the IRS leadership and executive teams begin their careers as internal revenue agents. In fact, the management career path is one of two major career paths that agents typically follow. The other being tax generalist or a tax specialist within a particular area of tax law or specific industry.
Senior revenue agents coordinate examinations and address the more complex tax issues related to tax shelters, mergers and acquisitions, and global operations, which are typically associated with entities such as large national and multinational corporations. These senior positions are found within the Large Business and International Division (LB&I) of the IRS.
It isn’t necessary for those with significant professional accounting experience to start in entry-level positions. Experienced accountants often pursue senior internal revenue agent positions, which begin at the GS-13 pay grade.
Minimum requirements for these senior revenue agent positions:
- U.S. citizenship
- At least one year of specialized experience with increasing responsibility in diversified accounting or auditing work
- One of the following:
- Bachelor’s degree or higher in accounting from an accredited college or university with a minimum of 30 semester hours in accounting
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate by exam granted by a U.S. jurisdiction
- A combination of education and experience equivalent to a major in accounting
Senior agents serve a number of areas of specialization within the LB&I division:
- Financial Products and Transactions Examiners (FPTE) examine, research, and evaluate corporate tax returns, often dealing with the most complex financial activities and resulting tax issues.
- International Examiners (IE) are responsible for examining, researching, and assessing corporate tax returns to determine tax liabilities related to international transactions.
- Employment Tax Specialists (ETS) examine employment tax returns filed by large businesses.
- Computer Audit Specialists (CAS) analyze complex computerized accounting systems and search for improvements in the use of computer-assisted audit techniques.
Tax Compliance Officers
Tax Compliance Officers (TCOs) audit financial records of individual and business taxpayers. The work performed by TCOs doesn’t involve them traveling to business and individual taxpayer locales the way that internal revenue agents do.
This doesn’t mean they have fewer responsibilities. In fact, TCOs often have even more general responsibilities that include helping to resolve technical tax payer issues while serving as resources for citizen tax payers in need of educational assistance concerning tax law and tax-related accounting. Interestingly, TCOs also serve other members of the agency internally by lending their expertise on tax law and tax-related accounting.
Tax compliance officer positions are open to business majors and others who have a minimum of six semester hours of accounting or who can pass an accounting proficiency test.
Although tax Compliance officers start at the GS-5 pay grade and advance up to a GS-9 based strictly on performance, there is competition for promotions to higher grades.
Tax specialists help taxpayers who have questions about filing returns. Their primary function is to help taxpayers voluntarily comply with tax code. Tax specialists have a unique role within the IRS as the taxpayer’s advocate. A tax specialist’s duties include:
- Offering guidance about technical tax issues, tax-related accounting, and other matters related to filing tax returns.
- Conducting surveys, studies, and focus groups to determine how effective existing IRS tax-specific products, services, and communications are.
- Customizing communication materials to help taxpayers voluntarily comply with tax laws.
- Acting as a liaison among IRS functions that involve compliance outreach activities, education, and volunteer programs.
- Helping walk-in taxpayers during tax season.
Most tax specialists have bachelor’s degrees in accounting, business, or finance from programs that include a minimum of six semester hours of accounting. Some enter the profession without meeting this semester hour requirement by passing an accounting proficiency test. Tax Specialists start at GS-5 and advance to GS-9 without competition, but do compete for the more advanced, higher paying positions.
Applicants with bachelor’s degrees from programs that included at least 12 semester hours of accounting courses, and who have some experience in tax preparation work, may qualify for Senior Tax Specialist positions. These senior positions offer starting salaries ranging from the GS-9 to GS-13 pay grade. The higher pay grade is available to those with graduate degrees and a number of years of experience in accounting or tax work.
Tax examiners have a wide variance in pay (GS-04 to GS-12), which depends heavily on their level of experience, the complexity of the returns they process and whether they are employed with the IRS full time or seasonally.
Tax examiners often do clerical work, such as reviewing tax returns and entering them into accounting information systems for processing. Many tax examiners review filed tax returns to make sure they are accurate and complete; with a particular focus on making sure claimed tax credits and deductions are legitimate. Most tax examiners deal with the more simple tax returns filed by individuals or small businesses, although some do work with more complex tax issues, such as pensions or business net operating losses.
Examiners who identify problems or who have questions about returns are responsible for contacting taxpayers by mail or phone in an effort to quickly resolve the issue. This usually involves notifying taxpayers in the event that they’ve paid the incorrect amount of taxes, which would then require either a refund or a request for additional payment. When in contact with taxpayers, examiners are in the unique position to answer taxpayer questions. This often involves providing e-help and e-services to taxpayers, a growing number of which are filing electronically.
IRS Tax examiners either hold bachelor’s degrees or have one year of full-time specialized experience in a profession that involved accounting, bookkeeping, or tax analysis. The IRS offers both full-time tax examiner positions and seasonal positions to accommodate the rush during tax season.
Correspondence Examination Technicians have a similar job description, but this position is seasonal by definition and requires techs to work in a strictly supportive capacity with virtually no discretionary freedom. Technicians are responsible for examining simple tax returns during tax season, and communicating with taxpayers only for the purpose of clarification. They cannot make requests for additional payment or issue refunds. Technicians also assist tax compliance officers and IRS Agents during audits and examinations.
Working primarily in the Wage and Investment (W&I) and Small Business- Self Employed (SB/SE) divisions, contact representatives field phone calls to assist taxpayers who have questions. They also serve taxpayers in person who visit their local IRS offices.
Contact representatives deal with resolving tax issues such as delinquency in payment. These resolutions often include setting up liens or installment payment agreements. The resolution process usually involves researching taxpayers’ income and other financial obligations to better determine their ability to pay, and the amount they can afford. Contact representative positions are also available seasonally, although most representatives work full time.
This is a GS-04 to GS-12 position that doesn’t require a degree, although most representatives are associate’s degree holders. The higher end of this widely variant pay grade scale is comprised of full time employees, while seasonally employed representatives make up the lower end.
Appeals Officers conduct conferences to settle cases when taxpayers dispute their tax obligations and appeal IRS rulings on their tax case by filing a petition in U.S. Tax Court. The Appeals Officer is a neutral mediator between the IRS and the taxpayer, and has the authority to make the final decision on behalf of the IRS to approve a final settlement.
This position is for experienced accounting professionals with bachelor’s degrees or higher and offers starting salaries that range from the GS-11 to GS-15 pay grade levels.
Internal Revenue Officers
Although experienced accountants or new graduates with accounting majors can pursue Internal Revenue Officer positions, these positions don’t actually require a background in accounting. Internal revenue officers reach out to taxpayers who have become delinquent so as to collect tax debts and obtain delinquent tax returns. The responsibilities of a revenue officer include:
- Interviewing taxpayers and their representatives, usually at the taxpayer’s place of business or residence
- Obtaining and analyzing financial information to determine the taxpayer’s ability to pay the tax bill
- Collecting money for taxes due
- Garnishing bank accounts and wages or seizing property to pay delinquent taxes
- Educating taxpayers on their obligations to file and pay taxes
Entry-level requirements for this job are either a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or experience and knowledge about organization and commercial practices, investigative techniques, and the collection of delinquent loans. Training for revenue officers includes tax law, business law, investigative techniques and enforcement procedures. These positions are classified within the GS-9 to GS-13 pay grade.
Valuation and Appraisals
The IRS has an engineering program, where professionals known as IRS engineers lend their expertise within specialty industries that include mining, petroleum, and industrial engineering to address technical issues encountered in complex tax returns around areas related to:
- Capital Gains
- Capitalizing versus expensing purchases
- Tax Credits
- Valuation Issues
The main area of interest in the IRS engineering program for accountants is the valuation of real and personal property using generally accepted appraisal principles. These valuation positions include:
- Accountant – Valuation Specialist
- Real Property Appraiser
- Personal Property Appraiser
- Business Valuation/Intangible Property Appraiser
Criminal Investigation Special Agents
With a background in accounting and a desire to become involved in law enforcement, an applicant may pursue a career as an IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent. Special agents are responsible for enforcing tax, money laundering, and Bank Secrecy Act laws. Special agents are primarily investigative and forensic accountants who track the movement of money in the fight against all types of crime involving large sums of money, which include the international drug trade, and white collar crime.
Special agent positions are highly competitive. All applicants must undergo a medical examination, drug test, background investigation, and tax audit. Accepted candidates attend a comprehensive training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. The training of special agents includes the recovery of computer evidence, including the use of specialized forensic technology to recover encrypted, password protected, or otherwise hidden financial data.
After training, successful candidates may be offered jobs based on the IRS’ criminal investigation needs in specific locations. Salaries for special agents depend on location, cost of living adjustments, and any previous federal work experience they may have. Although these positions start between the GS-5 to GS-9 pay grades, special agents also receive 25% Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP) above the standard GS pay rates.
IRS special agents work closely with other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies and have diverse work opportunities. For example, agents may be involved with multi-agency task forces, such as the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force or the U.S. Attorney’s Telemarketing Fraud Task Force. Agents also have the option of becoming Computer Investigative Specialists.