Securing the Future

Get to the best students early in their college careers.
BY RAYMOND JEFFORDS, MARSHA SCHEIDT AND GREG M. THIBADOUX

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • IN THE CURRENT COMPETITIVE hiring environment, the top students often have career path commitments by their junior year or have narrowed their search to only a few firms by the time they are seniors.
  • THE MOST EFFICIENT AND SUCCESSFUL WAY to match a student with a firm is to develop a relationship with the student prior to recruitment. Do so as early as possible, even as early as the student’s sophomore year in college.
  • EMPLOYING A STUDENT PART-TIME while he or she is in school remains the most effective method of building relationships with potential recruits.
  • CO-OP PROGRAMS WITH LOCAL COLLEGES and universities (so named because of their cooperative nature) involve the student in alternating periods of full-time employment and full-time study, usually in cycles of three to six months.
  • EXTERNSHIPS ARE A HYBRID VARIATION of internships and cooperative education that are short in duration, available for students who are in their freshman year of college and are offered only between semesters or in the summer.
  • MOST PUBLIC ACCOUNTING FIRMS now have a Web site address, and with a little additional development can turn it into a powerful recruitment tool.
  • CPA FIRMS CAN OFFER UNIVERSITY STUDENTS their resources with special projects, through accounting societies including Beta Alpha Psi, Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) chapters, and campus clubs and by getting involved in career-day programs.
RAYMOND JEFFORDS, CPA, PhD, is professor of accounting at the College of Business of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Tennessee. MARSHA SCHEIDT, DBA, CMA, associate professor of accounting and GREG M. THIBADOUX, PhD, professor of accounting, also work at the University of Tennessee.

kimming the cream from the college talent pool isn’t as easy as it used to be. The days when a recruiter for a CPA firm or company could simply arrive on campus, put in a day or two of interviewing and choose the best candidates for the available positions are long gone. In the current competitive hiring environment, the top students often have made job commitments by their senior year and narrowed their search by the time they are juniors. So how can a small or midsize CPA firm or company find and hire premium candidates out of college?

One economical tactic for recruiting from among undergraduates is to develop a work relationship with a student as early as possible. Sophomore year is not too soon. An ongoing program such as a student internship or cooperative work arrangement will eventually provide a firm with a choice of employees who are knowledgeable about the job and compatible with the firm’s culture.

Smaller firms that have been successful finding young staffers who mesh with the culture and are likely to stick around for a couple of years have done it by seeking out the best students before other firms or companies do. Representatives go early to the campuses, meet with sophomores and freshmen and discuss their goals. They explain what the firm or company does and, perhaps most important, what a CPA does.

Firms can seek out students by visiting with a local college or university student services office or by contacting members of the faculty of the school’s business and accounting departments.

What matters most to the recruit?

70% of accounting and finance professionals say “opportunity for advancement” is the most important factor to consider when choosing to work for a company or firm.

Source: A survey of 230 U.S. companies by Accounting Principals, a subsidiary of Modis Professional Services, Inc., Jacksonville, Florida.

INTERNSHIPS ARE WIN-WIN

Employing a student part-time while he or she is in school is still the most effective method of relationship building. Interns can do a variety of important jobs at a firm with the coaching of a good manager. It is a win-win deal for the students: Schools encourage them to pursue their professional interests, and such arrangements allow them flexibility in scheduling work around school obligations.

Of course, simply bringing students and staff together is no guarantee that you will be able to build a meaningful, long-term relationship. In fact, the real challenge of internship programs begins when the student shows up at your office for the first day of “real work.”

It is important that your firm or company have in place an organized and well-thought-out mentoring program. The mentor offers the trainee personal guidance, technical and emotional support and help in adjusting to the firm’s or company’s culture. (See “Someone to Look Up To,” JofA, Nov.99, page 89.)

Many firms will designate the intern’s immediate supervisor as his or her mentor, but it is not unusual to assign a person not directly involved in supervision as mentor. Several characteristics of successful mentors include:

Strong interpersonal skills. The mentor will be the go-to person for your intern, so he or she must be someone who can really listen, who enjoys teaching people to grow both personally and professionally and who works well in teams.

Organizational knowledge. The mentor must understand how to structure the intern’s time to ensure that both the firm and the intern benefit.

Technical competence. It is likely that the student intern will know a lot more about computers and technology than some professionals. Avoid putting a technologically savvy student with a paper person—if the student is bored it may jinx a future hire.

The internship program should be well structured. The full-time staff who will work with the students must be able to pinpoint the skills they expect each student to build—including technical, communication, problem-solving, relationship-building, networking and community-involvement skills.

Based on input from the intern and assessment of the firm’s needs, the student’s mentor should develop a structured activities sequence—a performance plan that defines a specific work objective, describes activities and sets deadlines. The mentor should write a new plan for each major task the firm gives the intern (see the performance plan model).

The full-time staffer should evaluate the intern when the student graduates. The intern evaluation may include an analysis of the skill levels and maturity of the student, the ratio of completed to planned activities and changes in the student’s attitude toward working for a small to midsize firm or company, if any.

As the firm evaluates its own intern program, it should consider

  • The effectiveness of the program as a recruitment tool.
  • The effectiveness of the program in forging links with area colleges.
  • The true costs associated with the program.
  • The attitude of the full-time staff who work directly with the interns.

OTHER INTERACTIVE INITIATIVES

Co-ops. In contrast to internship programs, co-op programs with local colleges and universities (so named because of their cooperative nature) offer the student alternating periods of full-time employment and full-time study, usually in cycles of three to six months. Many smaller firms and companies have been reluctant to adopt cooperative education programs because of their substantial price tag, which includes extensive training and salary costs and may include housing and relocation assistance.

Externships. A hybrid variation of internships and cooperative education is a relatively new concept known as externships. These programs differ in that they

  • Are short in duration, lasting only a few days or a couple of weeks.
  • Are available to students as early as the freshman year.
  • Are offered only between semesters or in the summer.

Typically, an extern will assist a full-time employee with routine operations or work on special short-term projects. Externship is much less costly than a co-op program and can expose a relatively large number of students to the firm in a short period of time.
Although internship, cooperative education and externship programs are effective ways to establish contact with motivated and capable students, there are other initiatives that can attract entry-level staff.

Web sites. For a growing number of young people, the Internet is the primary means of communication and research, both in their personal lives and in school-related activities. In fact, more than 60% of all schools in the United States have Internet access. Most public accounting firms now have a Web site address and, with a little tweaking, can turn it into a powerful recruitment tool.

CASE STUDY

Success With Interns

D. Michael Costello, CPA, founder of Costello, Strain & Co., PC, is the managing partner of a full-time firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As with many area CPA firms, internships have been its most successful way to attract entry-level staff accountants. Of the firm’s 14 current employees, four began as interns and one is now a partner.

For Costello, finding an intern is as simple as making a phone call to the chairperson of local college and university accounting departments. Costello explains over the phone the kind of student he is most interested in finding. He describes the specific needs of his firm and asks the chairperson to post the opportunity on the accounting department’s bulletin board and Web site. Students are asked to reply directly to a preassigned mentor at the firm and to submit a grade transcript and three references.

For every posting, two or three students typically call within a week’s time. The mentor contacts the references to determine if the candidate is suitable. He or she evaluates the transcripts, looking for important traits: good work habits, professional attitudes and good grades. Ideally, Costello likes to find interns who are beginning their junior year of college and who have completed basic accounting principles courses. Nonetheless, his firm recently hired as a summer intern a high-school student who wants to be an accountant.

Costello pays his interns minimum wage. He reminds them when they are hired that they must complete school before he’ll consider them for full-time positions. He also pays bonuses to reward exceptional performance on special projects.

According to Costello, it is important to coordinate the interns’ specific interests and talents with their day-to-day tasks. “We ensure that students who are technology savvy get involved in inputting client transactions and spend enough time on a PC every day,” said Costello. “One of our interns who said she was interested in legal issues was asked to research sources for a litigation project, and went with the CPA to court to get an idea how that research is put to use in a trial.”

Regardless of the interns’ tasks, Costello personally makes sure they are exposed to the full range of day-to-day operations of the firm. This gives Costello a better opportunity to see if the student fits in well with the full-time staff and the firm’s culture. When the student shows potential and there is an entry-level position open, Costello will make the student an offer. Even if an intern seeks employment elsewhere or chooses a career outside accounting, Costello still considers his intern program a success. He says there always is the chance that the intern familiar with the firm will return for a job later in his or her career.

The culture of the firm contributes greatly to the firm’s success at locating new recruits. Costello encourages his student workforce to be open about their goals. The firm tries to facilitate the needs of those students it believes will make good future full-time staff by offering benefits such as tuition reimbursement programs and flexible schedules. “These are just some of the perks a small firm or company can offer a student who would make a great full-time employee,” says Costello. “If you want to attract the best, you have to be willing to meet their needs and offer them what they want.”

—Greg M. Thibadoux

Firms and companies can use the Internet to provide electronic exchange between students and staff, either directly in real time or by follow-up e-mail. The discourse, known as telementoring, can range from career guidance to personal advice to help with formal learning and research projects.
Firms and companies can distribute brochures through student organizations, at career days or by linking the site with other area businesses to draw students to their Web site. They can also use the Web site as a bulletin board to advertise current entry-level positions and to solicit rsums.

Student organizations. The majority of college accounting programs have established student accounting societies including Beta Alpha Psi, Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) chapters and campus clubs.

Beta Alpha Psi, among the most prestigious of these organizations, has over 200 chapters nationwide and has had over 200,000 members since its inception. The national organization sets the requirements, which include two years of college work and a cumulative 3.0 grade point average.

The IMA has approximately 300 student chapters in the United States. These are affiliated with local institute chapters that assist the students with technical support and help by providing community mentors. The IMA also offers an on-line Internet job bank for entry-level personnel.

Student accounting societies are always interested in having professionals speak on career issues and on technical subjects including tax updates, auditing, industry changes and system and software development. Most student organizations are interested in on-site firm visits and tours, too.

Performance Plan
When completed, this performance plan should provide each recruit with a sense of accomplishment.
Intern’s name:

For the week ending:

Supervisor’s name:

Objectives: To aid the recruiter in updating the firm’s PowerPoint slide presentation for career day; to attend career day.

Skills Resources To do Target date Completed Mentor comments
Computer Microsoft PowerPoint On-line tutorial for PowerPoint. October 1    
  Firm’s slide show Review current PowerPoint slide presentation. October 4    
Research Partners Interview partners about updating content of presentation. October 7    
    Document interviews and discuss changes with recruiter. October 11    
Computers Results of research Make changes to files as approved by recruiter. October 18    
    Present PowerPoint slide show to recruiter. October 25    
Oral Communication Career Day Organize materials for career day. November 3    
    Attend career day with recruiter and do tasks as directed. November 4    

Career day. Most colleges and universities sponsor a career day event in the fall and spring semesters to bring potential employers and students together. Freshmen and sophomores often attend such events for career advice, while juniors and seniors are more interested in postcollege employment. These events provide a low-cost opportunity for making contact with students, and they can increase a firm’s profile among students. Recruiters can enhance their effectiveness by bringing a current intern to career day. A peer is usually more aware of other students’ concerns and interests and may be better able to address them. Recruiting firms should distribute brochures with the firm’s Web address and telementoring instructions.

Career day is typically sponsored through the college’s placement services or career planning office. Some universities allow firms to register by e-mail (check out area colleges’ Web sites).

Resource List

The following addresses and Web sites may be useful for learning about student organizations and mentoring programs.

Student projects. Students enrolled in upper-level accounting and special topic courses often are required to complete a research project. Offering access to the firm’s library and technical updates as well as working directly with students in developing and researching ideas lets smaller firms and companies establish important relationships with students using minimal resources. Such projects enable the firm to screen students for possible internship positions and as potential employees. Firms and companies willing to participate in student projects should contact the chairman of local college and university accounting departments.

The firm with the most resources or the most recognizable name does not always win the race to hire quality motivated students for entry-level positions. Smaller local and regional CPA firms and companies willing to develop lasting relationships with students through innovative programs continue to prove otherwise.

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