Practitioners as Mentors

Influencing students to study accounting.
BY GERALD P. WEINSTEIN AND KAREN SCHUELE

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
WITH FALLING ENROLLMENT IN ACCOUNTING PROGRAMS, practitioners can make an important contribution by helping students understand the challenges and rewards of practicing accounting. Participating in a mentoring program at a college or university is one way to make contact with future graduates and influence their career decisions.

JOHN CARROLL UNIVERSITY DEVELOPED A MENTORING program using the school’s alumni accounting graduates. This flexible program gave students the opportunity to interact with CPAs by e-mail, phone or in person at lunch or on office visits. The mentors helped give students a more realistic picture of accounting career opportunities and the job responsibilities they would face.

THE JOHN CARROLL PROGRAM DRAWS MENTORS from both public accounting and industry. Alumni provide the faculty coordinator a list of colleagues at their place of business who are willing to serve as mentors. These volunteers then are matched with a student of the same gender.

SURVEY RESULTS SHOW THE MENTOR PROGRAM helps solidify the choice of accounting as a major for a number of students. Even those who decide not to major in accounting find the relationship fulfilling as a way to better understand how business works.

COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES THAT DON’T ALREADY have a mentoring program can easily set one up. In addition to teaching students things about accounting they could never learn through lectures and textbooks, the program helps keep the school in touch with alumni.

GERALD P. WEINSTEIN is associate professor of accountancy and department chairman at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. His e-mail address is weinstein@jcu.edu . KAREN SCHUELE is associate professor of accountancy at John Carroll University. Her e-mail address is kschuele@jcu.edu .

nrollment in accounting programs is falling. The percentage of college students majoring in accounting dropped to 2% in 2000 from 4% in 1990. Several recent studies report that high school and college students generally view accountants’ work as boring and monotonous. They envision creative, rewarding, people-oriented careers for themselves and rank accounting low on all these characteristics. In their 2000 report Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future, W. Steve Albrecht and Robert J. Sack identified students’ lack of knowledge and misperceptions about accounting careers as one of the challenges facing educators in attracting students to the profession.

While academics may be best suited to training students in the skills they need to be accountants, practicing CPAs can make an important contribution as well. They are in the unique position of being able to describe what one observer called the “nature, variety, challenge and rewards of practicing accounting.” One way to do this is through mentoring programs. This article describes such a program the authors helped develop at the Boler Business School at John Carroll University in Cleveland where CPA practitioners served in this important advisory role. Educators will learn how to set up a program at their school and practitioners can get a better understanding of why they should participate if asked.
A Decline in Quality

In a survey of accounting faculty, 80.1% said fewer qualified students were majoring in accounting than five years ago; 45.7% of practitioners agreed.

Source: Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future, www.aaahq.org/pubs/AESv16/Chapter3.pdf .

ACCOUNTING FIRSTHAND
Any school, regardless of size, can develop a mentoring program that provides interested students the opportunity to learn about the accounting profession firsthand from practitioners. At John Carroll we offer a mentor to students enrolled in the introductory accounting course. Most schools require students considering a major in any area of business to complete a two-semester introductory course in accounting before making a final decision. We believe that a student armed with a realistic picture of career opportunities and job responsibilities might be more inclined to major in accounting.

Unlike a formal internship, our mentoring program is designed to be flexible. The form and frequency of contact between mentors and students varies but generally is guided by the student’s wishes. With some mentor relationships, contact is exclusively an exchange of e-mails or conversations by phone. For others, the student and mentor meet for lunch and an office visit. Some mentoring relationships continue into the next academic year while others end because the student is no longer interested in accounting or has gathered all the information he or she needs to decide on a major. John Carroll students who have had more than one contact with their mentor have expressed only positive opinions about their experiences. For those thinking of majoring in accounting, a chance to speak with a practitioner helped reinforce their decision.

IDENTIFYING INTERESTED STUDENTS
At John Carroll we make students enrolled in the introductory accounting course aware of the mentoring program in two ways. First, we include a statement in the syllabus (see “Attracting Students to the Mentorship Program”). Second, during a class meeting early in the term, the instructor explains the program, emphasizing these points:

Participation is voluntary.

The degree of contact between the student and his or her mentor is flexible.

The program is not a recruiting tool.

The student is not obligated to accept invitations for face-to-face meetings but should respond in a timely fashion to any invitations.

The instructor distributes a sign-up sheet soliciting the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of students interested in participating.

The timing for signing up students is important to the program’s success. In 1999, the first year we had a mentoring program at John Carroll, we made the mistake of soliciting student names during the first week of class, which we discovered was much too early. As a result, a number of students who initially had considered accounting as a potential major (and therefore signed up for the program) had a change of heart and chose not to pursue the mentoring relationship. This led to frustration on the part of some mentors who made valiant attempts to have meaningful discussions with students who were no longer interested.

Start Here…To Learn More
For more information on how to help aspiring CPAs learn more about the accounting profession and the career opportunities available, go to the AICPA Web site, www.startheregoplaces.com .

In the second year we delayed soliciting student names until the semester was half over. While this minimized the number of students who later opted out of the program, it also had a pitfall: Initiating the program later in the semester resulted in many of the mentoring interactions coming during the traditional public accounting busy season, a problem for some volunteers. As a compromise, gathering the names of interested students about one month into the term seems to work well.

Discounting our first-year mistakes, roughly 40 students per year ask for mentors. (We accept about 50 accounting majors each year.) The students who chose not to participate in the program cited various reasons including no time or no interest in accounting. Several students declined the opportunity because they were certain they wanted to major in accounting and felt they did not need a mentor.

IDENTIFYING MENTORS
Our program draws mentors from both public accounting and industry. We gather names of accounting professionals interested in serving as mentors by contacting several alumni accounting majors who are employed at public accounting firms and at local companies (international as well as regional and local firms). These alumni provide the faculty member coordinating the program with a list of colleagues at their place of business who are willing to serve as mentors.

We match each student with a mentor of the same gender, and most mentors are assigned one student. Each mentor and student is notified of the name, phone number and e-mail address of his or her partner and we inform both that the mentor will initiate contact. Since gender is our only criteria for matching mentors, the resulting partnership is completely random. To make sure every student gets a mentor, we do sometimes have to assign a mentor more than one student.

At John Carroll we have made a conscious decision not to micromanage the program. When soliciting mentors we ask only for a willingness to be available to speak with accounting students. We have been fortunate in being able to attract a diverse pool of volunteers, most of whom are loyal alumni. We decided an orientation session would be too difficult to schedule and didn’t want to turn a potential mentor away because of his or her inability to attend. Instead, the program’s faculty liaison sends each mentor a brief letter or e-mail encouraging him or her to contact the assigned student but leaving the details open. We tell mentors we expect nothing more than a phone call and leave the rest up to the two individuals.

.During the program’s inaugural year in 1999, one person at each participating firm served as the contact between the mentors and the faculty member coordinating the program. We sent student assignments to the contact person, who relayed them to the mentors. A survey at the conclusion of that year showed a number of mentors had not contacted assigned students and some mentors said they were not made aware of their assignment. To mitigate this problem, we now use a firm contact only to obtain names of individuals willing to serve as mentors. We communicate directly with each of the roughly 40 mentors rather than through the firm contact person. This significantly reduces the number of students whose mentors do not contact them.

PROGRAM RESULTS
At the conclusion of each program year, we ask students and mentors to complete a survey to provide us with feedback. The results help us iron out problems such as the one cited above. They also enable us to better manage student expectations based on the interaction students have with their mentors. (See “ The Students Speak ” at right for some feedback on the John Carroll program.)

We also use the survey to help us evaluate the program’s success in attracting additional students to the accounting major. While the results do not indicate great successes in changing students’ minds on their choice of major, they do show the program helps solidify the choice of accounting as a major for a number of students. (See “ The Mentoring Program: One Participant’s Point of View ,” below, for one former student’s perspective on how the program had an impact on his career decision.) In addition, many participants report that while they did not decide to major in accounting, the mentoring relationship nonetheless was very fulfilling. It provides them with a better understanding of the accounting profession and the workings of business in general.

The Students Speak
Here are some brief comments from John Carroll students who have participated in the school’s accounting mentorship program.

“It was useful to be able to connect with someone in the profession as a sophomore at a time when I really knew nothing of accounting. We went to a local restaurant for dinner and my mentor brought along some other John Carroll people who work for his firm. They answered a lot of my questions.”

—Jeff Cook, ’03

“My mentor didn’t try to recruit me for her firm. While she talked about how her firm did things, she never ‘pushed’ it on me. I felt she was giving me good information about careers in accounting. She and I still are in occasional contact.”

—Molly Mihaila, ’03

“I enrolled in the program because I was curious to know more about accounting and really didn’t have a clue. Talking with my mentor gave me a chance to learn from someone other than our professors. Practitioners have a much different outlook on things.”

—Eric Fertelemes, ’03

“My mentor and I went to lunch a couple of times and I visited his office, where I met some other John Carroll graduates who work for the firm. He also put me in touch with the firm’s recruiter and I spent an entire day at the office. That gave me a chance to see what public accounting work is really like.”

—Mark Spilker, ’04

“I got involved in the program because I wanted feedback about the profession from someone who was actually in it. One piece of advice I got is that working is actually easier than going to school at John Carroll.”

—Amanda Kresak, ’04

“My mentor never made contact with me. While I was disappointed, it hasn’t changed my interest in accounting.”

—Molly Gundlach, ’04

SETTING UP A PROGRAM
Here are some ideas on how both accounting practitioners and schools can put together a mentoring program.

If you are a practitioner

Contact the accounting department chairperson (or other contact person) at your alma mater and see whether he or she is interested in creating a mentoring arrangement. If you are located near a college with an accounting department (even if it’s not your alma mater) call the department head and gauge his or her interest.

Commit at least an hour of your time to the program. Any quality mentoring relationship requires that the parties attain a certain comfort level; you can’t reach this level with just a single phone call or e-mail.

Meet the student for coffee or perhaps lunch. It’s seldom that any time-consuming communication is required after the first encounter.

Be honest with the student. Accounting can offer a rewarding career, but it also has its challenges. Not all students will want to, nor should they, become accountants. As a CPA it’s likely you will be able to offer opinions on other business areas they may have an interest in.

If you are a college or a university

Consider the size of your accounting program and the likely availability of mentors. It may be necessary to restrict the number of participants.

Assign a faculty member to serve as administrator and liaison between students and mentors. This individual would notify mentors of their student assignments and respond to any question either the students or mentors have about the program.

Use alumni contacts to build your network of mentors. Alumni serving as mentors adds another level on which the mentor and student can interact because they share the experience of attending the same college or university. However, do not discourage nonalumni from participating.

Implement the program in the first term of the introductory accounting course.

Encourage students to be polite in their dealings with mentors. Tell them it is acceptable to decline invitations (and even to decline to continue the relationship) but to advise the mentors of their intentions.

Survey both the student and mentor participants at the conclusion of the academic year to gauge the effectiveness of the program and identify any necessary changes that need to be made for the next academic year.

BENEFITS OF THE PROGRAM
The mentoring arrangement we describe can offer benefits to all parties. For a college or university, it helps keep the faculty in touch with alumni and the alumni in contact with the school. Schools need to maintain relations with professionals for several reasons, not only to help it stay abreast of current issues facing practitioners but also for accreditation purposes. An important benefit is that the program may help increase or at least stabilize accounting enrollment by giving students a better understanding of what it means to be a CPA.

Attracting Students to the Mentorship Program

John Carroll inserts this statement in the first semester “Introduction to Accounting” course syllabus.

Students who are considering a career in accounting or are unsure about their major may wish to take advantage of a mentoring program. The objective of this program is to allow students to achieve an understanding of the accounting profession by interacting with a graduate of this university who is currently employed in accounting at a CPA firm or industry in the local area. This is not a recruiting program. Each student will be contacted by a mentor to discuss career opportunities and options. There is no obligation on your part other than to be courteous and to respond to invitations. Interested students should advise their instructor of their intent to participate.

F or students the program teaches a lot about accounting they could never learn through lectures or textbooks. It provides support in making a decision that will have an impact on the rest of their lives. The program gives them a chance to practice oral and written communication skills with a professional who could be helpful in identifying future employment opportunities.

For mentors the relationship offers a chance to give back, or to perform community service, to the school. It brings the mentor in touch with a student who may be a potential hire. For a younger practitioner it is an excellent means of making or retaining a connection with his or her alma mater. Of course, it also makes you feel valued to know that your advice will help someone make a very important, and sometimes difficult, career decision.

The Mentoring Program:
One Participant’s Point of View
D uring my sophomore year I had the opportunity to participate in John Carroll University’s department of accountancy mentorship program. It put me in contact with Rob Mackinlay, a second-year staff accountant at KPMG LLP in Cleveland. We communicated frequently by phone and e-mail and met for lunch about once a month. This experience provided a wealth of information that enabled me to make an informed career decision.

I had questions about interviewing, auditing and the firm’s junior-year internship program. Rob gave me insight based on his own experiences, told me what influenced his decisions and answered questions on topics ranging from what an audit entails to what to wear to an office visit. The mentorship program let me ask someone who had recently gone through this experience about these things. Before this opportunity came along, I was familiar with some of the other accounting firms but was not aware of what KPMG had to offer. Rob gave me a great deal of information about KPMG—its internship program, its culture and the various career options the firm offers.

The mentorship program was very successful for me. It gave me the chance to get a different perspective on accounting in a relaxed and casual atmosphere. Rob’s guidance continued through my internship at KPMG, where I worked with him on various engagements. Even though I feel having Rob as a mentor influenced my eventual decision to accept an offer with KPMG for both an internship and full-time employment, I don’t feel he was making any type of sales pitch for the firm, but was more of a friend providing valuable information that I could use.

—Nicholas M. Mehall, KPMG, Cleveland.

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