Road to the Future

Use internships to contribute to the younger generation and get a good look at potential hires.
BY CHRISTINE A. LAUBER, LORRAINE RUH, PETER M. THEURI AND PETER WOODLOCK

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
INTERNSHIPS FOSTER SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONAL development for students and firms. To get started, a firm’s project manager should check the local university or college’s Web site for its requirements and the name of the faculty coordinator to contact.

THE EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES FIRMS PROVIDE vary with their capacity. Large-firm internship assignments may last about the length of a college semester and offer varied work experience. Smaller firms may limit the project and time period to a tax season.

CANDIDATES OFFER A RANGE OF SKILLS and experiences. The more complex the internship tasks are, the greater the oversight responsibilities a firm will have.

FIRMS SHOULD GIVE INTERNS CHALLENGING projects that develop new skills. Clear instructions about the firm’s procedures and its mission help interns become autonomous. Word of a great experience (or a poor one) gets around campus pretty quickly.

INTERNS NEED A PRIMARY MENTOR who is fully committed to the assignment. Most partners don’t see their role as educator, but mentoring is a proven way to transfer experience. Interns who get a lot of guidance are more successful than those who fend for themselves.

PARTICIPATING IN AN INTERNSHIP GIVES a firm an edge in hiring the best and brightest at the same time that it provides an extra “employee” at a modest salary.

CHRISTINE A. LAUBER, CPA, sole owner of a 13-person South Bend, Indiana, firm, chaired the AICPA task force on internship issues. Her e-mail address is cal@laubercpa.com . LORRAINE RUH is on the accounting faculty at Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. Her e-mail address is ruh@nku.edu . PETER M. THEURI, CPA, is a department of accountancy assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University. His e-mail address is theuri@nku.edu . PETER WOODLOCK, CPA, PhD, is associate professor and chairman of the department of accounting/finance, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio. His e-mail address is p_woodlock@ysu.com .

he accounting profession has a great deal going for it—good pay, challenging work and unlimited opportunities for advancement. So why does it have a hard time selling students on the field and keeping them? Recognizing that new CPAs are vital to the future, many firms commit a large part of their human resources budgets to internships to try to close the gap between students’ understanding of public accounting and workplace realities. Even so, once employed, many new hires last less than two years, sources say. Can we do more to attract and retain quality professionals? We’ll have to. One way to strengthen students’ commitment is to show them how to succeed. Here are guidelines CPAs can use for managing internships to help foster successful professional development for students and firms.

Degree + Experience = Good Jobs
The “accountants and auditors” employment category has the fourth-highest growth prospects among the top 20 highly paid occupations requiring a bachelor’s or graduate degree. Labor statistics analysts say it will add about 205,000 jobs by 2012.

Source: Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Winter 2003-04, www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2003/winter/art02.pdf .

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
Liaison with academia is easier now that some colleges require accounting students to complete internships prior to graduation. Check your local college’s Web site for its requirements. If the Web site doesn’t answer your questions, it likely will name the faculty coordinator or chairperson you can contact. Then you should

Inventory your resources. Although it would be great if internships could offer a uniform educational experience, training will vary with firms’ capacity to provide it. Determine what yours has to offer. Does it have the staff and time to mentor an intern as well as the money and space to put one to work? Each intern will require sufficient workspace and resources to perform his or her assigned tasks.

At large firms internship assignments may last about 16 weeks, the length of a college semester. Smaller firms may limit the program period to the length of a particular project. Larger firms generally pay interns about $15 to $18 per hour. That range is “the national average,” says Douglas Michel, CPA, principal of Clark, Schaefer, Hackett & Co., a 29-partner Ohio firm with offices in five cities. Smaller firms may pay between $10 and $12 per hour, sources say. Depth of training also may differ according to a firm’s size. Large ones can offer varied assignments (preparation of depreciation schedules and tax returns, bank and accounts receivable reconciliation and even audit-test experience, for example). Small ones may focus on only one area of responsibility, such as tax preparation. Michel’s firm is able to train interns on all firm software to build their confidence. In contrast, small firms may provide computer-skills training on only an “as needed” basis. The smaller a firm is, the more an intern will cost it proportionately.

Decide what you want. Your firm must clearly identify its needs and prepare a description of the types of projects the student will handle. Potential candidates offer a range of skills and experiences. To qualify for an internship program, they will have met general university requirements and usually will have completed several accounting courses covering principles of financial and managerial accounting and perhaps intermediate or tax accounting. Assess how independently you will require your intern to work. The more complex the internship tasks are, the greater the oversight responsibilities your firm will have.

Your firm should review student rsums for qualities such as academic excellence and leadership experience. Candidates’ personal values are key considerations. You want someone with a strong work ethic, dependability, comfort with asking questions and the ability to get along well with others. Scott E. Grosser, CPA, a sole owner, Fort Thomas, Kentucky, looks particularly for the last attribute and says, “Accounting is a relationship business, not a numbers business.”

Your firm’s focus in turn helps students clarify what they want from the internship experience. For example, a freshman or sophomore may wish to explore career options while a graduate student may be looking for a relationship with a potential employer. Billie Jo Wawrzynski, CPA, came to work for a South Bend, Indiana, sole owner when she was still in school. “I wanted to make sure I actually liked working in accounting before I finished my degree. I found it was exactly what I wanted,” she says.

TO ADMINISTER THE PROGRAM
Once you’ve considered what your firm can offer an intern as well as how to benefit from hiring one, to successfully manage the internship program, you must

Allow lead time. Don’t decide on a frantic March afternoon that you need an intern for tax season. Be aware of the university’s start and end dates. Firms looking for future long-term relationships begin early to match student scheduling with firm needs. “We start at least nine months before we need an intern,” says Michel. Small firms that recruit for a targeted project only, such as a single tax season, may need less time. Grosser begins his search in October for an internship that will start in late January.

Market your firm. Most students come to your firm for a “meaty” experience, and savvy ones view the internship as a career stepping stone. Accordingly, the firm should put as much effort into recruiting interns as it would into finding regular employees. “Be selective,” says David J. Clarkson, CPA, vice-president of human resources at 35-partner Boston-based Vitale, Caturano & Co., PC. “The goal should be to make full-time offers during the last week of the internship to all your interns.”

Show your firm’s wares by establishing a relationship with a university. You might offer classroom guest-speaker engagements, sponsor accounting-related social events, donate to a scholarship fund or set up a table at a career fair. (For more information on how to help educators, see “ Professional Practice Accounting ”) Of course you want your interns to brag about the firm to other students and faculty when they return to school. Your current intern likely knows other good accounting students, and word of a great experience (or a poor one) gets around campus pretty quickly and will influence others’ interest in working for your firm.

Have realistic expectations. Interns’ skill levels vary, but don’t expect even the most talented accounting student to fill a key position in the firm. Interns are at your firm to learn new things rather than to perform tasks they already know. Give them interesting projects that develop skills. Resist the temptation to give an intern more of whatever work he or she is good at. (Take a lesson from professions such as medicine, for example, where the internship usually is designed to put the student through all aspects of the work.) Keep menial and clerical tasks to a minimum, too. “I would not ask an intern to change a light bulb, even though I’d do it myself,” says Michel.

To learn more about the competencies all students entering the profession need, see the AICPA Core Competency Framework for Entry Into the Accounting Profession at www.aicpa.org/edu/corecomp.htm .

Set ground rules. Clear instructions about the firm’s procedures and its mission help interns become independent workers more quickly. Students are accustomed to professors setting standards about what is acceptable and unacceptable at the beginning of each semester, so establish ground rules early for requesting time off due to illness or pending tests and papers. Be sure interns understand that skipping work is not like cutting class, dress codes are important and deadlines are those of the firm (not the student), where missing one can lose a client.

Be flexible about work schedules. If interns enroll in courses that take place during some of your operating hours, allow them to create a manageable schedule that balances their needs with your firm’s. Some firms insist on 30-hour workweeks during the tax season, but “we try to accommodate students’ initial scheduling needs,” says Michel. “Once the schedule is set, we expect them to comply with it.” Sometimes absences are unavoidable. Encourage students to prearrange any anticipated absences; it helps them learn to plan.

Provide a mentor. Interns need to have a primary mentor, a person fully committed to the assignment. Most partners don’t see themselves in the role of educator, but mentoring is a proven way to transfer experience. Interns who get mentoring are more successful than those who are left to fend for themselves, sources say. Mentors must be nonthreatening and accessible so students feel free to talk with them. The connection gives the intern an immediate sense of making a contribution to the firm.

Students may need impartial help addressing problems with their managers, so mentors should not be interns’ immediate supervisors. Mentors’ responsibilities include discussing general workplace issues such as appropriate dress and grooming. A good starting point for mentors is to tell the beginning intern about their own experience and the things they wish they had known when they were starting out on the job. (For more information see “ Practitioners as Mentors, JofA , Jun.03, page 39.)

Provide performance-based feedback. Even though interns receive academic credit for the work they do at your firm, the “real-world” experience you offer them should include a fair stipend, performance feedback and inclusion in the office culture. Students are used to getting regular evaluations from professors and will expect it on the job. Give interns oral or written comments after each major task and after they prepare tax returns. Let them know what they do well in addition to what they can do better. If you can’t provide feedback on a regular weekly or biweekly basis, give a date when you will. When providing periodic, substantive feedback, schedule it to include both the student and the faculty liaison if possible.

Let interns know that outstanding work might result in a salary adjustment or higher-level assignments. Some firms adjust salary halfway through the internship based on student performance. What you pay influences—but doesn’t guarantee—the quality of the students you land.


RESOURCES

To assist colleges and universities in designing, implementing and administering meaningful internship programs and other forms of experiential learning, the AICPA offers Web-based guidelines at www.aicpa.org/members/div/career/edu/internships.htm . The purpose of the programs is to help students

Make more informed career choices.
Apply knowledge they have been exposed to in the classroom.
Develop skills that are difficult to introduce in a classroom setting.
Secure permanent employment.
Contribute effectively to the organizations they join after they graduate.

The guidelines provide examples of programs—including class projects, consulting projects, job shadowing/externships and service learning (see “ Glossary ”)—syllabi and information and documents for institutions of varying sizes and geographical location. They link to the AICPA Core Competency Framework of skills, a range of personal and functional competencies that firms likely will want the internship experience to impart, and to a Web-based evaluation tool—the Educational Competency Assessment (ECA) Site—designed to help educators.

Publication
Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook, loose-leaf version (# 090407JA); e-MAP, online version (# MAP-XXJA).

For more information about this resource or to make a purchase, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Web site
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 .

Don’t leave out the basics. What’s standard to you may be quite educational to the internship student. Expose interns to varied work contexts, from administration to boardroom meetings. Invite them to seminars within the firm, networking functions and away-from-the-office activities. “Assign interns directly to client projects as often as possible, preferably out of the office so they see what client service is really like. This is what you want to market back on campus, rather than indoor, administrative roles,” says Clarkson. Varied environments promote a wide range of learning, including people skills, networking, presentation styles and acceptable professional behavior. If possible, include students in management meetings for work planning and other types of decision making.

Keep them busy. Many firms believe tax season is the only time they can keep interns employed. Since many top students are available only during the summer, keep an inventory of client special projects for them to work on. “Summer interns can become your best recruiting allies,” says Clarkson.

Let them mix. Offer interns a chance to mingle with other accounting professionals as often as practical. One large firm periodically invites interns to participate in boardroom discussions, and a partner at another firm says interns who mix in the field are able to question audit clients without being perceived as threatening. Small firms can invite interns to staff luncheons and networking opportunities in the area to improve their self-confidence. Plan a social event, such as taking the interns out to dinner, every four weeks to give them a chance to meet and exchange stories.

Glossary

When you approach a college to discuss an internship or to offer to guest lecture, these are useful terms to know.

Class project: A required course assignment in which students work with an outside organization to solve a particular problem or attain a certain goal.

Consulting project: An assignment typically equivalent in credit to a regularly scheduled class, in which students work with an outside entity to solve a particular problem or attain a certain goal. It is longer in duration than a class project, requires more deliverables, may be completed in any geographic location and is done in lieu of a class or in conjunction with a limited number of class meetings.

Internship: Experience in actual work situations that allows students the opportunity to translate academic theories and principles into action, to test out career interests and to develop skills and abilities.

Job shadowing/externship: An informal process, usually of short duration, in which students observe the daily routines and activities of employed professionals in students’ field of study. It allows students to see, on a limited basis, how skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom are applied in the real world.

Service learning: With this, students work with institutions that serve actual community needs. Service learning can be part of course requirements or separate from them. The primary goal of service learning is the educational value of the project.

Source: www.aicpa.org/members/div/career/edu/internships.htm .

Say a proper good-bye. Never forgo an exit interview. Whether or not you intend to make a permanent offer to the student at the end of his or her internship, use the exit interview to provide overall performance feedback. Some firms conduct an exit interview with the faculty coordinator as well, which apprises the school about academic areas the student may need to work on.

Exit interview styles differ. Large firms may conduct a relatively formal interview centered on written performance appraisals. Small firms may emphasize the intern’s positive attributes in the written evaluation but discuss more sensitive areas orally. Take this time to obtain students’ insights about your internship program—sometimes their observations about your firm’s operations may be useful to you. There should be no real performance surprises at the good-bye point, since interns learned where they stood from regular feedback as they went along. If the intern is a “keeper,” now is the time to make an offer. If not, you may want to offer a letter of reference.

Take interns full-time only once. Offer local interns part-time work when they return to school, but the following season take a brand-new group for the full-time slots. It is very difficult to give someone a great experience twice. It’s much better to recruit new interns who don’t know your firm at all.

Back on campus, make interns your emissaries. Ask interns to speak to groups of students when you visit campus for recruiting activities. Include them in presentations, as greeters on interview days and assistants to the recruiters, for example. Send them e-mail updates when they return to campus. “That way they stay in touch informally,” says Clarkson. If you have the resources, consider allowing them to return to school with a firm-furnished laptop, PDA or other piece of technology with the firm logo on it. It can be a great “billboard” for the firm.

PRACTICAL TIPS TO REMEMBER

Ascertain your firm’s resources for offering an internship. It will require time and staff to train and mentor, sufficient workspace and a budget.

Know your needs: What projects does the firm intend to assign the intern? What skills do the tasks require?

Establish a relationship with a university. Offer classroom guest-speaker engagements so students can learn about your firm.

Start the hiring process early, keeping in mind university semester start and end dates.

Make appropriate pay and performance feedback part of how your firm offers “real-world” experience.

Have realistic expectations: The intern is participating in the program to learn new things rather than perform tasks he or she already knows.

Students may need help addressing problems with their managers. Therefore an intern’s mentor should not be his or her supervisor.

Include interns in meetings to broaden their work experience.

Accommodate time off for classes and exams but make the intern accountable for conforming to a schedule.

Provide systematic feedback. The most successful interns need to hear about what they do correctly as well as what they need to improve.

Perform an exit interview to discuss the internship experience. It’s also a good time to make a job offer if you have continued interest.

ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT
Participating in an internship program not only will yield financial and resource allocation benefits for your accounting firm, but it also will strengthen your alliances in the community and with the local university. For the college, it provides feedback for making the curriculum relevant to workplace demands, and the skills and experiences internship students bring back to the classroom are an exciting bridge between theory and practice.

For students, a well-managed CPA internship program can help close the learning gap between school and work and educate them about what it takes to succeed in the profession, which is a powerful inducement for continuing on a CPA career path. The skills, knowledge and motivation that internship students glean from their experience will influence their performance in subsequent business courses—and in life. For the firm, participating in an internship partnership gives it an edge in hiring the best and brightest while it brings in an extra employee at a modest salary.

Schools provide concepts, tools and methodologies for solving problems and developing thinking skills, but actual work provides context. Often the first part of an engagement is to figure out what the job really is about—and only experience gives professionals the tools to do that. Any way you slice it, helping young people learn how to function in the business world and become independent CPAs is an investment worth your time and effort.

Professional Practice Accounting
O n-campus recruiting is one good way to meet interested candidates, but it may take place too late to influence a student’s ultimate career choice—and it’s impossible to give an in-depth view of public accounting in a one-hour talk. That’s why ongoing participation in the classroom can be so helpful to both CPAs and students. At Youngstown State University in Ohio, our accounting department asked several large public accounting firms in the area to provide students with a chance to learn directly from practitioners and to clear up any misconceptions they had had about the profession.

Accordingly, faculty and participating firms devote a certain number of hours to topics not covered in the business curriculum. Practitioners present the nontechnical aspects of practice, such as relationship building and servicing client needs, and describe ancillary niche services, such as IT and financial planning, to show the field’s range and give students a closer look at actual practice. CPAs willing to share their experiences, both positive and negative, visit classrooms during our 15-week semester and talk openly and honestly about the profession and its varied opportunities. Normally three CPAs (a partner, a manager and a staff person) come to the classroom each week to talk to students. We started with one firm, but three firms now take part and at least one more is interested. The program is entering its fifth year.

The professional practice course is not part of the internship program, but many students who take the course secure an internship with one of the participating firms. The firms say being able to observe the students’ performance over the duration of the class makes it easier for them to make informed personnel decisions. They have hired a number of the students into full-time positions. Participant James Dascenzo, CPA, principal at Hill Barth and King LLC, says the experience helps “students learn what will be expected of them to progress from intern to partner.”

A practitioner willing to help in a university classroom in your area will need to

Get firm buy-in. To be able to make the necessary commitment, CPAs will need partner support. Your firm’s principals should understand the benefits of offering classroom instruction, which include

Learning more about both students and faculty, which can prove very beneficial when the firm makes full-time hiring or internship decisions.

Demonstrating support for your local college or university. Communities take pride in their universities and value professionals willing to share their time and effort.

Get buy-in from the department chairperson at your local college or university. Chairpeople want to forge better links between their students and the profession so they welcome calls from practitioners. Make sure the school knows your firm is willing to commit resources to making the relationship successful and long-standing. Ask the school to commit to the project so funding or space doesn’t evaporate mid-semester.

Have a game plan in mind. To be effective in the classroom, you need to know what message you want to convey to students and how to get it across effectively. Line up other practitioners to complement your presentation if you think someone else can better present one facet.

Ask for help if you’re not sure how to structure your classroom presentations. Faculty deal with students on a day-to-day basis and can help you tailor your message for maximum impact. They will let you know how much class time you will need to cover your material and can help you design case projects to enhance it.

Answer student questions openly and honestly. Students cannot make informed career decisions without knowing both the good and bad points of the profession. Let students know what tax season means in terms of the workload as well as why clients view their accountants as their number-one trusted adviser.

Look for feedback from students. Student feedback is important. Alter your message or approach in future classes if they give you suggestions.

Have fun with the students. You are volunteering your time to the classroom because you want to share your enthusiasm for the profession. Let that side of you come across. Talk about what you find meaningful in your work. Express yourself naturally.

—Peter Woodlock,
Department of Accounting/Finance
Youngstown State University
Youngstown, Ohio

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