Recruiting the best: What CPAs could learn from college coaches

By Robert Richardson, CPA, Ph.D., and Alexander Gabbin, CPA, Ph.D.

Recruiting the best
Photo by Yobro10/iStock

The recruiting of college athletes may be more competitive than the actual sports they play. The race for talent has caused coaches to recruit much more aggressively. As The New York Times has reported, college coaches are contacting potential recruits at younger ages than they have before. And some athletes are receiving Division I scholarship offers before they even start the eighth grade.

The competition for accounting students, while not as intense, shares some common issues. Prior to Sarbanes-Oxley, the best accounting students were typically offered internships for the summer following their junior year, and the same students were made full-time offers in the fall of their senior year. However, the competition for high-quality accounting students drove recruiters to make contact with students earlier in their academic career. Those who are hiring accounting students once wanted to speak to a classroom of college seniors; now they are pushing to speak to classrooms of juniors and even classrooms with sophomores.

The AICPA reports that public accounting firm hiring of accounting program graduates has reached record levels, with most firms expecting to continue or increase their levels of hiring. Companies and firms that want to recruit the best accounting students might benefit from learning how college coaches recruit in an ultracompetitive environment.

IDENTIFYING TALENT

Coaches can initially identify talent by looking at rankings provided by recruiting evaluation services and reviewing video highlights submitted by athletes. Accounting firms do something similar when they examine students' grades and résumés.

Unfortunately, many coaches believe that recruiting services have inaccuracies that make their assessments useful but problematic. Those hiring for accounting positions face a similarly flawed system with grade inflation that continues to distort assessments of students. Coaches and accounting recruiters share another similar problem in that self-submitted videos by recruits often show the highlights and disguise the weaknesses of the athletes, not unlike the self-promoting résumés of students. College coaches go further than most accounting employers in identifying talent by attending games of athletes, holding athletic camps, and talking with high school coaches. It isn't feasible to attend a class with students or watch them perform on an exam, but the use of camps and speaking with high school coaches have some interesting parallels.

Coaches host summer athletic camps where they can observe athletes firsthand. A few accounting firms have realized the benefit of observing students firsthand and put on case competitions. This is a great venue to observe directly how applicants might perform as well as how they work with others. The competitions are often based on real situations that occurred at the firm (with proprietary information deleted). These competitions can be conducted on campuses, in firm or company offices, or a combination of both.

College coaches also work hard to develop rapport with high school coaches so they can get information about potential recruits. They realize that high school coaches get to see attributes that might not be picked up by a recruiting service or highlight video. A high school coach will have unique insight into character, work ethic, and leadership potential.

The equivalent to a high school coach in accounting is the accounting student's professors. Often a professor will have insights about students that don't show up solely in grades. For example, the professor might know about a "B" student who is working 30 hours a week who is just as promising as an "A" student who doesn't work at all. A low-cost method for developing rapport with professors is to use information that you already have. College textbooks are frequently a little behind in cutting-edge pronouncements. Sending professors the same polished accounting pronouncement updates that you send to your employees or clients would be inexpensive and much welcomed.

Additionally, many companies and accounting firms conduct in-house training on new accounting standards. Consider inviting professors from local colleges to fill in the extra seats, or even hosting an update specifically directed at professors. Remember that many college professors also hold a certification, and free CPE is attractive. If you want to take it a step further, tell the invited professors that they can bring along one of their students. This can help create a good early impression on a potential student.

CREATE EARLY IMPRESSIONS

Coaches frequently talk about how important it is to "get in early" with a recruit, and being one of the first to offer a scholarship can help a coach land a recruit. Accounting employers need to take the same approach. A high percentage of accounting interns ultimately accept a full-time job with the organization they interned with. This drives companies and firms to compete over potential interns (often juniors) and often pushes employers to contact sophomores. The most competitive recruiters run into a problem here in that they want to create an early impression but may not know much about a sophomore accounting student's potential. If they wait until students are juniors, they might be too late, and if they recruit them as sophomores, they might be making a premature decision. College coaches deal with this issue all the time, as they don't want to offer a scholarship to an athlete who might not pan out.

For companies and firms, it is probably too expensive to commit an entire summer internship to a sophomore student who might not ultimately work out. However, a lower-cost alternative is to invite promising sophomores to an externship. These can be structured as simply as a day in the office with a few speakers and activities.

Another alternative would be to put on a leadership workshop geared toward sophomore business/accounting students. You could ask each of the sophomore-level accounting instructors to nominate four or five of their students for the workshop. These externships and workshops can be used as an opportunity to scout students who are worthwhile prospects for an internship and provide a starting point for building relationships. Take care with externships (and internships) to follow appropriate regulations, because they can present wage and hour concerns if they are not handled appropriately. The Fair Labor Standards Act contains a six-factor test for unpaid internships and externships; unless all six factors are fulfilled, students will be entitled to minimum wage and overtime protections.

A college coach can have a successful season, wonderful facilities, and state-of-the-art weight rooms, but the best recruiters know that it is all trumped by the relationship with the athlete. So how do coaches establish relationships? They call the recruits and send text messages whenever the NCAA allows. Coaches also send regular mail and email to recruits. Like these communications to athletes, the messages to accounting students don't have to be lengthy or costly. The communications simply need to show that you want them to come work for you. It could be as simple as, "How are your classes? Can we help you in any way? I'll be back on campus in October."

Social media outlets such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can be useful and inexpensive ways of disseminating information about your company. If your company or firm already effectively uses these outlets to communicate (e.g., about new clients, training opportunities, social functions, etc.) with employees and those communications would be appropriate for potential hires, then you should invite them to participate.

Regardless of whether you use social media outlets to disseminate information, your primary focus should be on developing relationships with candidates. Emailing, texting, and calling are affordable and effective means for a recruiter from any size company or firm.

The cost (e.g., time, mileage, and hotel) of a campus visit is high, and sometimes recruiters walk away with very little to show for it. Stop simply attending a recruiting event for accounting students, and start attaching to accounting students through relationships (see the sidebar "The Road to Success," below).

Strong personal relationships can play a major role in recruiting. A handwritten note following a meeting with a student is impressive. Even a simple follow-up email that recalls a detail about your conversation with the student on campus demonstrates that you are listening to him or her and not simply trying to hire three staff accountants this year.

Successful college coaches talk about more than sports with their recruits, and it creates a great impression. Try doing the same with accounting students. Ask them what else they are involved in, and talk about that activity with them. You can say your firm or company promotes work/life balance, but talking about something other than accounting demonstrates it. Capitalize on your competitive advantages by highlighting what differentiates your organization from others. Tell accounting students about your organization's culture, and work extra hard to land the ones whose values seem to mesh with your culture (see the sidebar "Get the Right Fit," below).

WHO SHOULD RECRUIT

College coaches send their best recruiters for their best prospects. If you want to improve your success in recruiting, make sure you are sending your best recruiters rather than sending an employee who just happens to be available. If you're a single owner, it can be difficult to take time away from the office to attend these events and find the perfect help, but stepping away for a few hours and meeting students face to face will demonstrate your commitment. This may require more planning, and it may involve training employees to become more effective in recruiting, but recruiting the best talent takes commitment. Those who recruit need to be able to connect with a wide range of individuals from various backgrounds (see the sidebar "Recruit for Diversity," below).

Sometimes partners are your best recruiters, and sometimes they are not. Identify your best recruiters, and use them, regardless of their position. A common mistake is to send a high-ranking professional (e.g., vice president, partner, etc.) to recruit for entry-level accounting positions. If the high-ranking professional can relate well to the students, then he or she is a great choice. However, some companies would be better off sending a recent graduate who is excited about the company. Many times the accounting staff can communicate with the recruits more effectively.

The best situation would be sending representatives from multiple experience levels. Recruits want to see an aspect of themselves represented at the firm or company, and this can best be accomplished by involving a diverse group of individuals in the recruiting process.

SCALE TO YOUR SIZE

Many of the strategies presented in this article can be scaled to fit any size organization. For example, providing internships is an expensive and effective way to create an early impression on recruits, but not every company or firm can afford to provide those. Externships or leadership workshops for sophomores are less expensive ways that can still be effective at reaching students early. Developing a case competition to identify talent can require a significant time commitment. However, it is inexpensive and less time-consuming for any organization or practitioner to call a professor to identify a good student who doesn't have a job yet.

Make sure to capitalize on what your organization is already doing. If you are already developing polished updates on new accounting pronouncements to share with your employees, passing that information on to professors and recruits only costs you the time of adding another email address to the mailing. Even if you are a one-person accounting department, consider forwarding to a recruit an online article that you found useful. It at least communicates that you are interested in the recruit and his or her professional future.

If you currently have excellent communications with your employees through social media, consider including potential recruits on those communications. However, you don't have to spend time and money to develop social media outlets. A text message, email, or phone call is much more personal than social media, and any individual, regardless of the size of the organization, can do that.

Although some of the strategies listed in this article require more time and resources, most require more intentionality with the time spent. Consider the time invested in developing and delivering a presentation for a student group. If the recruiter making the presentation actively sought to interact with students before the presentation instead of standing around waiting for students to get seated, there would be a noticeable improvement with no extra time spent by the recruiter. The focus in all activities needs to be on building relationships rather than just disseminating information.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE KEY

In speaking with college athletes and reading recruiting websites, we found that a few athletes cited ancillary attractions such as weight-training facilities, player lounges, and dining choices on campus. Parallels can be drawn between these perks and the ancillary benefits promoted to accounting students.

However, the most important factor is the relationship with the recruit. Athletes might be impressed that a certain restaurant is on the campus that they are considering, but what really sells the recruits is that the coach and the team sit down with them at that restaurant for a meal and engage them in conversation.

The relationship can be the biggest factor in which company or firm the student signs with. We have seen many students agonize over having to tell a recruiter that they were going with another company or firm. The gut-wrenching part has nothing to do with telling the organization "no." It has everything to do with telling the primary recruiting contact at the CPA firm "no," because of the relationship they have with that recruiter. If you recruit with the understanding that relationship matters the most, you will see an impact on your recruiting success.

comparison

The road to success

Focus on interaction to make the most of recruiting trips.

A successful recruiting trip for a company or firm hiring accounting students begins with a focus on people. Developing relationships with professors and student organizations on multiple campuses will give you a foundation for your on-campus recruiting. When possible, sending alumni back to recruit at their alma mater can give you an advantage over your competition. And above all, be sure to interact with students instead of just presenting to them.

When choosing places to visit, remember that the size of your firm does not have to affect the size of the schools where you focus your recruiting. Often smaller campuses are overlooked by larger firms and companies, but they may have excellent students.

Focus on campus job fairs and internship fairs that have a high concentration of accounting majors combined with younger students. Remember that juniors and sophomores might be intimidated, so you will need to initiate conversations.

Student organizations that are focused on accountants (e.g., Beta Alpha Psi, accounting societies, etc.) also can yield potential hires. Ask to make a presentation to the group, and then make it memorable. We have seen countless canned presentations on campus by recruiting teams that involved little enthusiasm or eye contact, and interaction with only one or two students afterward. Be creative and interactive. If the students have already seen four presentations on résumé writing, consider administering a personality test and then describing how each trait could fit in to your organization.

These future business leaders have one common basic need—they are always hungry. Providing food at these presentations helps increase turnout. Students have told us that food from the most popular place in town rather than standard pizza can increase attendance by as much as 50%.

Getting into a college classroom also is an excellent opportunity. Professors may be reluctant to give you classroom time because many recruiters use their 15 minutes just to say what they have to offer. But a recruiter who is willing to teach a difficult topic (e.g., a new pronouncement) is more likely to be invited. Try asking professors what topics are their least favorite to teach, and offer to teach one of those days.

If you fail to make contact and build relationships, though, you have wasted your time on campus. Tell your staff that each team member attending a recruiting event must get at least three names and contact information and follow up with each of the potential hires within 24 hours.


Get the right fit

Find recruits whose values match those of your organization.

The feeling of "fitting in" with an organization is an important factor for recruits. Many high-quality athletic recruits pass over traditional powerhouse schools simply because they felt at "home" with another program. Accounting students, particularly this generation, are not different in that regard.

Students today are far less preoccupied with salary and more interested in work/life balance. They fear losing their identity while pursuing a career far more than they fear working hard. They expect to work long hours, but they want the flexibility to pursue other interests (e.g., a 5k race, photography exhibit, etc.). If your company provides work/life balance or flexible schedules, let your recruits know it. Using standard phrases, such as "we emphasize work/life balance," is good, but giving the recruits actual examples of how it is being done will command their attention.

Today's students also want to have a meaningful impact on the world. If your company or firm participates in certain community events and supports charitable organizations, let your recruits know about it. Better yet, invite them to participate.

Determine whatever defines your company's culture, whether it is meaningful work, career development, leadership development, alternative career paths, excellent mentoring, or any other distinguishing characteristic. Then share those characteristics with your recruits. Social media can be a way of sharing your culture with recruits, but the best way to get students to see your company's culture is to have the students meet as many of your people as possible and get a consistent message from each person.


Recruit for diversity

Professional organizations and campus groups can assist in building a more inclusive workforce.

Recruiters in the accounting profession are putting great effort into hiring a workforce that reflects diversity in a variety of factors, including gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Establishing a tone at the top that is committed to inclusion is the first step toward developing a diverse workforce. Explaining the business case for diversity can help build organizational support for inclusion. The benefits of diversity are well-documented. Studies have shown that diverse groups are more productive and solve problems more effectively, and an inclusive workforce in the accounting profession has the potential to work more effectively in diverse global markets.

It can be difficult for firms and companies to model diversity in recruiting when just one or two individuals visit a campus, but larger organizations should consider tapping into their internal diversity networks and affinity groups. Internal diversity networks often have contacts and social media channels that can effectively display the diversity within your organization.

Professional organizations and campus groups that promote diversity also can help accounting recruiters at organizations of all sizes identify and hire a more inclusive workforce. Investing in relationships with people and institutions dedicated to diversity, as well as sponsoring diversity events, can help firms and companies raise their profile with diverse candidates.

Groups that can provide resources include the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), Ascend, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants (AWSCPA). Those who recruit should be diverse in many dimensions and be comfortable recruiting candidates who are different from themselves. Job candidates from underrepresented groups may be turned off by firms or companies that only send professionals from underrepresented backgrounds to meet with them.


About the authors

Robert Richardson (richarrc@jmu.edu) is an associate professor of accounting at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Alexander Gabbin (gabbinal@jmu.edu) is a professor of accounting at James Madison University.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, editorial director, at ktysiac@aicpa.org or 919-402-2112.


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