Securing the Future
JEFFORDS, MARSHA SCHEIDT
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.