Powerful internship programs for smaller firms

Put as much thought into your internships as you would into onboarding full-time employees. Your efforts will pay off.
By Courtney L. Vien

Powerful internship programs for smaller firms
Image by Tang Yau Hoong/IKON Images

Internships seem tailor-made to solve the problem of busy season. Accounting majors hungry for work experience help firms file the hundreds of tax returns that come their way. Both groups benefit: The interns get valuable exposure to the day-to-day workings of an accounting firm, and the firms get extra help for little cost.

But internship programs, if run correctly, can do more than ease your busy-season burden. They can be a source of promising job candidates whose skills, work ethic, and personalities you're already familiar with, and give you the chance to show them why they should work for you full time. The programs can also provide training opportunities for younger staff, who can get a low-stakes first taste of management by overseeing interns.

Running an internship program that achieves these goals, however, takes careful planning. The most successful internships are structured with all the care and foresight that a firm would dedicate to onboarding a new permanent staff member. This can be a challenge, especially for smaller firms with limited time, budgets, and personnel.

Many small and midsize firms, though, find that they are amply rewarded for the effort they put into their internship programs. In this article, smaller firms with successful internship programs share their tips and best practices.

THE RECRUITING GAME

The strength of your internship program will depend largely on how talented your interns are. To attract the best interns, it's helpful to have a strong on-campus recruiting strategy. Many firms plan on having a booth at schools' career fairs or Meet the Firms events, giving presentations in classes or for accounting groups such as Beta Alpha Psi, and posting their internships on a campus's career boards or online portals.

However, at some campuses, these steps may not be enough. At certain schools, particularly highly selective ones, students face considerable pressure to intern at Big Four or national firms, and they may overlook smaller firms.

James Emig, CPA, Ph.D., associate chair of the accounting department at Villanova University, who has been the faculty coordinator for the Spring Accounting Internship Program there for 30 years, said that on his campus, even large regional firms have trouble attracting interns. "Some students won't even consider a non-Big Four internship because they know that the Big Four make 90% of their hires from the internship program," and they aspire to work at the Big Four, he said.

Personnel recruiting interns to small firms sometimes struggle with this phenomenon. "The frustration at many nearby schools is battling the mentality that if you don't intern for a national firm, you must not be that good," said Johanna Salt, CPA, CGMA, partner at Claremont, Calif.-based Gray, Salt & Associates, which has six employees.

To succeed at recruiting interns, smaller firms give the following advice:

Build your brand

Large firms already have the name recognition they need, but smaller firms may need to do more to promote their brand. Some firms invite students to their offices for student nights, workshops, leadership seminars, and other events (see the sidebar, "Auditing — and Recruitment — in the Fast Lane.") Great Bend, Kan., firm Adams, Brown, Beran & Ball Chtd. (ABBB), which has about 180 employees, has branded its internship program TALENT — an acronym for Train, Acclimate, Learn, Engage, Navigate, and Transcend. Interns receive branded T-shirts and complete weekly modules associated with one of the letters of the TALENT acronym.

Forge connections with faculty

Faculty know the students better than anyone, and they'll know which of their students might be interested in working for smaller firms, said Maureen Butler, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor, former accounting internship coordinator, and current internship committee member at The University of Tampa. Get to know them by meeting them during office hours, taking them out for lunch or coffee, or offering to present during classes, said Marshall Pitman, CPA, Ph.D., professor and accounting internship coordinator at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Salt said she meets many faculty through her state society, which has a large student membership. Time spent networking with faculty is worth it, she said. "The faculty point us out to their superstar students. It's been great in terms of getting high-quality applicants."

Capitalize on school ties

You may have better luck recruiting at the school you or your staff graduated from. Being an alumnus gives you a ready-made point of connection when reaching out to faculty. Your recent hires, or even your second-year interns, can also serve as ambassadors for your firm at their alma maters. ABBB's interns help represent the firm at their schools' career fairs and events, said Gerrie Meyer, the firm's director of employee development. "Seeing a familiar face makes it easier for students to come up to the booth and chat."

Emphasize the great things smaller firms offer

Some students may need to be sold on the advantages of being an intern for a smaller firm. For instance, at large firms interns may concentrate on one or two aspects of accounting, Pitman said, while at smaller firms they often have a greater breadth of experiences.

"We tell them they will like the variety," Salt said. "We have the mentality that no one is too good to do a certain task — even the partners. We really roll up our sleeves. It's appealing to the students to be given an opportunity to see all the areas that CPAs can cover in a small firm."

JLK Rosenberger (JLKR), which has offices in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Orange County, Calif., stresses approachability to its prospective interns. While at a large firm interns might only get to know their peers and their immediate managers, at smaller firms they often interact with staff at all levels, said Kristel Espinosa, CPA, senior tax manager. "We emphasize the ability for interns to talk to any one of us — even partners or managers — if they have questions," she said.

Be timely

Pitman said that, every year, firms call him looking for interns when it's too late in the semester to help them. "Some of them have called me for tax season help in late January," he said. "By then most of the better students had already been placed. On our campus many of the internships are decided almost a year in advance."

BEST PRACTICES FOR SUCCESSFUL INTERNSHIP PROGRAMS

From a firm's perspective, a successful internship is one in which talented students complete their work in a timely and proficient manner, leave with a positive impression of their experience, and perhaps accept an offer of permanent employment after they graduate. From students' perspective, a good internship is one where they learn, are challenged, get a good sense of what it's like to work for an accounting firm, and feel like they're making a contribution.

But to ensure that an internship meets these goals, planning and oversight are essential. Smaller firms share the following advice for making internships run smoothly:

Make sure interns perform meaningful work

Salt, who presented on internships at AICPA's ENGAGE conference in 2017, said lack of engagement is one of the chief reasons internship programs go awry.

"There was one common thread that ran through all the [audience members'] stories of negative experiences: not enough interaction, supervision, or engagement," Salt said. "We want interns to be fully engaged. That's the secret and the key."

For interns to be engaged they need to be doing meaningful work and be given opportunities to grow. JLKR strives to provide them with chances to strengthen their skills, Espinosa said.

"We put in a lot of effort to make sure that interns are constantly busy and that the type of work matches up with their skill sets," she said. Their interns might start by preparing simple 1040s but progress to more challenging tax returns as the season goes on.

"Our last interns ended the tax season doing large multistate tax returns," Espinosa said. "They got some of the projects that a second- or third-year professional would get."

Have a set of learning objectives

As Butler pointed out, "The internship is supposed to be a learning activity for students — not just an extra set of hands." She recommended that employers create a list of learning objectives: tasks they want students to learn how to do and skills they want them to acquire by the end of the internship. (If students are receiving course credit for the internship, their professors or departments may already have a list of objectives for them to meet.) This list can serve as a guide to help you structure the internship program.

Designate junior staff to oversee interns

If possible, have one point person manage the interns. Each of ABBB's offices, for instance, has a newer staff member who serves as a site coordinator and acts as a mentor to the interns. The site coordinators undergo training where they learn how important the internship program is for the firm's talent pipeline, Meyer said, and their work overseeing the interns is made part of their formal performance goals.

Ideally, have a younger staff member oversee interns, as they'll often feel more comfortable around someone who is closer to them in age, recommended Trudy Thornsberry, vice president of operations at Detroit-area firm Clayton & McKervey. "Engage your entry-level staff," she said. "They'll feel the reward of developing someone."

Create unique experiences for your interns

Signature experiences, such as events and projects, can make internships more memorable, help interns get to know one another, and make your firm stand out. At Clayton & McKervey, for instance, interns made videos about their time at the firm, which they shared at the end of the summer. "It was fun to watch, and it helped them feel connected to the firm," Thornsberry said.

At ABBB, interns all visit the firm's home office for Tell Our Story Day, an event where they learn about the firm's history and have a Q&A with partners and staff, Meyer said. To help them learn about different opportunities within the profession, she said, interns complete one-on-one interviews with team members they select.

Know that hiring doesn't have to be the only goal

Even if you're not planning to hire anyone in a given year, it can still be a good idea to offer an internship. For one thing, as Pitman pointed out, interns become part of your network. In a way, they're like your alumni. "I think you're building a bridge when hiring interns," he said.

Let interns know you can be valuable as a reference even if you can't hire them, Salt said. "The vast majority of our interns that we don't hire are hired by other local firms," she said. "Those firms know us. We often recommend candidates to them." Many of her former interns still stay in touch with her, she added.

Ultimately, internships at smaller firms can prove rewarding for both students and staff, Salt said. "There's nothing wrong with the Big Four," she said. "They have excellent training and resources. But students should know not to shut the door on other possibilities too soon."


JLK Rosenberger hosts Audit 500, a three-day summer workshop for students. The firm’s interns are often former Audit 500 participants.
JLK Rosenberger hosts Audit 500, a three-day summer workshop for students. The firm’s interns are often former Audit 500 participants. (Photo courtesy of JLK Rosenberger)


Auditing — and recruitment — in the fast lane

At Los Angeles-based firm JLKR, students get a crash course in auditing — and JLKR finds itself with a ready-made group of talented candidates. The firm hosts Audit 500, a three-day summer workshop in which students perform an audit of a fictitious coffee company named Billy's Beany Business in a simulated environment at JLKR's office.

The name "Audit 500" is a play on the Indianapolis 500, a testament to the program's fast, intensive nature, said Ani Zadorian, CPA, a JLKR senior audit manager, who created the workshop. The students "learn how to do an audit from beginning to end. We provide them laptops and access to our software, and they audit cash, fixed assets, and liabilities," she said. "They also learn how to plan and wrap up an audit, which includes reading a financial statement to gain an understanding of how they are compiled."

To get the evidence they need, "students role play with JLKR staff who act as the CFO and controller of Billy's Beany Business," Zadorian explained. "This allows the students to gain practical experience" that they can use when communicating with real clients when they begin their careers, she said.

"They are astonished at how much they learn in three days," said Zadorian. "They go back to the classroom understanding the main concepts of audit." One faculty member at California State University, Northridge, in fact, was so impressed with what her students learned that she asked JLKR to present on the program in her classes.

The program allows JLKR to assess students' technical and interpersonal skills before hiring them as interns, and it also gives students insight into what it's like to work at JLKR. "Interns get everything a new employee would: a laptop bag, swag, a desk," said JoLayna Arndt, the firm's marketing director. "We welcome them by name on our social media channels."

Students are apparently impressed. "The majority of JLKR's interns are either former interns and/or Audit 500 alumni," Zadorian noted.


About the author

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.


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