‘The apprenticeship guy’: CFO embraces program to bridge talent gap

Hosted by Neil Amato

In November, Paul Young, CPA, CGMA, senior executive vice president and CFO at Liberty Bank, was part of the formal recognition by the Department of Labor of the AICPA's Registered Apprenticeship for Finance Business Partners program. His company has been an early adopter of the program, and he's an advocate of its value.

On this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast, Young speaks about the program, the questions he's getting from other CFOs, and what he sees as the program's future in addressing talent concerns.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An overview of the apprenticeship program.
  • The reasons the apprenticeship program solved a lot of issues Young was having at Liberty Bank.
  • Why he came to be known at the recent Future of Finance Summit as "the apprenticeship guy."
  • An explanation and progress report on Liberty Bank's Great Eight.
  • Why thinking in new ways about talent is one step forward for CFOs to become known as "chief future officers."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. Joining me for this segment is Paul Young of Liberty Bank. Paul is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation. His title at Liberty Bank is senior executive vice president and CFO. Paul, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Paul Young: Thanks for having me, Neil. I really appreciate it.

Amato: For here at the Future of Finance Summit in Austin, Texas. It is early December when we were recording. Is it fair to say that talent is top of mind for this group as you've heard the discussions going on?

Young: Definitely, Neil. More than fair. It's really the top of everybody's mind. It just seems like every breakout session, every general session, talent just seems to rise to the top as one of the most challenging aspects that CFOs are working on right now, especially in the dynamic environment we're in with digital transformation. The role of the CFO is to protect and grow value of the company and to do that, you have to really focus on employees, their skill sets, and their competencies. That really has been a central theme as we've gone through the conference, and I think it resonates with everybody.

Definitely it's going to be a takeaway and action items that the CFOs here bring back to them, to their offices on what we can do to invest in our employees to be able to make sure that we are successful as we move forward. We're talking about the future of finance. It's rapidly evolving. We need to adapt with that be chief future officers as CFOs. It's something that is really critical to organizations' success. As we've gone through it, I was actually in a session around the finance and accounting maturity model. That's an assessment tool that CFOs can use to look at where their organization stands from a scorekeeper to really the other end of the spectrum where we want to be futurists and really drive the organization forward.

You can use that model on multiple dimensions to rate where you think your organization is, and then develop action plans around each of those dimensions so that you can work on what investments are required for you to upskill the talents of your team. It also provides a lot of information around whether there are skill gaps — what you have to do as far as attracting employees to help fill those gaps as well as upskilling the team. Really helpful session that I think resonated with many of the CFOs in the summit.

Amato: Clearly, talent is top of mind. Earlier this year, I would say that you and Liberty Bank took steps to address some of those talent issues as you signed on recently with the AICPA's Registered Apprenticeship for Finance Business Partners. Why did that program appeal to you?

Young: That program really solved a lot of the challenges that I was facing at Liberty Bank. It's very difficult to hire employees outside the company, even at a staff account level, it takes six to 9 months. Then internally, there were employees that didn't have the skill set as position's opened up. I really hate to hire from the outside on those higher-level positions.

What I was struggling with was, how do I build the skill sets of my existing team, but at the same time, develop a diverse talent pipeline so I can attract and then work on developing and retaining those employees?

I think the apprenticeship program helps to solve both of those. When I learned about the program when I was in Durham, when we were going through a session with Tom Hood and Barry Payne, who are explaining the program, I was like, when can I sign up?

Because it was something that I knew that right away was going to help us as far as being able to solve the challenges from a talent perspective at Liberty Bank. Then we kicked it off, and it's been very successful. Actually was happy to be invited by the AICPA when the apprenticeship program was recognized in front of the First Lady by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh as a formal program, which I think is really a game-changer for the profession.

Usually, it's blue-collar type of positions that I thought of as apprenticeships. But now with Liberty Bank and Aon and an HP as the first employers to do that here in the U.S., I think it really is going to set the tone as we move forward, and I'm proud to be part of that.

Amato: You call them the Great Eight, the first employees to be part of the apprenticeship program with Liberty Bank. I guess it's still early, but what's been the experience of that group so far?

Young: Yes. The Great Eight so far are still doing great. They are very candid in their feedback with me. They really enjoy it, but they've also told me, "Hey, Paul, It's a lot of work," and I understand that, but it's worthwhile work and they're very motivated, so they're doing great.

I think the key is that we've aligned it with a great mentoring program to help them through it. Within the apprenticeship program, you can start at the operational level if you don't have an accounting degree, you're fairly new in accounting; or if you have an accounting degree and you have some experience, you can start at the management level; or if you're at CPA or have a lot of experience, you can start at the strategic level. Our Great Eight is spread out across those levels.

We have mentors for each of those levels. The AICPA has been great and also being there to provide feedback as we go through. And I think what they really like about it is there's a difference between training and learning and the way it's structured it's a very immersive experience. They're thrown into business situations as they're going through.

That really develops learning that sticks with them, and they've been able to apply it to their jobs as well. They told me it's like some of the material is a reminder, which is valuable. But in other areas, they are learning and they're able to apply it to business situations in real life. I think that's been a terrific experience for them.

What they also like is – in the way that the platform is set up – we recognize them as they complete different aspects of the program. If they complete team performance management, if they complete digital skills, they get certificates and then we recognize that throughout the organization because we want to make sure that they celebrate the success along the way.

It can take 18 to 24 months to graduate. We want to make sure we're there with them and we continue to motivate them and reward them. Rewards and recognition are an important part of the program as well.

Amato: When you hear talk either at this event or just in other finance executives you talk to and they have talent concerns. I think I can hear it in your voice, the enthusiasm, but when people say, what should we do? It seems like you're going to step in with an answer, "Well, here's an idea I have."

Young: It sounds like you might have been at my table because I couldn't resist. I even told Tom Hood that I said we we're at our table and we're talking about the challenge around upskilling employees and attracting talent. I told them about the apprenticeship program and they were like, "I heard a little bit about that, but I didn't really know about it," and we started to drill into it.

I definitely am getting a reputation here as kind of like the apprenticeship guy. I'll be in the hall and a break and "You're the apprenticeship guy." I think that's a good reputation to have. I'm proud of that, and I'm happy to share insights, and other participants here have already connected with me on LinkedIn and they want to hear more about the program.

I've told them I'd be happy to when they're ready to talk to them about what makes the program successful. Maybe some lessons learned to the extent that we're the first ones to go through it and what could we have done better as we move forward. I'm not shy about sharing my experiences there. It's a great story. There are a lot of CFOs at the summit here that are very interested in it.

Amato: Thinking about the program going forward, 2023 and beyond, what do you envision for that apprenticeship program in the future?

Young: We want to build on the momentum. We first started with the Great Eight, but that's upskilling existing talent. But I want to create opportunities outside of the finance group in the company and also outside of the company. How do we build a diverse talent pipeline?

I think this is a great program for us to be able to do that. What we started with, is I've actually got the success of what we've done so far has generated a buzz in the organization where I've got already employees that want to become part of the program in 2023 that are outside of finance. I think that's great.

I also want to do more to reach out outside of finance. We're a bank, and we have employees in our branches. I want to be able to develop a career path for employees in the branches, universal bankers, tellers that have career aspirations and they may not have a college degree.

But how do we reach out to them and build that pipeline with them? I think the apprenticeship program will work very well for that. We're already getting interest from that pipeline within the organization. But we also want to reach outside the organization to those that haven't been fortunate enough to have the opportunities.

We're working with the Division of Children and Family in Connecticut, where they have young adults that I think might be great candidates for the program.

We're working with them on an apprenticeship, on an internship program. But I think that can flow into an apprenticeship program as well. The great thing about this program is that the AICPA has partnered with Excelsior University, who's also here at the summit.

If you don't have a college degree, the Finance Leadership Program through the apprenticeship program, the candidate can earn up to 18 college credits. You could be well on your way to an associate's degree while you're going through this program.

The way I've structured those new positions that I'm creating, that I'm bringing in from outside the organization, is they're going to rotate through the different units within the CFO group.

We're going to bring those candidates in as apprentices, and they'll spend four to six months in general accounting, and then same amount of time in financial planning and analysis, then four to six months in treasury. Then that same amount of time and enterprise project management. Then when they graduate and they come through the program, they'll have a full-time job in one of the areas that they feel most aligns with their career aspirations.

That's something that I'm really excited about that we're kicking off in 2023. I really think that as we move forward, the apprenticeship program will be essential part of his strategy on how I transform the finance organization so that it really becomes value-added business partners.

I think a lot about the Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group and a lot of the work we've done and we talk about the risk of not investing. When you're looking at different project prioritization, you say, what's the highest return?

But you don't talk about, well, what if I don't invest? What's the downside impact? I think that applies not just to projects, but to employee investments as well, and the critical impact of not investing in employees reminds me of the old CFO story where the CFO goes into the office of the CEO and says, I've got all these requests to invest in employees. What happens if we make these investments and they leave? Then the CEO says to the CFO, well, what happens if we don't and they stay? It's that risk of not investing. It comes central.

I'm hoping that the CFO of today, this chief future officer, understands that the real answer to that is you do invest in those employees so that they have the capability to leave if they desire, but your reward and recognize them to the extent that they don't want to. I think that the [Registered Apprenticeship for Finance Business Partners] program is a perfect investment in employees to help companies solve that dilemma.

Amato: I think that's an excellent summary of both the program and one of the key issues facing the profession. Paul, thank you very much.

Young: Thank you, Neil. Great to be here.