When Allen Bolnick, then managing partner at Chicago-area CPA firm Weltman Bernfield, brought a new internship idea to the other members of his monthly CPA roundtable in early 2012, one of his fellow leaders immediately saw the potential.

"For small and medium-sized firms, the No. 1 largest problem we have had for the last 10 years, and for the foreseeable future, is recruiting talent," Jim Hechtman, managing partner of The Hechtman Group, explained. "The old belief that you can hire experienced talent is no longer a viable option. You have to grow talent from within, and without an idea like this, a 17-person firm like mine can't compete in finding that talent fresh out of school."

 

THE PLAN

The exact idea was a charitable, collaborative internship program that would have the strength in numbers to offer a comprehensive-enough eight-week program for these smaller firms to compete with the campus presence of the Big Four and larger firms, thus giving them access to higher-caliber students. In addition to Weltman Bernfield and The Hechtman Group, three other firms signed on to create this innovative new model, though the primary catalyst wasn't hiring potential.

"Honestly, one of the things that was hard was that we had a goal different from a lot of internship programs," Hechtman shared. "The five firms decided billable hours was not what we were after. We were not looking for cheap summer labor, but what we wanted to do was educate people on what life was like in small to medium-sized firms. It was a way to give back to the community, because a lot of the public institutions don't give a lot of understanding, education, or even lip service to small to medium-sized accounting firms -- if you're not national, regional or international, you're pretty obscure."

Hechtman found it "staggering" that of the 10 interns that recently completed the program, now in its second year, only one had heard of one of the five firms prior to participating. The other firms rounding out the group are Brown Kaplan + Liss, Porte Brown, and BIK & Co.

 

THE BLUEPRINT

Those firms offered all interns stipends of $2,500 for their next semester's tuition and structured the program to divide their time between group training and shadowing firm professionals. Training focused on software like QuickBooks and document management systems, and skills like auditing, payroll processing and financial statement analysis, while the hands-on portion allowed students to shadow staff in each of the five offices.

This ratio of education to experience changed from the first year to the second, based on feedback collected by both online survey software SurveyMonkey and management consultant Marc Rosenberg, facilitator of the Chicago-area roundtable to which the firms belong. While Rosenberg noted that overall reaction was positive, he found that the interns wanted less classroom education and more professional interaction. Hechtman understood the need to reprioritize: "I started at a large regional firm, and the stuff I remember most, of most value, was sitting in a partner's office, and every conversation he had with a client was on speakerphone ... I learned more from that about how to interact with a client than any technical aspects I could've learned in a classroom."

The curriculum is still a significant part of the program, and Bolnick explained that a great deal of time and effort was put into developing it in the first year -- it was a large part of the 2,100 hours that composed the first year's program development and completion. Still other hours were devoted to myriad tasks essential to a successful program launch.

To mobilize all this work into a successful program also required partnerships with local universities and businesses. "After we finished the program, we met with university administrators, deans of colleges, accounting department heads," Bolnick shared. "Every time, when we walked in, we handed them a program booklet. They looked at it and said, 'Oh my God' -- they couldn't believe we put something like this together. A woman at Loyola [University Chicago] said, 'We've been looking for something like this for forever.'"

 

THE COLLABORATION

In addition to Loyola, other Illinois universities including Carthage College, DePaul University and the University of Illinois-Chicago provided support or collaboration, as well as interns that first year in the case of DePaul, Loyola and UIC (joining the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois).

In terms of others participants, Intuit, AHI Associates and CCH provided complimentary learning materials and licenses, the Illinois CPA Society awarded the interns membership, Porte Browne donated laptops, CPA Steve Masur reduced his rate for new employee training sessions, and Rosenberg provided advisement, presentations and his survey analysis.

The investment wasn't unnoticed, according to Samiyah Siddiqui, a UIC Master's of Accounting student who recently completed her internship. "At any internship, you learn the ropes, do a project and it's the end," she explained. "This is so far beyond it -- they're not asking us to do anything or produce anything for them but completely teaching us how to be an accountant."

 

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Despite the program's stress on charity, the firms' partners say that they have benefited from it, often in unexpected ways. "The biggest thing it's done is helped us improve our training materials and onboarding of new people," said Hechtman, whose firm didn't hire any of last year's interns and doesn't expect to this year. "We didn't previously think we were capable of hiring someone fresh out of school, but in preparing this and sharing training material between the five firms, we were able to develop an onboarding program and training that has made us better."

Brown Kaplan + Liss similarly didn't plan on hiring any of the interns, as they generally don't hire out of school, according to managing partner Scott Kaplan.

But then they did, bringing on first-year intern Blake Zemaitis part-time as he studied for the CPA Exam before becoming a full-time employee in July. "We've hired people out of school before with mixed results," Kaplan explained. "We tend to have a more experienced workforce, but the program is changing our view. Given the fact that Blake is working out so well and with the group coming through this year, of 10 people, we would seriously consider hiring again."

 

CULTURAL AWARENESS

Prior to his current position, Zemaitis said that the internship gave him an expansive preview of options.

"We were exposed to different tax, audit work and accounting services, and very little pressure was on us," he recalled. "People do tax internships at bigger firms, and do tax returns on a daily basis and probably get more proficient at individual tax returns, but it doesn't give them the grounded experience of seeing how audit professionals work, or accounting professionals. I'd say a downfall is that you don't become extremely efficient in one area, as opposed to a tax-only internship, but it's good when you don't know exactly what you want to do, with this model."

Siddiqui now knows what she doesn't want to do. "The culture is so amazing, so supportive, and you want to learn and enjoy accounting -- it's not just about completing the goal," she explained. "I don't think I'd consider taking a job at anything other than an accounting firm like this."

In addition to spreading awareness of small-to-midsized firm culture, program leaders also report increased engagement from their current staff as an unexpected but invaluable program bonus. There is, however, an even more precisely calculable return on investment, according to Hechtman.

"An accountant looks at it from a cost standpoint, and these days a lot of firms are using recruiters to find talent," he said. "Recruiters take a significant fee on that first-year salary ... . We haven't hired anyone from this program, but if we had, in pure dollars, it would probably be a third the cost of a recruiter, maybe less."

In fact, he continued, firms should approach talent recruitment from a rebuilding standpoint, like his beloved Chicago Cubs: "They haven't won a World Series for 105 years now ... but they [recently] made a commitment to building the program from the ground up. I'd say that's what small to medium-sized firms need to think about ... if you want to last through your generation. You need to have all levels of talent at all ages."

The original print and online version of this story identified Allen Bolnick as managing partner of Weltman Bernfield; while he was MP at the time the internship was created, Glenn Mikell is currently at the helm of the firm. Also, as noted in the comments below, the article identified Silver, Lerner, Schwartz & Fertel as an ongoing participant in the internship program, but it did not participate in 2013; BIK & Co. did.

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