The advent of the computer-based Uniform CPA Exam in 2004 threw CPA firms and their young staff for a loop, as the regimented accountability of a bi-annual pencil-and-paper sitting was replaced with a more continuous completion timeline.
Before the switch, accounting firms "knew who was sitting, getting through the exam, and could follow employees better," explained Thomas Rogowski, program director of accounting for Becker Professional Education, which provides review programs for the exam. "Around 2006 to 2007, large firms especially had issues with procrastination. Associates at the senior level, individuals approaching manager promotion, didn't have the credential."
Ironically, continued technological progress might now be a savior for those time management issues in the prep stage.
Professional education providers like Becker, Kaplan and Tampa, Fla.-based Bisk Education have moved their review courses online. "We provide flexible study options to study at nontraditional times," explained Bisk product manager Valerie Wendt.
And now exam candidates are no longer even tied to a computer, Wendt said. "Before, they had to be at a PC tower, then laptops ... now with the iPad, Kindles and Nooks, the materials are available on that medium."
Or they are about to be.
While Bisk's online classroom is now offered on the iPad after changes were made to cater to the tablet's Adobe Flash software limitations, conversions are still underway to accommodate other e-readers. And the company hopes to create an online classroom mobile application, Wendt revealed.
Becker has plenty of new software ideas in the pipeline, according to Rogowski, which will expand on its year-and-a-half-long presence in the mobility space while addressing the new habits of the Facebook generation. In particular, they are looking to create mobile applications in the vein of FarmVille, currently the most popular social networking game on Facebook. But while players of FarmVille work together to manage virtual crops and livestock, Rogowski envisions future exam preparation games fostering healthy competition. "Couldn't you potentially pit one firm against another firm in terms of studying progress?" he wondered. "There's an entertainment and accomplishment element."
Before Becker enters the social gaming space, however, it plans to roll out some internal Web-based solutions this calendar year that will allow firms to track the exam progress of candidates and "watch the procrastination factor."
CASH IN HAND
Some firms still monitor this problem with a tried-and-true analog solution: money.
Omaha, Neb.-based accounting and consulting firm Seim Johnson will pay staff members' exam sitting fees, now about $1,000, up front and one time only.
"I don't know any college graduate that wants to spend their graduation money on the CPA Exam," said Karen Smith, the firm's director of administration. "We'll upfront them the money, as we don't want anyone using this as an excuse not to take the exam or to postpone it."
The firm then offers a $2,000 bonus for passing the exam, if completed within 12 months of the date of hire. The amount of the bonus decreases every six months until candidates reach the two-year mark, when it is no longer available. "Basically, we are trying to inspire a sense of urgency in the associates, especially since the exam is so flexible and easy to put off," Smith explained.
Texas accounting firm Hartman Leito & Bolt provides a $3,000 bonus, which can be retroactively applied to the cost of the Becker test materials that the firm gets at a group rate of $1,900.
Kansas and Colorado accounting and consulting firm Kennedy and Coe, which also offers a $3,000 completion bonus, recently instituted a tuition reimbursement program that associates qualify for after they pass the exam and begin work.
Because many firms will hire people months in advance of their start date, it's "wonderful if they have the exam passed before they come to us," said Lola Fair, Kennedy and Coe's director of human resources, who estimates the gap between hiring and first day is usually nine months.
"New hires are now coming in with as many as two or more sections done," said Denise Probert, vice president of CPA education at Kaplan. "Students are finding that a competitive advantage in the interview process."
On the flip side of the carrot-stick model, firms will hold back on promoting people to the senior associate level unt
il they have attained licensure.
Still other candidates might work better within a more intensive timeframe. Becker, for example, offers FastPass, which condenses the standard review course from months into weeks.
According to Fair, some associates at Kennedy and Coe take advantage of flexible time to take a month off and complete that class. "The people doing that have attempted to pass and are struggling a little bit," she explained. "They have tried to study on their own but are not able to do that."
Greater workloads due to slimmer staffs, meanwhile, are making it difficult for potential exam-takers to schedule time to prepare.Firms like Hartman Leito & Bolt attempt to help by requiring a CPA plan that outlines class schedules and study plans. "The plans are updated annually and reviewed with the employee and their career advisor to understand where the employee is in the process and any impact exam prep may have on work here in the office," explained director of administration and HR Ann White.
Seim Johnson has found peer accountability to be effective, scheduling candidate meetings three to four times a year in which participants discuss their progress, share tips and encourage each other. "It's hard for an associate to come to the meeting in May and indicate they are planning on sitting for two parts in July and then come to the meeting in August and not have sat for those parts," Smith explained.
Usually, the encouragement is more informal. While study groups are often not officially formed, for example, firms will make after-hours meeting space available. Firms will also push for cracking open a book during any downtime.
Whether studying is conducted in a classroom or online, in a matter of months or weeks, both firms and education providers emphasize that, as White put it, "One size doesn't really fit all."
Seim Johnson's Smith agreed: "We have not as a firm recommended or endorsed any one review product or course, since each person's method of studying, preparing and time commitment is very different."
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