Here's one of the best "feel-good" stories in the CPA profession that I came across in 2012.

This past summer, five competing but friendly local CPA firms in Chicago worked together to create a staff internship program that truly achieved synergistic results. With the creation of the Accounting Internship Scholarship Program, these firms worked together to establish:

  • A meaningful way to give back to the community.
  • A way to distinguish themselves from other firms.
  • A curriculum that would be the envy of any university.
  • A pipeline of highly qualified staff for future employment.
  • Relationships with the accounting department heads of six major area universities.

CPA firms have used internship programs for years as a way to recruit future accounting staff. But virtually all firms do this individually. A big focus of these internships has been to gain a recruiting edge, reduce the workload of their staff, and increase billable hours performed by lower-cost labor.
Local firms across the country have been frustrated by the difficulty in attracting the best and the brightest university accounting students to their internships because of how difficult it is to compete with powerhouse programs at the Big Four and large regional firms. By combining forces, these five local Chicago firms were able to achieve an even playing field with the larger firms.

The AISP was the brainchild of Allen Bolnick, managing partner at Chicago-area CPA firm Weltman Bernfield and a long-time member of a monthly CPA firm roundtable I lead. At one of the group's meetings in early 2012, he floated his internship idea to the other firms and it was well-received, with five firms joining the program right from the get-go. Bolnick is hopeful that other firms will join now that the program has a year under its belt and has established credibility. The participating firms (with total firm personnel, full- and part-time, in parentheses) are:

  • Brown Kaplan + Liss (15);
  • The Hechtman Group (12);
  • Porte Brown (77);
  • Silver Lerner Schwartz & Fertel (36); and,
  • Weltman Bernfield (50).

"We put together a training program to teach the interns what they need to know to succeed at firms like ours," said Bolnick.
For decades, local CPA firms have had two complaints about accounting programs at universities:

1. The curriculums lack training in what it is really like to work in a CPA firm.

2. The professors have a strong bias toward the Big Four firms, which often precludes students from even considering a small, local firm for employment.

The AISP program is a great way to address these issues.

Said Bolnick: "AISP is strictly designed to be an education forum. We want to expose the interns to what we do on a daily basis and put a positive spin on the profession."

 

AN OVERVIEW

The program was posted at 14 universities. Students were required to formally apply to the program. Eight interns were accepted from 27 applicants. All were screened for exceptional grade point averages, demonstrated writing skills and were highly touted by their accounting professors.

The program was eight weeks long, running in June and July, with the interns rotating time at the five firms and curriculum taught by partners and staff of the participating firms. Of the estimated 190 partners and staff in the five firms, 45 percent of this workforce participated in the program. The curriculum included classroom instruction plus hands-on experience working on real client projects, and covered a broad range of topics, from beginning training in audit, review and compilations, to different kinds of tax returns, a variety of software, fraud and embezzlement, a marketing overview, and how CPA firms operate.

Each student received a $2,500 scholarship, with financial support received from several sponsors: Intuit, staff training specialists AHI Associates, CCH, and the Illinois CPA Society. The five participating firms contributed a combined $32,000, excluding their time.

 

THE FEEDBACK

At the end, I, as an independent consultant, conducted a thorough feedback session of the interns to evaluate the program and suggest ways to improve the program next year.

The overall feedback was very positive. The interns were greatly appreciative of the special opportunity provided to them to gain a leg up on other students.

They cited the following benefits:

1. "Shadowing" of different staff members as they performed client work was the interns' favorite part of the program. This gave them an appreciation for the day-to-day functions of a CPA firm and exposed them to firm cultures, co-worker interaction and even office politics.

2. The program made them feel like they had a real job, at a real accounting firm, doing real work. "Courses at school are all theoretical. We have no idea what the accounting world is really like outside of school," said one of the interns.

3. Great enthusiasm was expressed for activities involving client contact. They loved getting shown a company plant or warehouse, meeting key client personnel and seeing how the work performed by a CPA firm helps clients.

4. The opportunity to meet and talk with a number of partners was unexpected and highly appreciated, giving them important exposure to partners that will be helpful in interviews.

5. The program's variety was continually mentioned as a positive. The number of firms involved, the spread in age and level of experience of the different instructors, the large number of instructors, the opportunity to work in different locations and meet so many staff members - all of these elements "kept things interesting," while giving them the widest possible exposure to the profession.

6. Meeting with new hires at the five firms was seen as the best introduction to what it's going to be like starting out in the "real world."

7. Software training was very beneficial because they don't get it in school. Particularly, 1040 software training was the top-rated session in the entire program.

8. The students liked the exposure to marketing and networking and "got the message" that bringing in business and cultivating personal relationships with clients is a key to success at a CPA firm.

All five firms felt that the opportunity to meet with and thoroughly evaluate eight top-notch interns nicely positions them to hire at least one of them. Equally important, the relationships built or reinforced with major universities will position the firms to hire a better caliber of student in the future. What's more, going through the process of creating the program's educational content opened the eyes of the firms and has already led to modifications in their new-employee orientation programs.

A time-honored best practice of training is that "the best way to learn is to teach." This program gave 86 partners and staff at five firms the opportunity to teach, which has already improved the quality of training at the participating firms.

The AISP also provided a way for firms to work with colleges beyond paying for a booth at career recruiting events. The university officials have been impressed with the scope of the project and participating firms received immediate credibility and praise for being a part of it. "This is exactly the type of program we have been looking for," said Rachel Stack, assistant dean of advancement at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The AISP is one of the highest-impact CPA firm ideas I've seen in years. It's so exciting to see firms do something genuinely altruistic and, at the same time, be so incredibly beneficial to the three stakeholders in the program: accounting students, the participating firms and area universities. This program is a fabulous example of creative, outside-the-box thinking by an innovative group of CPA firms.

The program's goal for the near future is to double both the number of interns participating, as well as the number of firms joining the program. After the AISP's flying start, its future is limitless.

Marc Rosenberg, CPA, of The Rosenberg Associates, is a management consultant to CPA firms nationwide, as well as the author of The Marc Rosenberg Blog and the "Monograph" series of publications on key CPA practice management topics. Reach him at (847) 251-7100 or marc@rosenbergassoc.com.

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