By Gabriele Lingenfelter, CPA
The accounting profession is changing. Because of the automation of routine accounting tasks, CPA firms will not need to hire as many accounting graduates for entry-level positions. Future entry-level CPAs will need to shift from preparing historical financial documents based on past transactions to providing advice for financial decisions based on real-time data.
Simultaneously, firms are complaining about the perennial talent shortage. There have been concerns about the adequacy of the CPA pipeline — the population of candidates who are in the process of taking the CPA Exam. With a large number of CPAs expected to retire in the next 10 to 20 years, the question remains if enough CPAs will be available to take over. While majoring in accounting remains popular, there has been a slight decline in new CPAs over the last few years. Some attribute the decline to anticipated changes in the CPA Exam, while others cite the trend of accounting students entering careers in consulting, which do not require the CPA designation.
Regardless of the changes occurring, one fact remains: CPA firms are trying to attract and hire the best candidates and are doing so at earlier and earlier stages of accounting students’ education. When I started teaching in the late 1990s, it was common for accounting firms to hire the best accounting students for an internship during the summer following their junior year. If the intern performed well and fit into the firm’s culture, the intern received their offer for full-time employment. However, this has changed.
An article in the Aug. 1, 2016, Journal of Accountancy compares the recruiting of accounting students to college athlete recruiting. Both are happening at an earlier and earlier stage of the athlete’s or accountant’s live. College coaches may recruit potential athletes as early as in middle school, while the increased competition for top quality accounting students has driven CPA firm recruiters to engage college juniors, sophomores and freshmen to their firm.
Numerous early recruiting events are being utilized. These interactions between CPA firm and student take many forms, from accounting club and classroom visits and receptions to competitions and externships.
Externships, similar to internships but shorter in duration, involve experiential learning during which employers provide students the opportunity to learn about the organization, culture and a typical day at work. They present a middle ground for recruiters; waiting to recruit at the junior level may be too late, while recruiting students as sophomores may be premature because little is known about students’ performance in accounting classes and career goals. As it is often too expensive to offer an internship to a sophomore who in the end may not work out, an externship presents a lower cost alternative and is an effective way of reaching students early in their accounting careers.
Externships are typically one- or two-day visits to a firm, during which the externs will learn about the firm’s culture and participate in various activities, and the firm will learn about the participants. These externs are often the pool from which the firms will select the future interns.
Numerous CPA firms in Virginia offer externships; here are a few examples. Each July, Mitchell Wiggins offers its Engage Leadership program, which promises to let externs take a look at the life of a CPA. The program prides itself in truly emerging students in the day of a CPA and emphasizes the importance of fitting into the firm’s culture. Externs visit a client and prepare a presentation upon returning to the office. Wall, Einhorn and Chernitzer offers a two-day externship in May that includes an office tour, team building, client shadowing and mock interviews.
Johnson Lambert actually has two opportunities for accounting students to dabble in accounting: Job Learning is a half-day program in January to introduce sophomores and juniors to accounting, and E.L.I.T.E (Empowered Leaders Inspiring Tomorrow’s Excellence) is a selective two-and-a-half day event held in May where participants learn about the firm’s business lines and culture. The Discover KPMG program invites externs to an evening reception followed by a full day of interviews, introductions of KPMG’s different service lines and panel discussions.
While externships are a valuable recruiting tool for CPA firms, students simultaneously are appreciative of the benefits externships offer. “I attended Engage Leadership with Mitchell Wiggins,” said Tamera Williams, a junior accounting major at Christopher Newport University (CNU). “It was an amazing opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at what does life look like as a CPA. Not only did I get to see the company culture, but I also got to visit one of their clients, Virginia Homes for Boys and Girls, and learned how Mitchell Wiggins played a role in helping the organization thrive. However, the most significant part of the program for me was just getting to talk to CPAs and ask questions about internships, the CPA Exam, their day-to-day and the things they wish they had known before starting their career.”
“When I began my recruiting process, I decided to explore externship options with firms of all different sizes,” said Sabrina Lingenfelter, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia. “I found this important because the size of a firm not only affected the clients, but it also changed the culture and resources the firm had. By externing with a Big 4 firm, a mid-sized firm and a regional firm I was better able to decide what type of firm fit my personality the best and what I wanted a firm to do for my career.”
“As a first-generation college student who switched majors from physics to accounting, I started off oblivious to the different opportunities the accounting profession had,” said Mulatawork Hilton, a 2018 CNU grad. “I took advantage of various externships to ensure I found a firm that was right for me. I had an opportunity to extern with various medium and Big 4 firms my sophomore and junior year, and I realized the job is the same wherever you go, but the culture and environment differs from firm to firm. Though my externships, I was able to find the firm that best fit my needs!”
Leadership conferences or summits are another avenue to expose a select group of accounting students to a CPA firm while simultaneously building the students’ leadership skills.
BDO offers a summer leadership conference called Pathway to Success during which students attend presentations and networking events that allow them to learn more about public accounting and BDO. To be selected for the program, applicants must have completed the interview process for an internship the following year.
As one manager at a large national CPA firm stated, the group of students attending their program provides them with "a head start on interviewing for our summer internships, so it really does give the students an advantage when looking for an internship for the following summer.”
DHG Leadership Conference is a two-day event where students learn leadership skills and network with DHG professionals. To be selected for the Leadership Conference, students must submit an application, résumé and unofficial transcript.
Case competitions are not frequently used as an early recruiting vehicle, likely because of the time and effort involved in running these competitions, but they also provide opportunities for firms to connect with recruit. When I started teaching at CNU, Goodman & Company (now DHG) sponsored the Goodman Accounting Challenge, a one-day event that required a team of accounting students to research and present solutions to problems commonly encountered in public accounting. The competition attracted teams from universities in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland and was an excellent way for the CPA firm to establish a relationship with the top students at the participating universities.
PWC has a case competition open to freshmen and sophomores in a four-year program and freshmen, sophomores and juniors in a five-year program. The team consists of four to five members, and at least two must be in or plan to apply to the business school. The team is also encouraged to include a member who will major or minor in a relevant STEM discipline such as data analytics. The team showcases its critical thinking and communication skills and the members gain a broader network of relationships. At KPMG, teams of four tackle global issues in the Innovation and Collaboration Challenge (KICC).
The experience of participating in case competitions can be crucial for students’ careers. “KICC is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Fernanda Santanna, who participated in KICC in 2015 in Dubai. “It provided me a chance to collaborate with and learn from peers and KPMG professionals from around the world, think differently about global challenges and solutions, and ultimately kickstarted my career at KPMG.” Santanna now works in risk consulting at KPMG in Brazil.1
As mentioned above, only a few CPA firms use case competitions to narrow the pool of potential new employees and those that do usually focus their effort on the larger schools, which have more accounting majors. Even if case competitions are work-intensive for the CPA firm and likely the professor advising the team, competitions can identify high-quality candidates with excellent leadership potential and critical thinking skills. In my opinion, these competitions attract the most enthusiastic and driven students and should be utilized more to select candidates for subsequent internships and fulltime offers.
Establishing relationships with professors and student organizations can give recruiters early access to top candidates. Recruiters use universities’ career centers and Handshake, an online community for students and recent graduates, or similar platforms to post externships, internships and full-time positions, but should not forget the importance of establishing professional relationships with college professors. Professors will be able to identify high-performing and enthusiastic accounting students as early as the Principles of Accounting class and may encourage these students to apply to positions. Professors may also invite recruiters, alumni or other firm employees to their classes as guest speakers, providing a great opportunity for networking and introducing the firm to the accounting students as early as their sophomore year.
Having a regular presence on campus by talking to the members of the Accounting Club or Beta Alpha Psi will introduce students, including sophomores, to accounting professionals and may sway a student to apply for an externship or internship even if he or she knew previously little about the specific firm. The officers of the Accounting Club or Beta Alpha Psi typically have excellent leadership and communication skills and are excellent candidates for externship and internship offers.
The competition will only increase for recruiting top accounting students who have excellent data analysis and critical thinking skills while also displaying an aptitude to acquire technical knowledge. Finding the right candidate who also possesses the soft skills needed in today’s professional environment at an early stage during the student’s education through externships, leadership summits, case competitions or on-campus interactions are crucial methods of recruiting.
Gabriele Lingenfelter, CPA, MBA, is an accounting instructor in the Luter School of Business at Christopher Newport University. She sits on the Disclosures Editorial Task Force and is a member of the VSCPA Board of Directors. Contact her at gabriele at cnu.edu.
1. “Where Are They Now?” KPMG website. tinyurl.com/KICCalum.