Internships: A Golden Opportunity from Three Different Angles

by Margaret O'Reilly-Allen, CPA, PhD., and Daria D. Palaschak, CPA, CAP, Sisterson & Co. LLP – April 9, 2018
Internships: A Golden Opportunity from Three Different Angles Developing and retaining staff is a must for the success of public accounting firms. Given that retention starts with hiring the right people, firms devote considerable resources to summer internships and semester-long co-op programs to preview potential hires before extending employment offers. Thus, an internship serves as a long date, where the firm and the student can get to know each other. But whether or not an internship results in full-time employment, it is a winning proposition for the intern, sponsoring school, and employer.

The purpose of this feature is to help firms and schools that want to create new internship programs or improve on existing ones. It discusses the shared benefits of accounting internship programs, and includes the results of a survey of recent accounting interns. 

Internship Programs

Accounting internships are based on the concept of engaged learning, which can be described as applying the knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations. For the student, though, an internship is more than enhancing accounting skills. It is about providing a bridge from the classroom to the workplace and an opportunity to try the career path they are pursuing.

To maximize the benefit to the student, an internship should be structured to set expectations, offer meaningful work, establish protocols, and provide supervision and timely feedback on performance (see Table 1 for internship best practices). The experience typically covers a minimum of 12 weeks, and works well with summer breaks. However, to provide a more realistic experience, many firms like to hire interns to work during busy season. While school schedules typically do not allow for full-time commitment during the academic year, a little creativity can open up several realistic options. For example, firms can contact the accounting internship coordinator at local schools to develop part-time internships during busy season that allow students to work two or three days a week while taking evening or online classes.

Table 1: Internship Best Practices

Onboarding: Contact incoming interns with a formal welcome and provide basic information about the internship and the firm.
Structure: Define the role of the intern, and provide a job description to the intern and those who work with interns.
Expectations: Provide information about firm culture, ethical standards, professional expectations, procedures, and appropriate attire.
Meaningful Work: Provide challenging tasks and assignments that cover a variety of the firm’s practices. 
Supervision: Have regular meetings between the interns and their supervisor to ask questions and resolve problems. If possible, have interns work with a variety of supervisors to experience different management styles. 
Feedback: Provide timely written comments on each assignment so interns know what they are doing correctly and what they need to improve upon.
Exit Interview: Conduct an exit interview to discuss performance, including strengths and areas for improvement, and offer career advice. Also, ask interns for their feedback on their experience at the firm.

Firms spend considerable time and effort to hire graduates with a combination of the technical accounting skills necessary to enter the profession and the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed. When deciding whom to interview, recruiters generally use a student’s GPA as a measure of technical competence and extracurricular activities and work experiences to gauge soft-skill potential. During an interview, many recruiters use behavioral-type questions to further assess soft-skill abilities. Topping the list of important soft skills are communication, time management, critical thinking, and confidence – skills and traits the typical 20- to 22-year-old accounting student has not yet developed. Thus, an internship is an ideal opportunity for students to develop soft skills prior to graduation.

Student Benefits & the Rider University Study

Over the past few decades, the academic community and members of the accounting profession have documented the benefits of accounting internships. The most frequently cited advantages include developing interpersonal skills, improving subsequent academic performance, and providing career opportunities after graduation. To expand upon and update the findings from earlier studies, junior and senior accounting majors at Rider University, a medium-sized private university in New Jersey with a large accounting program, were surveyed about their internship experience. The survey addressed soft-skill development as well as specific data analytic and information technology abilities since these skills are increasingly important for accountants. Our results include responses from 51 students who interned in Big 4, regional, and small public accounting firms as well as at major corporations in the Philadelphia and New Jersey area during the winter and summer of 2016 and 2017. We used a questionnaire that asked students 10 questions that related to the perceived value of the internship. Each question required students to respond using a five-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). To provide further insight, we included open-ended questions on the survey and each student submitted a reflection paper detailing their internship experience. The survey questions and results are listed in Table 2.

As shown in Table 2, the students in our survey strongly agreed the internship was a valuable experience in terms of personal and professional maturity and in providing career advantages (mean of 4.82). Students agreed or strongly agreed that their internship built upon and enhanced the technical foundation provided in the classroom. Being exposed to working-world projects and tasks provided a better understanding of accounting, tax, and audit concepts learned in the classroom (mean 4.57) and provided context to understanding how the tasks they perform related to the big picture.

Table 2: Student Feedback on Internships
My Accounting Internship … (with mean response out of possible 5)

Was a valuable experience - 4.82
Provided networking opportunities - 4.80
Provided new abilities with audit, tax, or accounting software - 4.68
Improved my time management skills - 4.64
Developed my confidence to work as an accounting professional - 4.61
Improved my use of judgment - 4.60
Enhanced my understanding of accounting/audit/tax concepts taught in classes - 4.57
Improved my Excel or data analytics skills - 4.57
Developed my oral communication skills (either speaking with peers or clients) - 4.50
Improved my written communication skills - 4.29

The internship experience also significantly improved students’ computer and Microsoft Excel skills (mean 4.57). Given that data analytics is changing the way that the public accounting profession provides services, it is important that students develop abilities to work with large amounts of data and interpret it as well as use business software programs prior to beginning full-time employment.

With respect to communication skills, young professionals tend to struggle with appropriate written and oral communication when they first enter the world of work. Consistent with earlier studies, the Rider survey results indicate that internships help students hone their oral communication skills through interactions with both clients and professional staff at all levels. Students reported they also learned appropriate ways to share information with peers, partners, and clients. Concerning written communication, the majority of students felt that their ability to write emails and memos improved significantly, but they realize that is a starting point in developing strong written communication skills, which are critical to workflow.

Students reported significant improvement in their ability to manage time to complete tasks, to work under pressure in a different setting with different types of people and teams, and to meet deadlines. Many students indicated there were times early in the internship when they felt overwhelmed by their inexperience and lack of technical knowledge. As time progressed, they learned how to prioritize tasks and manage their time better, which helped them develop a sense of confidence.

The experience students reported that they valued the most was an opportunity to network. Many commented that firm managers and partners had intimidated them when they first started their internships, and they did not feel comfortable or confident communicating with them. But, over the course of the internship, students became more confident as they developed technical skills and interacted with their team, manager, and firm partners. They learned firsthand the importance of developing interpersonal and networking skills with current and future professionals. Students indicated they were grateful to have access to leadership who shared their own perspectives and insights about building and maintaining professional relationships and the importance of developing strong interpersonal skills.

Overall, students in the Rider survey confirmed that an internship is a valuable learning experience that helped prepare them for a smoother and more realistic transition from school to the workplace.

Benefits to the Sponsoring School

Participation in an active internship program is nearly always a win for a university accounting program. From a reputational standpoint, internship programs increase a program’s visibility in the academic and business community, and can be a great recruiting tool to attract students interested in a career in accounting.

Strong internship placement rates also impact school rankings that are closely followed by potential students. On a program level, internships provide valuable feedback to professors from the profession regarding the academic preparation of students. Accounting departments can then use this feedback to address potential gaps in the curriculum.

Benefits to the Employer

Internship programs can be a valuable endeavor for public accounting firms. Once viewed as a way to hire cheap labor or to do a favor for a client or friend, today an internship program serves as an important recruitment tool. Instead of waiting until the start of the senior year to interview and hire a new class of staff associates for the following year, firms who offer internships may be able to reach students much earlier in the process, perhaps as early as their sophomore or junior years.

After the internship, but well before the fall recruiting process, a firm can offer a full-time position to an impressive intern and finalize an acceptance offer. This can take a great deal of pressure off the recruiting process. If firms wait until the beginning of each senior year to recruit candidates, the process becomes much more difficult. There are fewer top-notch students available at that point, because many of them are already committed due to the fact that so many firms are now following the internship route. In addition, firms who hire interns can get those candidates oriented much faster than candidates who did not intern with them (or intern anywhere) as the intern already has a realistic idea of what to expect and should have already begun to develop some of the skill set needed by the firm.

Having an internship program also can provide much needed hands on deck. Summer interns can help a firm get through the months when many full-time staff are taking vacations. They may also be able to help with back-burner projects that need to get done but never seem to rise to the priority level of more pressing projects. Finally, if an arrangement can be met with schools for in-semester internships, they can be a resource to help a firm get through the “crunch” time of spring or fall tax seasons.

An internship program can also give younger full-time staff at the firm an opportunity to gain some supervisory experience by overseeing the interns, possibly much earlier than they otherwise would. Normally, a full-time employee may have to wait until they reach the level of senior to begin to supervise an associate; however, an associate may actually be able to provide direction to an intern. This can help with the retention of current employees since many younger staff yearn for more responsibilities as early as possible in their careers.

The key to a successful internship program is to provide meaningful experiences through hands-on training, shadowing, and working-world experiences. Firms can also teach interns the specific skills and knowledge that will benefit the firm if they are hired – things that they might not otherwise know. These could be learning how to work with certain hardware components and about security policies, experiencing company-specific systems such as a paperless work environment or the time-entry system, and using common business programs such as Word and Excel. Other experiences could include attending continuing education classes, participating in networking activities, writing professional emails, and receiving performance evaluations. They can also begin to learn more about professional ethics. Teaching interns early about independence, integrity, objectivity, and confidentiality will benefit not just your firm, but also the profession.

The firm can tailor an internship to its specific types of clients to build the intern’s soft skills, such as time management and verbal and written communication skills. In some cases, interns will gain valuable experience getting to know some of the clients of the firm. The experience will definitely benefit the intern, but it will also set a foundation for bringing on a new full-time staff member already equipped with the skills and relationships that can be invaluable to the firm.

Interns may have a more beneficial experience if they are brought on at the same time as the new class of full-time hires, and included in their orientation, training, and new-hire lunches. This will promote a team atmosphere as the interns meet and work with many of the firm’s employees, from administrative staff up to partner level.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the internship experience will influence the decisions of the firm to hire the intern as well as the intern to accept an offer. Internships make the hiring process much easier for both parties since the program enables shared experiences and offers insight into each other’s personality. 

There is a great deal of competition among employers to hire the best and brightest candidates, so a firm that can do the best job selling the top students on their firm will have the advantage. Remember, internships not only serve as a three-month interview, but also as a three-month sales pitch. Interns, their universities, and sponsoring employers all reap significant benefits from internship programs. But, because internship programs provide an ongoing pipeline of motivated young professionals, the ultimate beneficiary of internship programs is the accounting profession. 

Margaret O’Reilly-Allen, CPA, PhD, is associate professor and chairperson of the accounting department for Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at oreillyallen@rider.edu.

Daria D. Palaschak, CPA, CAP, is a partner with Sisterson & Co. LLP in Pittsburgh and a member of the 
Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at ddpalaschak@sisterson.com.


Reprinted with permission from the Pennsylvania CPA Journal.