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Maximizing Your Early Employment Experiences

by Dr. James Deitrick and Doug Bogart

The accounting profession and accounting education experienced dramatic changes during the 1980s. This profession was especially impacted by rapid globalization of the economy, explosive advancements in technology, and an increasingly competitive marketplace. Higher education was correspondingly challenged to integrate technology and international business issues into its curriculum; improve the commmunications skills of its students; and address changing professional standards, enacted by the AICPA and some individual states, that essentially require (or will soon require) new CPAs to have a minimum of 150 hours of higher education.

Amid this dynamic backdrop, the American Accounting Association created the Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC) in 1989. The primary purpose of the AECC was, and still is, to improve "the academic preparation of accountants so that entrants to the accounting profession possess the skills, knowledge, and attitude required for success in accounting career paths." Since its inception, the AECC has funded several experimental curriculum projects at selected universities across the nation, and has prepared many written reports on a broad range of topics. Subjects addressed by the AECC include: objectives of education for accountants, evaluation and rewarding of effective teaching, and importance of two-year colleges for accounting education. Clearly, these acivities are of paramount importance to today's accounting students and faculty, as well as to the future of the accounting profession.

While most AECC projects have been conducted by teams of faculty members and professional accountants, one of its projects sought direct student involvement. The result was Issues Statement No.4, "Improving the Early Employment of Accountants," which was published in 1993. The motivation for this statement was provided by the AECC's realization that (a) acounting graduates are now being better prepared academically for professional careers, and (b) there is a need for improved integration between accountants' formal education and their first two or three years of employment. In other words, the changing demands and expectations facing today's professional accountants require a re-engineered linkage between campus education and on-the-job experiences. Unless changes are made to enhance the quality of early employment experiences, it is reasonable to anticipate that some of the best and brightest people initially attracted to accounting will soon accept more attractive and rewarding opportunities elsewhere. It is no secret that employee turnover is costly for all parties, especially if it could be significantly reduced or avoided.

Because the messages conveyed in Issues Statement No.4 have not reached many of its target audiences, especially those on college campuses, the purpose of this article is to report and discuss recommendations offered by the AECC that are specifically intended to enrich the employment experiences of new accounting professionals. These recommendations, which are aimed at four broad groups (faculty, students, career-planning and placement professionals, and employers) are as follows.

Faculty members should:

  • Acquire and maintain a high level of knowledge about both practice issues and the non-academic accountant's workplace.
  • Seek out opportunities to interact with practicing accountants.
  • Communicate knowledge about the conditions of professional practice to students.

Students should:

  • Seek opportunities to obtain firsthand knowledge of the business world and practice environment.
  • Obtain information about career opportunities and the job search.
  • Career-planning and placement professionals should:
  • Organize career-education programs.
  • Counsel students on career issues.

Recruiters should:

  • Acquire and maintain high levels of knowledge about educational and early employment issues.
  • Communicate accurately and fully about the early employment experience.

Supervisors of early work experience should:

  • Provide strong leadership and mentoring for staff members.
  • Build working conditions that are conducive to success.
  • Provide challenging and stimulating work assignments.
  • Workplace educators of first-year through third-year employees should:
  • Select and design educational experiences based on knowledge of employees' needs.
  • Reinforce important skills.

Employer management should:

  • Acquire and maintain knowledge of the early employment experience.
  • Promote working conditions that junior employees find attractive, nurturing, and stimulating.
  • Help fulfill the other recommendations in this Statement.

As the above recommendations indicate, the early employment experience of new professional accountants is an extremely important issue for several parties, especially the individual student/employee, the employer, college and university personnel, and the accounting profession. Each component must accept its share of the overall responsibility for ensuring that every new hire receives the proper academic preparation, advice, counseling, training, supervision, and other employment experiences essential for the development of successful careers. If the improvements are properly implemented, (a) new employees should be well-prepared to perform as professionals and continue learning throughout their careers; (b) there should be reduced distance between pre-employment expectations and the realities of professional employment; and (c) overall employee/employer satisfaction and morale should be elevated. These outcomes are significant because there is little doubt that satisfied individuals are more productive, cheerful, and efficient than dissatisfied ones.
Specifically, what can each component group do to help accomplish these results. Some detailed courses of action for each group are presented next.

Faculty members generally play a vital role in shaping the early employment experiences of accounting graduates. They are often regarded by their students as successful role models, trusted mentors, and wise advisors. Their dedication to accounting, enthusiasm for learning, and curiosity about business often combine to produce a profound positive effect on their students' attitudes and perceptions. On the other hand, professors who lack these attributes can just as easily affect the professional aspirations of students in a negative way. Because most accounting courses are closely associated with professional practice, it is important for faculty members to acquire and maintain an acute awareness of today's practice issues, while developing a deep understanding of the work environment that awaits their students. Equally important, faculty members should be encouraged to share their professional knowledge and opinions with students in a variety of forums, ranging from official class presentations, informal discussions with students, or participation in other organized functions.

Although often separated from professional practice, faculty members, nevertheless, can remain up-to-date and informed about accounting practice with a modest investment of time and energy. In particular, faculty could be encouraged to read and contribute to professional literature, accept internships and consulting opportunities, develop a network of professional friends and associates, and regularly discuss current employment and practice issues with campus recruiters. Faculty could also become active in pofessional organizations, such as the Institute of Management Accountants, state and local CPA societies, the Financial Executives Institute, the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the Federal Government Accountants' Association. In addition, faculty and practitioners could collaborate on research projects; faculty members could also participate in continuing professional education programs, invite practicing accountants to speak to their classes, and visit the offices of professional accountants. In turn, faculty could then communicate their knowledge of professional practice by developing realistic case materials for classroom use; enriching lecture notes, examples, and illustrations with relevant information from professional practice; inviting practicing accountants to help teach or present appropriate subject matter; encouraging and helping students seek internships or work/study programs; and being open to opportunities to discuss recruiting, career, and professional topics with students.

During their academic careers, students should take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to obtain a first-rate education. A sound education is the cornerstone or any worthwhile profession. Practicing accountants need an education that is both broad and deep. An accountant's education should be based on a curriculum that promotes critical thinking, sound reasoning and effective oral and written communications. However, it must be recognized that a great deal of learning and growing takes place outside of the classroom. Accordingly, students should aggressively seek internships or work/study opportunities. It is not essential or even necessary for these opportunities to involve the accounting functions. Students can benefit tremendously from general business experiences or other endeavors that simply help them better understand people and the world around them. Moreover, students are encouraged to participate in activities that could help them improve their communications, business and leadership skills. This would include active involvement in such things as student government, social and professional groups, and volunteer organizations.

Student are also responsible for obtaining valid information about career opportunities, the business environment and the entire job-search process. This would include the frequent reading of business and accounting publications;dutifully attending seminars or workshops presented by the career planning and placement office and company recruiters; attentively listening to discussions by faculty and practitioners; and serving in internships, work/study or coop programs. It is also recommended that students conduct an honest assessment of their individual aptitudes, interests, skills, knowledge and motivation and compare the results of this assessment with the requirements of various career opportunities. This should lead to improved matches between student characteristics and career selection.

Career Planning and Placement Office
Students' and recruiters' first introdution to the reruiting procss on any campus often takes place in the Career Planning and Placement Office (CPPO). The CPPO typically plays s significant role in preparing students for their job searches by helping with resume writing; offering assistance in identifying compatible companies for possible employment; and providing interviewing tips covering such things as proper dress, behavior and background preparation for each company and intrview. Similarly, the CPPO is responsible for making companies aware of the special features and requirements of a schools' various academic programs and the overall qualifications and characteristics of the student-body. Because the CPPO staff members have regular interaction with students and recruiters, they are able to influence the recruiting expectations and experiences of all participants. This responsibility needs to be handled in a
professional manner at all times. Thus, it is important for the CPPO to schedule regular workshops and seminars to help students better understand their career options, to facilitate internship arrangements and seminar opportunities, to help students realistically evaluate themselves and the features of different career paths, and to provide students with adequate information about the current working environment for accountants and its demands, compenation and benefits.

With a broad focus on employer organizations, this section speifically pertains to recruiting personnel, the personal supervisors of new hires, and the workplace educators of first-through third-year employees. Every person who participates in the recruiting process at a particular instiution needs to be properly informed about the institution's current academic programs, curriculum, student-body characteristics, culture, and historical relationship with the recruiting company. Recruiting personnel can not get away with "winging it" or relying on charm or the reputation of their company for providing a basis for a good interview. Recruiters at all levels need to do their homework and prepare for each interview as they would a potential new client. Students can easily discern the lack of preparation, disinterest, negative attitudes, dishonesty, and other unfavorable traits among recruiters. And it usually does not take long for information about a "poor" interview is all-to-often associated with a companuy or firm rather than the individual interviewer. As a result, recruiters should always be well prepared and fully understand that they are helping others formulate opinions about their organization and the people who work there,

Recruiters need to know their organization's official position on education and recruiting issues in order to avoid sending inconsistent or confusing messages. For example, recruiters need to be aware of their firm's stance on graduate level education for accountants (and the AICPA's 150-hour requirement) and its actual recruiting preferences for undergraduate or graduate students. Similarly, recruiters should be able to describe the career paths, training, education, job requirements, compensation, and evaluation procedures for graduates of different programs. Finally, when communicating with potential new hires, faculty, and CPPO employees, recruiting personnel must provide truthful, complete and relevant information about job opportunities, the importance of the job, the work environment, and the employer's preferences and expectations. It is often wise for recruiters to speak with recent hires in their own organization about the employment concerns which were on their minds when making their job selection choices.

Supervisors of new or recent hires should provide strong leadership and mentoring services throughout the early employment experience. They need to provide frequent, honest and open information to employees about their strengths and weaknesses and carefully listen to feedback provided by them. Supervisors need to be professional role models who have pride in their progession and their work and who understand its importance to customers, clients, and society. Moreover, supervisors should help build working conditions conducive for successful employee performances. They need to explain work assignments thoroughly, allocate enough time and resources for quality work to be done, explain significant job constraints (perhaps the budget), discuss how individual assignments are a part of the "big picture" and thoroughly supervise work to its ultimate completion. Supervisors need to treat new or recent hires as they would have liked to have been treated at the same stae of their careers. They should maintain a level playing field for all subordinates and diligently try to minimize or control job-related stress. Finally, supervisors are encouraged to introduce subordinates to new tasks, assignments, and responsibilities as soon as they are ready for them and give them opportunities to think critically, be creative, and use their communications skills in a variety of settings. These skills which are rigorously emphasized in college, need to be continuously reinforced in the workplace.

Given today's dynmic economic and tecnical environment, it is particularly important for employees. Workplace educators are encouraged to perform regular needs assessments of its employees and to design educational programs and expeiences accordingly. It is desirable for workplace educators to understand the major characteristics of its employees, including their prior educational levels, employment experiences, strengths, deficiencies. They should try to identify the gaps between new hires' expectations and the employment experiences and requirements actually needed on-the-job. Appropriate programs and assignments should be designed and provided which will not only close these gaps, but will make each employee more productive and satisfied. In addition, workplace educators should work closely with the managers and supervisors of new or recent hires so that employees have the appropriate knowledge and skills to perform their assigned tasks successfully and professionally. Improved integration between an employee's education, training, employment experiences, and assignments is encouraged.

For many of these recommendations to succeed, key employer managers need to acept responsibility for seeing to it that the appropriate recommendations are implemented properly and in good faith. Managers should provide working conditions and job assignments that new or recent hires find attractive, nurturing, and stimulating. They should recognize and reward outstanding performances and provide programs or assistance for employees who need help. It may be beneficial for managers to assess the erarly employment experiences of its current employees as well as those who are no longer employed. Significant information could be learned from surveys, focus groupd, committees, and other means intended to evaluate and improve the early employment experiences of all employees.

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