Internship programs have long been a fixture on the path to a successful CPA career, but emerging trends mean they’re no longer just for the collegiate accounting major.
High school internship and apprenticeship programs are growing in popularity, and many Indiana firms have taken note.
One example: This past May, workforce development organizations Ascend Indiana and EmployIndy announced the launch of the first cohort of EmployIndy’s Modern Apprenticeship program, with Katz Sapper & Miller among the inaugural group of employers.
But it’s not the only program bringing younger students into traditional workplace environments.
A handful of Indianapolis-based firms have also found partnership with Providence Cristo Rey High School (PCRHS). The Cristo Rey Network of Jesuit schools, based out of Chicago, features an innovative model that requires students in every grade level to participate in hands-on internships one day a week. PCRHS has built a network of 80+ corporate partners to host students each year.
“The importance of corporate partnerships for our high school students cannot be understated,” said Frederick Yeakey, vice president, Providence Cristo Rey High School. “For our students, these corporate partnerships open up multiple pathways out of their circumstances by creating meaningful experiences and confidence that they belong.”
But the experience has proven to be mutually beneficial, especially for the teams at Dauby, O'Connor & Zaleski, LLC (DOZ) and CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CLA), two PCRHS corporate partners. We spoke with them to learn more about their experiences hosting interns and what they’d share with those considering taking part in a similar program.
Building a successful high school internship program
DOZ has approximately 15 years of experience welcoming PCRHS students into the firm after
Sean O’Connor, CPA, founding member of DOZ, joined PCRHS’s board in 2007 and immediately sought to get the DOZ team involved.
The first few cohorts of interns worked with the firm before a fully paperless transition, which meant they were assigned a lot of paper-related administrative tasks. By the early 2010s, however, digitalization meant less for the interns to do. DOZ needed a change to keep them engaged.
“It was important to get them more involved in real accounting firm experience to learn about all of the main areas of the firm,” said Wendy Ketterman, manager of administration at DOZ, who oversees the interns.
The goal is to make sure they not only learn more about what it means to work in accounting, but also develop networking and communication skills.
That’s when they shifted the program to focus on rotations. Three students now rotate through tax, audit and support, which encompasses IT and general administrative support across departments. Tasks can regularly change based on department needs and processes, but a few regular tasks include setting up engagement binders, transferring and managing documents, assisting with desktop setups, supporting event prep, and more.
The rotation model has been a success. Students are assigned more diverse tasks and are also better introduced to the different functions of the firm. They also get to meet a variety of team members along the way. “The entire firm knows who they are,” O’Connor said.
While DOZ are veterans at hosting PCRHS interns, CLA is just a few months into their first year participating. Michelle Mauzy, operations director at the CLA Indianapolis office, is taking it day-by-day. The interns’ regular tasks are currently focused on internal ops.
“Some of it is assembling returns. Some of it is data cleanup. Some of it is data installation,” Mauzy said. “Different kinds of tasks that help prepare and deliver our deliverables to our clients.”
Mauzy has also made sure to let their interns help guide them. On day one, she asked what they sought out of the experience. One said they wanted to network. Another wanted to develop professional skills, especially since they were feeling nervous about walking into an unfamiliar environment. To meet those needs Mauzy set up meet-and-greets with leaders across the office so the students could engage with a variety of team members in various service lines. The goal is to make sure they not only learn more about what it means to work in accounting, but also develop networking and communication skills.
CLA is also using a monthly benchmark approach, with each month featuring a focus on a particular skill set or area. “I'm using that benchmarking process to feed the strategies and tasks we're going to go over for the month,” Mauzy said. Two months ago, the benchmark was communication—last month, it was initiative.
Working with the students has proven to be a mutually beneficial experience for both firms. Staff has been eager to engage. When they shifted to a rotation model, O’Connor reached out to the DOZ staff—approximately 100 people—requesting a volunteer from each department to supervise the interns. The response was overwhelmingly positive; almost 60 people replied.
“What we’ve found out is that DOZ employees are proud of DOZ for participating in this program,” O’Connor said.
The CLA team has also noticed an impact in just a few months.
“I think it has brought out a lot of energy, positive vibes and fun,” said Randie Dial, CPA, ABV, principal of office at CLA Indianapolis.
Mauzy agrees, noting many team members are eager to connect with students and have requested time with them.
Boosting the CPA talent pipeline
INCPAS has long worked on exposing more high school students to the CPA profession, and firms like DOZ and CLA taking part in internship programs helps move the needle.
Dial said the decline in the number of students enrolling in college, let alone accounting programs, is all the more reason to work toward making the profession seem exciting to younger generations. While many have no exposure to the field, he points out that those who have been exposed via relatives in accounting likely don’t have a modern understanding of what being a CPA looks like.
“They've heard, ‘it's a grind’ or say ‘my mom and dad did that and they worked 80 hours a week.’ It's not like that anymore,” Dial said. “There are flexible work arrangements. There's a way to work your schedule today. We work with technology now that they couldn't 20 years ago. It’s an exciting career. It opens all kinds of doors whether you stay in it or not. It's a great foundational way to start a career if you love numbers.”
Yeakey also notes that many PCRHS corporate partners have seen success expanding their talent pools by investing in their students.
“Our value proposition for organizations is, ‘If you wait until college to tap into talent then you are waiting too late,” he said. “When organizations show an interest in developing their profession, they forge relationships and every relationship moves at the speed of trust. Many of our students who intern later go to college and graduate and now work at those same places.”
But both the CLA and DOZ teams are quick to note these programs aren’t just about building the talent pipeline for accounting; it’s about building the foundation of professional skills for a new generation, especially those who might not have the opportunity to develop them elsewhere.
“We're here to help the kids learn, and maybe make an accountant out of one or two of them. But really, it's about the personal growth of these kids,” O’Connor said.
DOZ’s years of participating in the program has meant they’ve been able to truly witness this growth. The majority of their interns are with them multiple years, with their goal to have a student all four years of their high school career.
“Every year they get more experienced. They are more confident,” Ketterman said. “Some of them are only 14 years old when they come in. They're often very shy and not confident and will hardly speak up. Then by the time they're juniors and seniors, they know their way around here and the staff remember them and look forward to working with them again.”
The accounting environment still has the potential to create future CPAs; one of their current senior interns is considering majoring in accounting, while a former intern recently changed their major and is exploring returning to DOZ for a college internship.
Is engaging in a high school internship program right for your firm?
Both the DOZ and CLA teams highly recommend participating in a similar program—though it does require some work and open-mindedness, especially when it comes to leadership buy-in.
Fetterman and Mauzy have incorporated managing the interns into their day-to-day duties, and both acknowledge that support from their leadership allows them to invest the required time and energy into making sure the interns are supported and have a positive experience.
The good news? Leaders are increasingly taking note of the importance of these programs. Dial explained the larger CLA leadership is looking at a high school strategy to engage with students across their offices. And of course, Dial and O’Connor are examples of leaders who also see the significance of engaging students—and not only to create future accountants.
“Your firm has to be doing something other than audits, tax returns and making money. You have to do something positive in the community,” O’Connor said. “If we can lift a bunch of these kids out of where they are to a better place, that's better for everybody.”
Are you interested in learning more about PCRHS and their corporate partnership opportunities? You can reach out to Frederick Yeakey, vice president – Providence Cristo Rey High School, at firstname.lastname@example.org.