CPA training is a year-round process

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Is it more beneficial for an accounting firm to train its CPAs in-house or is there an advantage to sending professional accountants to conferences or specialized training sessions outside of the office to continue their education? AccountingWEB’s Jason Bramwell talked to training personnel from four firms who explained the annual education requirements at their businesses and weighed in on the pros and cons of in-house training versus out-of-house training.

No matter the years of experience under their belts, CPAs at firms nationwide have to meet certain training requirements throughout the year.

"We have programs for all levels of professional – from intern and campus new hire all the way up to partner. Every professional has the opportunity to receive some sort of in-house learning each year", said Michelle Johnson, director of the strategic learning tax team at Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, who added that the heaviest periods of learning at the firm occur from September through December and April through July.

Most Grant Thornton accounting professionals attend several different learning events each year because they must meet an annual firm requirement of at least 20 continuing professional education (CPE) credits. The same CPE requirement is asked of professionals at Moss Adams LLP in Seattle. They also must complete 120 CPE hours every three years, according to training and development director Leslie Weigle.

"All levels receive training designed to develop technical knowledge, industry expertise, functional competencies, and core competencies", Weigle said. "They are trained by professionals in their local offices and industry groups, as well as through firm-wide programs and external conferences.

"Training is pursued outside of the busy season, but with the advent of Webcasts and the continued need for just-in-time training, we’re seeing more training delivered throughout the year", Weigle added.

The majority of CPA training at Pittsburgh-based Alpern Rosenthal is conducted three times during the year: early January, April 16 to July 31, and October 16 to Thanksgiving.

"Last year, each of our CPAs earned an average of 63 CPE credits", said Frank Duzicky, manager of learning and development. "We favor a combination of both inside and outside training approaches, with a heavier emphasis on having in-house training sessions."

Camp Hill, PA-based McKonly & Asbury LLP has a CPE sponsorship license from the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy, which gives the firm the ability to provide not only internal training conducted by its own professionals, but also external training to various professionals outside of the firm, according to CPE manager Lisa Holland.

"We have brought in guest lecturers, including prominent attorneys, investment professionals, human resources consultants, risk management and insurance experts, and special agents from the FBI", Holland said. "One of our highly attended seminars is on affordable housing, which we offer twice a year to professionals who work in the industry."

The following pros and cons of in-house training and out-of-house training (in alphabetical order) were provided by Duzicky of Alpern Rosenthal, Holland of McKonly & Asbury, Johnson of Grant Thornton, and Weigle of Moss Adams.

In-house training pros:

  • Ability to reuse content in various delivery methods
  • Cost-effective (no tuition and no travel costs)
  • Customize hands-on workshops and practical sample files tailored to a firm’s needs
  • Customize training to mirror the firm’s business model, client base, internal practices, and policies
  • Demonstrates not just how you do something, but how the firm does it and why
  • Develops would-be instructors who wish to become more familiar with the technical topic and presentation skills
  • Eliminates the fluff that comes with most external presentations
  • Flexible scheduling for professionals
  • Instructors can offer ongoing performance support
  • Promotes the firm’s culture, sharing of best practices, and mentoring
  • Sets a positive tone for staff to see their managers and shareholders investing time to develop and deliver CPE

In-house training cons:

  • Can be labor intensive to do well
  • Opportunity cost to using client-serving professionals as subject-matter experts because they aren’t charging billable hours while developing internal learning
  • Time from beginning of development to delivery can be long because of resource constraints

Out-of-house training pros:

  • Course material is very detailed and comprehensive and can be used as a future resource guide
  • Exposure to national experts
  • Less preparation time than in-house training
  • Networking opportunities
  • Specialized content can be obtained by small groups of specialists without extensive internal resources to develop

Out-of-house training cons:

  • Can be expensive
  • Less control over scheduling/timing of programs
  • Not customized to the firm’s business model, culture, or client base
  • Targets a broad audience

A number of factors influence whether training is held at Moss Adams or off-site, including objectives of the training, the size and dispersion of the audience, and the availability of experts, Weigle said.

"In many cases, we go through a make-or-buy decision tree when deciding whether to run programs internally or seek external sources. A third alternative is to bring an external program in-house – particularly if it can be customized", she added. "The more skills transfer is aided by knowing the culture of the firm and the way we do things, the more suitable internally run programs become."

Webinars also have added an extra element to the in-house training process by providing an accessible forum for employee participation from various locations, Holland said.

"Our firm also now has the capability to record and archive in-house training sessions for future viewing, and we are working on establishing some self-study programs", she said.

While Alpern Rosenthal has not made any procedural changes to its training program in recent years, Duzicky said the firm has recently increased the number of technical, soft-skills and software training classes offered.

"We've also done a lot better job of late of having cascade teaching – when a staff member will attend a conference off-site and then deliver an abbreviated update of that training internally to their peers,” he added.

Grant Thornton, McKonly & Asbury, and Moss Adams regularly evaluate the quality of their internal and external offerings and make adjustments when necessary each year.

"We offer a stable set of specific learning events, but each may be adjusted as new policies, regulations, standards, or procedures come out", Johnson said. "In addition, there are often update sessions that discuss new accounting or tax rules, firm policies, or other changes. This ensures the learning content continues to be relevant to the external and internal environment in which our professionals are working at the moment they complete the learning.

"In recent years, we’ve also been increasing the amount of leadership and business skills development in our learning programs to create more well-rounded professionals", she added.

Participant feedback is a key component of evaluation, according to Weigle. "We align our training strategy with the firm’s business strategy, so as priorities shift in the business, the training plan shifts along with them."

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