Striking a balance: In-house and external CPE

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Continuing Professional Education (CPE) is a requirement to continue practicing as a CPA. The guidelines are very clear and the requirements very specific, both at state and national levels, for membership into the AICPA and state organizations as well as for professional licensure. But is there a best way to get your CPE credit?

AccountingWEB talked to some firms that are sizeable enough to have the option of completing their CPE in-house versus going to seminars outside the office.

“I’d say that there are pros and cons to both", said Gary Neubauer, partner, Sikich LLP. "The decision as to whether we do something internally sometimes becomes a function of timing and/or cost.”

Timing and cost factors were echoed by all of the respondents. To make in-house training worth the additional efforts, there has to be a critical mass reached regarding the number of people who need a class, the cost, and the convenience.

“One of the things we like (about in-house CPE) is that you can tailor it to your firm and your needs", said Steven K. Gaylord, CPA, partner in charge of Assurance Services, Katz, Sapper & Miller. "You can filter out the information that is irrelevant so our staff is more engaged. We found that we can actually cut down the time for class because of that. For example, we have worked with our audit staff training provider and we have cut a day from it. There is cost savings since you don’t have to pay staff during that time or the instructor. You can control the timing and the dates of the training.”

There also are cons to in-house training.

“A challenge of doing things in house is that you have to make sure you are compliant with all the state licensing requirements. That is something that takes time and costs money,” said Amber P. Buck, manager of Learning and People Development at Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP. Compliance includes maintaining all of the required records, handouts, and attendance sheets, issuing certificates of completion, plus any other state requirements. Software packages are available to help maintain the various records required.

Gaylord agreed that downsides to in-house training do exist.

“Some of the negatives on in-house CPE is that you probably need a coordinator that has all or part of their time dedicated to that – coordinating the seminars, making sure people are signed up for it, controlling costs, documenting CPE credit. You have to have the space to dedicate to training rooms. Because of Webinars and Webcasts, you have to make a dedication to technology that will handle it. Those are extra costs you have to invest in.”

Frank Rimerman University was developed to control the administrative component for the firm, which created a five-member team (three administrative, a tax person, and an audit person) to ensure that all requirements, especially the technical and the organizational aspects, could be managed effectively and efficiently.

In all of the firms, staff members were encouraged to present topics in-house and become presenters. Some senior staff members might go to a national conference and then present what they learned to coworkers. Developing the skill set to organize and present a seminar was seen as a valuable asset to the firms.

Being able to use actual client files and worksheets instead of presenting generic case studies illustrates how the theory is implemented in the real world. Additionally, the instructor becomes a resource to the firm and, if they become a speaker for other organizations, can be nice publicity for the firm.

While there is significant benefit to having in-house experts on subjects, few firms could have the leading expert in every subject within their office. Several firms mentioned the opportunity to bring outside experts into their office to give seminars geared toward their practice's specialties.

And this leads directly to a downside of external CPE classes – they can be very general to the subject matter or almost unrelated to a firm’s clientele. If a firm deals with tax clients of significant net worth and income, sending newer staff to a tax seminar might have them spending a large amount of time working on the various tax credits available to lower income taxpayers, rather than on the issues of higher net worth individuals.

When you take external CPE, you are subject to the courses, times, locations, and prices of whomever is offering it. When you have a large number of people who need to take the course, it might not be very cost-effective.

External CPE courses, especially at national conferences, offer opportunities to hear from leading experts on the subject. There are huge benefits to being able to learn tax law from the person who was part of the team that wrote it. Meeting other CPAs at a seminar and discussing best practices or finding out how a firm dealt with a situation can be beneficial by presenting a new perspective.  

Some firms found there was a balance between in-house and external CPE that worked best for them. The younger staff member would take more in-house CPE to better understand how the firm worked. As staff became more experienced, there was a benefit to having them participate in the networking that comes from talking to other CPAs and getting different perspectives from instructors.

There are pros and cons to both in-house and external CPE. If your firm is large enough to consider presenting in-house CPE, there are a lot of good reasons to pursue it. Like many things in the accounting world, there are no absolutes, so make sure you consider the positives and negatives for your firm.

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