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5 Questions for a Successful Accounting Internship Program

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Feb 11th 2015
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Whether you’re an accounting student or a firm’s HR manager, internships can be a profitable arrangement—but only if the system is properly organized.

“There’s no better way to learn public accounting and whether it’s the right career path for you,” says Janel O’Connor, director of human capital at Sikich, an 11-office accounting firm with more than 600 employees based in Naperville, Illinois.

For firms, internships “build a pipeline of talent,” she says. “You get ahead of the competition.”

Still, there are questions to ask and considerations to make on both sides.

Not all internships are alike and students may expect more than they get, says Robert Clovey, a CPA and associate professor of accounting and taxation at CUNY York College in Jamaica, New York.

Some firms may have students do menial work that isn’t a valuable experience, he says. That could include photocopying, organizing work papers and filing. Or, interns who work only during tax season will have limited exposure to other accounting areas.

Make no mistake, Clovey is a proponent of internships. But he believes students would benefit more by incorporating internships into academic programs similar to requirements facing teachers and other professionals.

“Teachers are expected to intern for a full semester, and you aren’t taking classes but you get academic credit,” says Clovey, who also is deputy chair of accounting and finance at CUNY’s School of Business and Information Systems. “So the last six months of the last year are dedicated to internships and doing the full work.”

Here are five aspects of internships that pertain to students and accounting firm managers that should be discussed and made clear on both sides.

  • What duties will be performed? What exposure will students get to a variety of work? While Clovey warns about menial work, O’Connor says Sikich interns  do work similar to what first-year accountants perform. Interns also get multiple opportunities, maybe starting with nonprofit clients and then moving to the government partnership group, she says. The point is that they aren’t “siloed,” as she puts it.
  • Will managers or partners be available for counsel?
  • What is the length of the internship? Some are for several months during tax season while many are during summer break between spring and fall semesters. And some firms offer a yearlong internship.
  • Are successive internships available? If firms prefer shorter internships, they may want to offer more opportunities, Clovey suggests. Bigger firms will begin internships as early as sophomore year. A student will be exposed to certain work that year, come back junior year for more exposure at the same or another firm, and so on.
  • How likely is a fulltime job offer? This may not be as pertinent for interns who are sophomores or juniors but for seniors it certainly would be. About 98 percent of Sikich interns receive fulltime job offers, O’Connor says. “It’s very rare that we don’t offer someone a job,” she says. “We have a very thorough screening process and use the internship for communication and performance feedback.” Clovey says 60 percent to 70 percent of interns at bigger firms will receive offers. “They don’t want to hire you unless you’ve done an internship,” he says.
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