Connecting students with firms

The open house has become a powerful recruitment tool

Eric Grube, CPA, DBA | August 2018 Footnote

In today's challenging labor market, I pose this question: How does your firm connect with students?

At Olsen Thielen's BASE (Business and Accounting Summer Experience) Camp, they host a two-day program exposing students to the public accounting field; it is just one of many open house opportunities available to accounting students who desire an extended visit to learn more about a specific firm.

"BASE Camp is our most effective recruiting tool," said Linda Husfeldt, Olsen Thielen & Co. Ltd.'s HR administrator.

This is no surprise to me. In my two years of teaching and advising accounting students at Concordia University -- Saint Paul, I have high regard for firms who offer an open house event as a component to their recruitment efforts. For an opportunity to experience what a firm does, to learn what practice areas they have and to determine whether there is a fit with the firm's employees, nothing can top an interactive, educational event.

How do I know this? I see (and hear) it firsthand. And now, I'm happy to share my observations of a successful recruitment tool with you.

Come on in and learn what we do

Open house events are designed to provide opportunities for students to engage with the firm's employees, while also highlighting the interesting work public accounting firms perform -- all with the goal of encouraging young accounting students that beginning their career in public accounting and becoming a CPA can be a rewarding, exciting and fulfilling career.

Julie Brown, Boulay's HR manager, says Boulay's Aspire-2-Boulay two-day program allows students to learn about the firm's culture, people and practice areas, while networking with many of the firm's partners and employees.

"Having students visit our office allows for a more in-depth discovery about accounting and finance, as well as provide the opportunity to connect with students in a way that doesn't always happen during a campus visit or a career fair," she said. "We're looking for the right candidate who we think will fit with our firm's culture. At the same time, we want students to be asking themselves if Boulay feels right for them."

Just how effective is an open house event at recruiting talent? In its fourth year, the majority of Olsen Thielen's internships are now offered to students who attended BASE Camp, according to Husfeldt.

"We allow students to see what we do at Olsen Thielen," she said. "We provide hands-on tax and audit experience, offer a variety of Q&A panel discussions, and offer other opportunities for the students and firm's employees to engage and build a relationship."

Among all the firms I visited that offer open houses, the programs are essentially based around this idea: Hang out with us for a day and you'll leave convinced that we're fun people who do interesting work.

Advising young accountants

My role as an accounting professor and faculty adviser puts me in a unique position to influence my students' career choice. Thankfully, most of my accounting students are receptive to the insight I provide. However, unless the student has a family member in the profession, many them have only a vague idea of what it means to be an accounting professional, or what type of work they could expect from working in a CPA firm.

With lifelong learning and skill development being key elements of a successful career, my insight typically focuses on the hands-on and unique training opportunities offered by beginning a career in public accounting. I tell my students that starting a career as an auditor, for example, is a ticket to get out of the office. CPAs get to experience new places, meet new people and, most importantly, get a chance to look under the hood at a variety of businesses, governmental entities and nonprofit organizations. CPAs advise, solve problems and advocate for their clients. Real-world stuff. With a CPA license, and several years of public accounting experience, I tell my students that their career opportunities are vast.

Yet, sometimes, my advice can come across as parental persuasion. Just as children do not always take their parent's best-intentioned advice, not all students believe the guidance given by their faculty advisers. Every semester, I have one professionally skeptical student who needs proof -- or requires evidence that becoming a CPA and doing accounting work isn't a desk job.

This is exactly why firms open their doors and invite students to visit.

This is the case at BerganKDV, where job shadowing is offered to interested students to provide them with a "day-in-the-life" experience. During the formal daylong BerganKDV Xperience, 50 students are hosted across the firm's five offices.

"We plan the day's activities to be engaging for the students," said Tricia Raper, talent recruiter at BerganKDV. "We want students to learn about BerganKDV and we want to learn more about them."

How important is it for students to partake in this program?

"The students who attend the BerganKDV Xperience make up the pool of students who we then choose from to invite back for a more formal interview to be considered for internships or full-time positions," said Raper.

Powerful tools in the recruiting toolbox

Visiting a firm can be a powerful experience for a student. Among all my students who visited firms, they note the open house events help them become more knowledgeable about the profession. They also feel much more polished and comfortable asking questions and engaging people during subsequent visits.

One of my third-year accounting students credits attending a firm's open house for introducing him to the rewards of working with nonprofit organizations. During the open house event, he met with clients from the firm's nonprofit group, talked with partners and staff, asked questions and discovered he appreciated the practice group's culture. He completed an internship with the firm this summer.

What I emphasize to my students is that once they start meeting with firms -- either on campus, during the annual Accounting and Auditing Student Conference, or during a firm's open house event -- they'll begin to get a sense of what they're looking for. Once they do, they'll begin to ask pointed questions, know what to look for and get a sense for a culture that resonates with them. Then, I tell my students: Quite unexpectedly, the firm will find you.

Currently, my students are all over the Twin Cities working and interning at nearly a dozen firms. This suggests my students aren't just taking the first offer they receive. I'm convinced the open house events are playing a powerful role in helping my students make informed decisions about finding a firm that fits with their interests. Judging from HR managers' feedback at local firms, not only has the open house event become common among firms, the open house has become one of the most powerful tools in the recruiting toolbox.

To all the firm managers, HR professionals and other personnel who invest heavily in planning and hosting these events, I thank you. I speak for the entire profession when I say we want accounting graduates to feel proud of their decision to begin a career in public accounting and pursue the CPA credential. Finding the right firm is an important step in that direction. I sleep well at night knowing my students are making informed decisions about where to begin their careers.

To those firms who haven't implemented an open house event, I encourage you to consider hosting one (or more) for the benefit of your firm and for the next generation of CPAs. It really is a win-win.

Eric Grube is a CPA and assistant professor of accounting at Concordia University -- Saint Paul. He earned his Doctor of Business Administration degree from Metropolitan State University. You can reach him at grube@csp.edu or 651-641-8372.

 

Looking for more ways to reach students?

Exhibit at the 21st Annual Accounting & Auditing Student Conference on Sept. 18 to find your next intern or stellar new hire.