By Elizabeth Schroeder and Kristin Wentzel, PhD
Accounting educators have long recognized that more than technical knowledge is needed for graduates to be successful. Professional competencies such as critical thinking, leadership skills, and effective communication also need to be honed. The challenge is embedding these soft skills into the curriculum without detracting from developing the quantitative knowledge needed to pass the Uniform CPA Exam. Add in the demand to produce graduates with stronger technological skills (Excel, data analytics, etc.), and the teaching focus becomes quite stretched.
To help our students navigate this competitive, sometimes tricky, and ever-changing hiring landscape, we created a three-credit professional development course within our school of business to ensure students are better prepared to successfully transition into their internships, co-ops, or full-time positions. This course empowers students to connect and take accountability for their professional and career development while also sharpening the critical thinking, leadership, and communication skills necessary for success as an accountant.
We piloted the course last year and encouraged accounting majors to take it as an elective. The results were impressive: we saw a boost in our students’ confidence levels, more polished soft skills, and increased success within their internship experiences. Kristin Chloe Arce, a junior accounting major shared her thoughts on the class: "I interned for PwC this summer within their START program. Even before this experience, I didn’t really know much about talking to professionals, how to carry myself, what my résumé should have, and more. This class helped me prepare for virtual meetings, write emails to professionals, and showed me how to make myself stand out among all the other interns who are in the same position as me.”
The course objectives focus on eight career readiness competencies continuously identified by employers through the National Association of College Employers (NACE):
- Critical thinking/problem solving
- Oral/written communications
- Digital technology
- Professionalism/work ethic
- Career management
- Global/intercultural fluency
Each year, critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills rate as three of the top or highly needed skills for interns and recent graduates. Given that most internship programs and entry-level roles are currently remote, it is even more imperative that students demonstrate a higher understanding of these competencies in the virtual workplace.
To enhance these core competencies, the course employs numerous in-class exercises and activities. For example, one project challenges students to organize, initiate, and participate in informational interviews with professionals within their desired industries. This interactive project empowers students to grow their networks, assess their interpersonal communications, and further their understanding of respective fields and occupations. We require students to report out to the class on their overall experiences, learned information, as well as areas of improvement that they would do differently. As a result, students learn from each other and recognize that this lifelong tool can be carried with them throughout their professional journeys. This singular exercise focuses on students’ critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills all at once in a more comprehensive way than we could capture within the parameters of accounting courses.
The hiring landscape for accounting graduates is competitive. Both public and private accounting demands a high level of technical ability packaged with polished soft skills and a desire to grow as a leader in the business world. While accounting curricula continue to evolve to meet these demands, another approach is to leverage our business core to supplement the needs of our accounting programs. We launched our Business Professionalism course as a requirement for all sophomore students this fall. Our hope is that it will encourage all business students, not just accounting majors, to become empowered and confident leaders who champion their own career development.
Elizabeth Schroeder is director of the Business Leadership Fellowship Program at La Salle University in Philadelphia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Kristin Wentzel, PhD, is chair of the accounting department and associate professor of accounting at La Salle University in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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