COVID-19 Underscores Soft-Skills Education and Upends Internships

by Heather M. Demshock, CPA, CMA, and Ashley Stampone, CPA | Mar 01, 2021
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The onset and spread of COVID-19 taught us that the ability to adapt and adjust has never been more critical. For college educators, the virus created what at times seemed like insurmountable obstacles and uncertainties. Would courses resume in person, move to virtual, or be a combination of both? If virtual or hybrid, how would faculty ensure that students are learning? What modalities could be implemented to help the transition process? How did COVID-19 impact how students would complete requirements such as internships or externships?

Soft Skills

Throughout 2020, many lessons have been learned about student capabilities and shortfalls as well as faculty capabilities and, yes, even shortfalls. Perhaps one of the most vital realizations from this unprecedented experience is the lack of certain soft skills among students. Soft skills are “the social, attitudinal, and self-regulatory competencies or traits that allow us to communicate effectively, work well with others, and persist in the face of adversity.”1 Soft skills include abilities such as teamwork, problem-solving, communication (formal and informal, verbal and written), interpersonal interaction, public speaking, and time management.2 When working with students in a fully remote or hybrid environment, the need for soft skills, specifically communication and time management, becomes increasingly important.

According to the AICPA, soft-skill competencies are growing in importance.3 In a recent survey, more than half of the 2,200 U.S. CFO respondents said technical skills and soft skills are equally important for staff-level accounting and finance positions.4 Accounting education has always emphasized problem-solving and teamwork, both of which are easily integrated into the curriculum. Teaching during COVID-19, however, has revealed that many students are unequipped with the necessary communication, interpersonal, and time-management skills for remote learning. With the workplace becoming an increasingly remote environment (only accelerated by the pandemic), these shortfalls should not be ignored by faculty.

A common perception is that soft skills cannot be taught because they are inherent rather than learned. Or, perhaps, with the massive amount of material accounting educators are tasked with delivering, soft skills are easily overlooked in course design. Although the pandemic has brought numerous challenges, it has also provided a catalyst for faculty self-reflection on course design and student outcomes. It is clear that students need more work on soft skills, specifically communication and time management. In fact, techniques could be built into course structures to encourage development of those skills.

Students often underestimate the amount of communication necessary for a successful career in accounting. Since communication is a fundamental skill, emphasis should be placed on both oral and written communication, both formal and informal. With the shift to remote learning, there are many opportunities for unique assignments.

Formal written communication assignments traditionally include research papers, memos, etc. Although these types of assignments are a necessary component of accounting education, remote learning allows for informal writing assignments too. For example, discussion board assignments are an easy way to encourage communication between students (which can be lacking in a remote environment). Discussion board posts using Blackboard or a similar technology could be designed around any aspect of a course and could be as frequent or infrequent as desired.

Presentations are an effective way to encourage students to prepare to speak in a formal manner. These presentations do not have to cease during remote learning. Thanks to technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, students are able to give presentations to their entire class from remote locations. Faculty can seamlessly incorporate student presentations into any remote course.

Informal oral communication is also an important aspect of the accounting curriculum. In a traditional learning environment, this can be accomplished by working on projects in small groups and presenting findings to the class. Using the breakout room function in Zoom allows faculty to virtually create small groups that can work on projects as a “team.” At the end of a designated time frame, the entire class can reassemble and discuss the answers with their fellow students.

For students to learn how to communicate more effectively, they need various opportunities for communication, frequent feedback, and encouragement to self-reflect. Whatever course design is adopted by the instructor, it should be one they can fully commit to and be able to provide appropriate feedback in a timely manner.

The ability to manage time appropriately has become a vital tool in a student’s toolbox. Under ideal conditions, students tend to struggle with time management. Because the pandemic is limiting faculty “face time” and interactions with students, it has exacerbated time management issues for some. Students who are self-starters by nature are easily able to thrive in a remote course. For those who are not naturally motivated, easy adjustments could be made to course design. First, smaller goals or assignments could be used during the semester. Creating smaller, more frequent assignments (as opposed to larger, infrequent assignments) helps keep students on task, creates routine, and discourages procrastination. Faculty could also encourage students to create to-do lists and keep a log of their time for a few days to identify time wasters.

Internships

One of the major changes to accounting education resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the pivot of accounting firms from offering traditional, in-person internships to virtual and remote ones. With the decentralized nature of virtual internships, soft skills demonstration is of utmost importance, especially in the areas of communication and time management. Interns must go above and beyond to demonstrate these competencies in a virtual setting.
Accounting students take advantage of internship opportunities with the hope of gaining relevant accounting experience, securing a full-time job offer after graduation, and receiving academic credit. Since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, many organizations were forced to either reduce the number of interns hired into their programs, quickly change their internship programs to a virtual format, or cancel them altogether. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 22% of companies canceled their internship programs during the summer months,5 causing many students to miss these invaluable experiences or scramble for other opportunities.

For firms that kept their internship programs and pivoted to a remote format, their summer internship experiences changed drastically from those offered just 12 to 18 months prior. Major accounting firms like PwC, Deloitte, and KPMG scaled back the traditional 10-week summer leadership and internship programs to a more compressed experience (either two, four, or six weeks, depending on the program). Interns focused on learning about the firm’s lines of service, completing professional development training, meeting with assigned firm mentors, and earning digital badges from home. Instead of working in the office or at a client site, interns focused on learning about the firm and meeting individuals throughout the organization. For the most part, larger accounting firms honored their commitment and provided all those enrolled in these shortened programs with a full-time job offer.

As time went on, public accounting firms and private companies adapted to remote work and are now better able to expose interns to more traditional work, challenging them to handle daily tasks and weekly workloads independently. For interns to be successful, they will not only need to learn the fundamental technical skills for the position, but they will also need to effectively demonstrate both formal and informal written communication skills in the form of presentations, emails, and instant messages; exhibit both informal and formal oral communication skills via status updates, team meetings, and one-on-one sessions; and display time management skills. Since interns cannot simply stop by a coworker’s desk for assistance, they will need to demonstrate more initiative in communicating questions or concerns.

Another emerging trend from this virtual transition has been the increased popularity of microinternships. According to the consulting firm Parker Dewey LLC, microinternships are “short-term, paid, professional assignments that are similar to those given to new hires or interns” and “typically require 10 to 40 hours of work by the student” that can be completed remotely.6 Students sign up for specific, small projects, and as compensation they receive a fixed fee for the work. Microinternships provide the flexibility for students to complete more than one during an academic semester. While microinternships fall outside the duration and rigor required for academic credit, they do allow students to gain exposure and professional experience with a variety of companies and organizations.

While public accounting firms have not turned to microinternships as of yet, we can see this as a possibility in the future as a way for firms to secure help when special projects arise. Private accounting and finance organizations have already started to take advantage of this trend. On Parker Dewey’s website,7 students can sign up for a variety of accounting or finance projects, such as performing accounts receivable reconciliations, completing debt covenant analysis, reviewing contract summaries, and researching corporate venturing. Major universities such as the University of North Texas, Miami University of Ohio, and Northern Illinois University have collaborated with Parker Dewey to provide these opportunities to their students. Other universities, such as the University of Colorado and The University of Chicago, help facilitate microinternships through quarterly virtual microinternship fairs or their own microinternship programs where students can connect with companies that offer these opportunities.

According to the Pew Research Center, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7% of the workforce was participating in “flexible” or “telework” arrangements prepandemic.8 Realistically, this percentage is likely to increase postpandemic. Many organizations have announced that they will not return to office work until after the second quarter of 2021, and, even after this return, many will continue to allow employees to work from home or participate in a hybrid model going forward. Will this trickle down to the internship level? If yes, accounting students will have numerous opportunities to secure virtual internships that may not have been available otherwise due to geographic reasons, but they will need to demonstrate enhanced soft skills for the job.

Colleges and universities face a similar situation. Courses traditionally taught with face-to-face instruction are now being taught virtually or via a hybrid method. Will this continue into the future? If so, accounting educators must adopt and incorporate teaching strategies that enhance accounting students’ soft-skills. Their virtual careers depend on it.  

1 Matthew T. Hora, Ross J. Benbow, and Bailey B. Smolarek, “Re-thinking Soft Skills and Student Employability: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change, 50(6), 31 (2018).

2 Mary Low, Grant Samkin, and Christina Liu, “Accounting Education and the Provision of Soft Skills: Implications of the Recent NZICA CA Academic Requirement Changes,” E-Journal of Business Education & Scholarship of Teaching, 7(1), 1-33. (2013).

3 Teri Saylor, “Hiring for Soft Skills Is More Important than Ever,” AICPA CPA Insider (July 27, 2020). www.journalofaccountancy.com/newsletters/2020/jul/hiring-soft-skills.html

4 Ken Tysiac, “What’s More Important: Technical Ability or Soft Skills?” FM (Sept. 27, 2016). www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2016/dec/balancing-soft-skills-with-technical-abilities.html

5 Jena McGregor, “Corporate America Is Taking the Internship Online This Summer. Some Experiences Can’t Be Replaced,” The Washington Post (June 8, 2020). www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/08/corporate-america-is-taking-internship-online-this-summer-some-experiences-cant-be-replaced

6 www.parkerdewey.com

7 www.parkerdewey.com/example-projects

8 Drew Desilver, “Before the Coronavirus, Telework Was an Optional Benefit, Mostly for the Affluent Few,” Pew Research Center (March 20, 2020). www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/20/before-the-coronavirus-telework-was-an-optional-benefit-mostly-for-the-affluent-few

 


Heather M. Demshock, CPA, CMA, is an associate professor of accounting and chair of the accounting department for Lycoming College in Williamsport, and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at demshock@lycoming.edu.

 

Ashley Stampone, CPA, is an accounting faculty specialist and IMA student chapter faculty advisor for the Kania School of Management at the University of Scranton in Scranton, and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at ashley.stampone@scranton.edu.

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