Whenever I talk to another CPA firm—big, small, or anywhere in between—about the biggest challenges facing their firm, they almost always say recruiting and retaining talent. “Millennials don’t want to work like I did when I was starting out,” they say, or “My firm can’t compete with the Big Four at the college level.” At my firm, BNA, we do not have this problem. We receive, on average, five resumes a week via our website for a 20-person accounting firm. In the 40 years that the firm has been in business, we’ve had one person leave our firm to work for another. How do we do it? We’ve developed a culture and recruiting method—mostly involving high school interns—that has allowed us to recruit and maintain top talent.
My father, Bernard Ackerman, founded BNA in 1977 after four years at Deloitte in Charlotte, N.C. From the beginning, he formed a bond with the local college, Winthrop University. He developed relationships with professors, guest lectured in classes, and sponsored, along with a lawyer in town, a scholarship for a top accounting student. He believed that you needed to be directly connected to the college to get in front of the top talent, and more importantly, to have the professors recommend the top talent to you. His first hires and interns came from Winthrop in the early 1980s, and most of them are still working with us today. Over the years, the firm has continued to develop this relationship, and as we hire students from Winthrop, they become the best recruiting tools for our firm.
Another of our strategies has been to work with high school students. In the early 2000s, the local high school came to the firm and asked if we would be willing to participate in its school-to-work program. Normally this program is designed for more technical trades—repairmen, plumbers, auto mechanics—and the school had never worked with a professional service firm. My dad took a chance, got to know the program’s coordinator, and with her help hired BNA’s first 11th grader to work part time. What we quickly learned is that high school interns who are willing to work for an accounting firm are mature and have a willingness to learn—making them great assets for our firm. In addition, South Carolina gives a $1,000 tax credit for each qualified high school student whom we engage as an intern.
We’d much rather find out in high school or early in college that a team member isn’t going to work out than after an extensive and expensive interview process.
Ideally, we hire these interns between their sophomore and junior years and have them work on average 10 hours a week during the fall semester. During the spring semester, we have them take their last block of the day as an “intern credit” so they can work more hours during tax season, normally 20 a week. By this time, we know if we like them and if they’ll be a good fit for our firm, and they know if they want to seriously pursue a degree in accounting. At this point, we make the interns an offer: we’ll pay for a part of their tuition at Winthrop (depending upon scholarships, it normally ends up being 75–100% of their remaining tuition). In return, they work with us between 20–40 hours a week and after college stay employed with us at least three years. In total, we train them over a seven-year period, from 11th grade through their master’s in accounting, so that when they graduate they are on the equivalent of a manager level. Because they are knowledgeable, well trained, and ready to contribute to the firm in a meaningful way immediately upon graduation, we can pay them more than a normal college graduate, allowing us to compete with the largest accounting firms.
Since we started taking high school interns, we’ve had about a 25% conversion rate to full-time staff after college. We like to have two high school interns at a time, which means we almost always have a pipeline of talent coming into the firm. We’d much rather find out in high school or early in college that a team member isn’t going to work out than after an extensive and expensive interview process.
Our high school intern program has been a great success for our firm, and one of the main reasons that we’ve been able to grow and maintain our level of professionalism over the last 40 years.