EKS&H’s business culture is driven by a desire to constantly challenge its approach to doing things. The CEO, seeking new ways the company could lead, grow and evolve, took advantage of an invitation to visit Switzerland to learn about CareerWise Colorado’s new modern youth-apprenticeship model. Seeing the program in action inspired him to put the concept to work at EKS&H as an innovative talent development strategy.
A Strategy to Avoid Stagnancy
Traditionally in the accounting business, the people responsible for technical functions, such as taxes and audits, have existing accounting knowledge—either through practical experience or education. However, when EKS&H began looking more closely at its consulting services division, it recognized there were opportunities for entry-level positions that didn’t require technical background or certification, but that were teachable.
This recognition marked a turning point at a time when the CEO was examining the company’s long-term talent needs, weighing them against the industry’s available hiring pool and seeking creative strategies to put the two together.
“We recognized that the education front is changing, and work conditions are changing,” said Rebecca Kelley, a partner at EKS&H. “The apprenticeship program seemed like a strong investment to help us avoid becoming stagnant,” said Kelley.
In 2017, EKS&H joined CareerWise as a pilot partner, hiring four high school apprentices with plans to add a fifth in summer 2018. The apprentices have been limited to filling roles in the company’s transactional and outsourced accounting groups. However, Kelley says that since the apprentices have been on board and demonstrated what they are capable of accomplishing, EKS&H sees opportunities to expand the apprentices’ involvement.
“Having them here has opened up conversations about how they can be utilized in other groups,” Kelley said, citing administration, audits, IT and other groups as examples.
In addition, the apprentices are catching the attention of other staff who have expressed interest in leveraging the high schoolers’ talents. “We anticipated that might happen, but we wanted to see how the program worked before casting a wide net. Now we see opportunities for a natural progression to other functions.”
A Real Evolution
Before EKS&H joined CareerWise’s program, Kelley admits there were hesitations about hiring high schoolers. She wasn’t sure whether the company was equipped to effectively educate that age group about jobs typically held by people with post-high school experience and prior experience in a professional environment.
“We’re still making sure to identify the best way to train and communicate about key concepts,” she said.
In addition, Kelley was concerned about the experience being rewarding for the apprentices as well as EKS&H. “We wanted to give them a challenging opportunity where they could learn and grow in their core competencies, while still running the business and serving clients.”
The rewards of the program have revealed themselves.
“We’ve had an element of surprise about what the apprentices pick up and their level of professionalism,” she said. She also notes that the apprentices are very good at recognizing critical issues, addressing them and then communicating effectively about what they completed. “They are making connections on their own. I’ve seen a real evolution in them.”
Tangible and Intangible Returns
At EKS&H, the apprentices work intensively with four to six staff members on a regular basis. The upfront investment of training and mentoring resources is substantial, but Kelley said there will be an evening out over time to balance the investment with the financial returns.
“It does start off a bit lopsided, but when the apprentices understand and do more, they require less time from us and less duplication of review,” Kelley said. In the meantime, the apprentices’ work is billable, a return EKS&H realizes immediately.
She emphasizes the multiple intangible benefits that factor into ROI that aren’t monetary—such as the development of innovative training and onboarding techniques, improvements to internal processes, increase in service to clients, and the training and mentoring experience the staff receive.
A Competitive Edge
Hosting an apprenticeship program contributes to EKS&H’s competitive edge. The company is modernizing its recruitment process and developing a new channel for recruiting and retaining new talent—a unique approach that other companies haven’t tried yet.
“A lot of firms are targeting college graduates. But by hiring high schoolers who know they are interested in accounting as a career and want to get involved, we can fill our pipeline sooner,” Kelley said.
Kelley sees this as a win-win; it enables the firm to train new staff in its preferred methods, and provides a unique opportunity for apprentices who gain the experiential background they need while continuing to grow. “It’s huge for them and for us.”