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From the perspective of an academic trainee: why do we do it?

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Benefits of SAICA’s Academic Traineeship Programme

During the course of our employment as academic trainees at the University of Stellenbosch we have had many rewarding experiences that will not only contribute towards our career development but also personal growth. An academic trainee (AT) is a person who elects to complete the first of their three year training contract at a SAICA accredited accountancy unit by participating in the Academic Traineeship Programme (ATP), the remainder of the training period is then completed at a registered training office (e.g. audit firm.) We have found that there is a general lack of awareness regarding the ATP therefore we, by writing this article, will endeavor to shed some light on the psyche and everyday life of the AT. We hope to address the concerns future trainees may have regarding the ATP in order to inspire them to participate in the ATP.

The ATP is a medium which (according to SAICA), was created to allow 1) ‘top quality graduates’ to receive training within the academic sphere (with the view of attracting these participants to an academic career) and 2) to relieve staffing shortages within university accounting departments. ATs are exposed to a variety of activities as listed on SAICA’s HOD/Supervisors report (which is used for the performance evaluation of ATs). These activities include but are not limited to lecturing and tutoring, the preparation of course material, grading of assessments as well as research.  Exposure to these tasks naturally prepares ATs to assume the position of lecturer should they have aspirations for an academic career. However, from the perspective of ATs, a future career in academia might not be the sole motivation for participation in the ATP. If the reason for participation can be established it could be utilised as a potential marketing tool by accounting units to attract programme applicants.

To evaluate the perceptions of ATs regarding the ATP an empirical study was conducted (using questionnaire 1 which was sent to 79 current 2013 ATs). The response rate was 58%. The results of the survey are discussed below:

 

Is the ATP a rewarding experience?

Statement/Question Agree/ Agree SomewhatNeutralDisagree/ Disagree somewhat
1. By participating in the ATP, academic trainees are acquiring skills that are valuable and will contribute to the achievement of their career aspirations.80%11%9%
2. Given the choice for a second time would you still choose to participate in the ATP?91%0%9%

 

Reasons for participating in the ATP:

Question: How relevant were the following in your decision to apply for the ATP? RelevantSomewhat relevantIrrelevant
Aspiring lecturer and career plans for involvement in academics(Related to SAICA’s first objective for ATP)30%48%22%
Filling accounting staff shortages at accountancy units(Related to SAICA’s second objective for ATP)7%22%72%
Contributing to the development of students83%15%2%
Breather from studies/missing out on a year of auditing43%33%24%
Developing skills that non-academic trainees will not have84%16%0%
The remuneration package offered by the accountancy unit is better than what a trainee can earn at their respective training firms (e.g. audit firm)24%26%50%

 

SAICA objectives:

Only 78 % of ATs consider becoming a lecturer relevant or somewhat relevant in their decision to apply to the ATP while 72% of ATs agree that a shortage in accounting staff was not relevant when they considered enrolling in the ATP.  One of SAICA’s objectives is therefore not relevant from the perspective of the AT. We suspect should research be conducted from the perspective of the accountancy units as well as SAICA that both of these objectives would be relevant, raising further support for the programme’s existence. If the objectives as set by SAICA are not as relevant to the AT, what then motivates participation in the ATP?

 

Contribution to student development:

ATs are very interested in the performance and development of students, arguably even more so than lecturers that have other tasks such as keeping up with the newest changes in syllabus, changes in standards and laws and who may be otherwise inclined to publish academic articles. ATs have a unique bond with students because they have just completed the CTA less than a year before enrollment within the ATP. In our experience students often remark that they can relate to ATs on a different level as with senior lecturers. Students feel comfortable around ATs who are in an age group much closer to their own. Students also often contact ATs regarding matters which are not necessarily subject related, such as advice on study techniques, how to approach the CTA year, for motivation etc. ATs are a useful resource in this regard and can offer much insight on the programme and approach to the CTA year; the students are also less likely to feel intimidated by them.  Participants in the ATP will find the contribution to student development very rewarding. Applicants with a desire to have an influence on the lives of others may find this a very attractive aspect of the ATP.

 

Skill development:

84% of ATs considered it relevant, that by joining the ATP, they would be acquiring skills that non-academic trainees would not necessarily develop. Interestingly enough this seems to be the foremost reason for participation in the ATP indicating that ATs are ultimately focused on skills-development. Students should be aware that ATs have the time and in most cases financial support from universities to continue with additional post-graduate study. Not only are you afforded the opportunity to work closely together with experienced and very knowledgeable academics a platform is also created from which you can refine your technical skills. This is invaluable in distinguishing you from your peer group after your training contract has ended.

We do not think that non-academic trainees will in turn obtain skills that will not be developed by the AT once he/she completes their second and final year of training. Our opinion is based on the fact that all trainees will at the end of their 3 year training period sign off on the same set of competencies listed on the TSR (Technical skills review) and PSR (Professional skills review); but that the non-academic trainee will not have been exposed to the activities listed on the HOD/Supervisors report. Again this could be used for marketing purposes to create interest in the ATP.

 

Myth-busters:

In order to address the major concerns potential applicants may have we circulated a second questionnaire among the lecturers of the Accounting Department at the University of Stellenbosch who did not participate in the ATP. We sought to establish why these lecturers declined to participate in the ATP since they are clearly attracted to an academic career. The main reasons were:

  1. Difficulty of integration within your training office in the 2nd year of the training period.
  2. The individual was focused on acquiring practical experience rather than theoretical knowledge.
  3. Of the opinion that skills needed for lecturing can also be obtained while in practice (e.g. by being a trainer in the Training and Development Department at your firm.)
  4. Did not have academic career aspirations at the time.
  5. Some firms do not allow their trainees to participate in the ATP.
  6. Lack of programme awareness. (Insufficient marketing etc.)

Many of the reasons above relate to the personal preferences of the individual, the two concerns that can be addressed are listed in points 1 and 6.

In order to expand the list of concerns we incorporated questions ATP candidates traditionally pose to current ATs when considering whether or not to apply to the programme. To be able to address the common concerns students have we circulated a third questionnaire within the Accounting Department at the University of Stellenbosch, where lecturers who had previously participated in the ATP were requested to provide feedback on the issues listed below:

 

1)   Do ATs struggle to integrate and adapt within the audit firm in the 2nd year of traineeship?

Naturally it will be challenging to master the principles other second year trainees have been exposed to for a whole year. It is however not difficult if your respective audit firm requires you to attend 1st year training courses together with the 1st year trainees once you join the firm. Many audit firms which have had several ATs should have strategy intended to ensure that the ATs properly integrate within the firm and are afforded the necessary support in order to make the transition as smooth as possible. ATs should theoretically be fast learners and should be able to master all the competencies required of a conventional 1st year trainee within the 1st six months of their 2nd year. The ease of adaptation will depend on the audit team, the specific individual and the firm.

 

2)   What are the most challenging aspects in an AT’s second year?

  • Backlog of practical experience: ATs do not have established client relationships when joining the audit team and do not have practical experience or understand the inner workings of any specific audit nor the general principles. However, if a strong audit team conducted the client’s previous audit this is not an insurmountable obstacle since the audit-file from the previous year will provide sufficient guidance on most matters. As an AT you could try to stay clued up on the auditing subject even though it might not be the field you are assigned to. Applying for vacation work with your auditing firm during your pre/ post grad study-period will also assist you with adapting.
  • Integration within the firm on a professional level:  ATs do not have relationships with partners and audit managers and have no prior understanding of their work preferences e.g. how the working papers should be compiled. The ease with which the AT will adjust will depend on the strength and willingness of the team leader/ manager to assist with training and team integration. If you do not know how to do/ approach something ASK! Many seniors forget that although you are a second year trainee you do not have the same experience as your peers. Be sensitive to the fact that you do not have the skills that are second nature to other seniors on the team. You should put in a few extra hours to study the client extensively.
  • Integration within the firm on a social level: prospective applicants to the ATP may feel that they will miss out on social events during their ATP year and fail to integrate properly within their peer group in their second year. According to the former ATs this does not seem to be a valid concern since most audit-teams are very accommodating and some of the team-members were students at the same universities and may know one another. Additionally some ATs are invited to and encouraged to participate in firm activities and social events whenever possible during their 1st year which also presents the opportunity to form relationships with co-workers. Prospective ATs should also take into consideration that even though you might not have established relationships within the audit firm you have had the opportunity to work closely with the academic staff at your accounting units and there by forming relationships with persons other trainees would not have had access to. This is especially valuable if you are contemplating an academic career path.
  • ATs find that other team members expect the AT to possess intricate technical knowledge on most subjects and often refer more complex work to them.
  • Signing-off on PSR/ TSR competencies: many ATP candidates are unaware of the fact that ATs can also sign-off on some of the competencies on the technical-skills and professional-skills review forms (TSR and PSR) during their ATP year. From 2013 onward the head of the department which the AT is assigned to will also be required to complete a TSR and PSR for each AT as well as the traditional supervisor’s report during the AT’s 6 monthly evaluation. The AT can present these evaluations to the training officer once they join the audit firm. Effectively the AT will sign-off on some competencies sooner or later than non-academic trainees and will not be disadvantaged in any way.

 

3) Beware of the APC….or should you?

One of the factors that seem to deter students from applying to the ATP is the perception that ATs will be at a disadvantage when writing the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC), because of the back-log of practical experience. This begs the question of whether ATs were historically truly at a disadvantage when writing QE2 (now APC). 70% of the questionnaire 1 respondents seem to think that this was not the case.

Are ATs adequately or perhaps even better prepared for the APC than non-academic trainees? This remains to be seen though we expect that the development of pervasive skills during the ATP will surely contribute to the ATs performance when writing the APC. Pervasive skills are extensively developed by ATs because of the nature of their work such as lecturing (presentation skills), student consultation (communication skills), grading of assessments (improvement of examination technique), setting of assessments (communication skills and understanding of the reasoning of the examiner), etc.

AT’s also increase their technical knowledge by either post graduate studies or research conducted during the ATP. Considering that the APC will now comprise of a case study which will be released for study before the actual examination, these research skills and refined technical knowledge could potentially be beneficial to the AT.

 

4) Pros of being an AT:

  • Working closely and developing relationships with academics.
  • Obtaining a deeper technical understanding of your chosen subject e.g. taxation, financial accounting, auditing or management accounting.
  • Development of people and presentation skills. ATs are exposed to lecturing which requires them to address a large group of people and improve their public speaking skills, a daunting task for some! But a very important life-skill regardless of your chosen career path.
  • Development of management skills. (Coordination and management of student assistants whose work you will be held accountable for.)
  • ATs move within a less stressful environment than trainees within public practice.
  • The remuneration ATs receive is in some instances better than that which other trainees in practice receive. 56% of ATs also receive financial support for post-graduate study from their respective universities.
  • ATs develop a different skill-set than other trainees which include skills such as research techniques etc. which is severely lacking in most students as a result of there being no research component within the pre/post graduate accounting programmes at universities. These skills are essential for any person leaning towards an academic career.
  • The workload of the AT allows ample time for further study opportunities while participating within the ATP be it the enrollment for a master’s degree, compiling of a research paper, diplomas etc.
  • It is very rewarding work to have an impact on the lives of students.
  • There are less management levels within the university structures and you are therefore awarded more responsibility which contributes to work-satisfaction.

In conclusion when ATs reflect on the ATP they regard it as a life-changing and very rewarding experience. They have the opportunity to work intimately with academics on a peer-level and acquire insights into the academic world that other students will never have. If you are considering a future within the academia it is the ideal opportunity to root yourself within a very revered community.

Authors: Mr Lukas Kruger Bacc(Hons), Academic Trainee at the University of Stellenbosch (2013)

Firm: Grant Thornton

 

Miss Petra Warffemius Bacc(Hons), Academic Trainee at the University of Stellenbosch (2013)

Firm: KPMG