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During the 1980s, SAICA introduced the Academic Traineeship Programme (ATP). In essence, this programme allows academically strong students, upon successful completion of their studies, to spend the first year of their three-year training contract in academia at a SAICA accredited university, instead of in public practice or commerce and industry. This can obviously only be done under specific terms and conditions and with the approval of the ultimate employer, the university and SAICA.

For various reasons, CAs(SA) are a scarce resource in the South African tertiary education sector. The ATP plays an important role in addressing the shortage of CAs(SA) involved in the education of future CAs(SA). However, employers of potential academic trainees are sometimes sceptical about the value of this programme. This article aims to provide answers to two pertinent questions about the ATP often asked by such employers.

Why should employers allow trainee accountants to follow the Academic Traineeship Programme?

To answer this question, it is important that employers understand the areas and skills which acedemic trainees will be exposed to during their year in the ATP. This will allow employers to compare these to the areas and skills to which first year trainees are exposed in their firms or companies. The Development Needs Analysis (DNA) form used by employers in the periodic performance evaluations of their trainees (available on the SAICA website at www.saica.co.za) identifies two types of skills relevant to trainees, namely professional skills and technical skills.

Universities are required to ensure that Academic Trainees (ATs) are exposed to at least the following areas:

  • Lecturing
  • Tutorials
  • Preparation of teaching material
  • Setting and marking of assessments
  • Research.

These address a large proportion of the professional skills, some of the technical skills, as well as some other skills that are not specifically required in the DNA form, but are considered very useful for a trainee to have.

Professional and technical skills

The above mentioned DNA form lists eighteen professional skills outcomes for which a trainee accountant must achieve a satisfactory rating over the entire three year training contract period. These, ranging from diversity issues to coaching and mentoring, are not discussed here due to a restriction on the length of this article.

A comparison of the typical work experience of an academic trainee to the above mentioned eighteen skills outcomes was performed1. From this comparison, it is clear that ATs are exposed to all, if not more than, the professional skills outcomes which other first year trainees are exposed. In addition, ATs are probably exposed to a number of these skills at a level higher than that of other first year trainees.

Due to the very nature of the ATP, the technical skills outcomes to which ATs are exposed differ significantly from those to which other first year trainees are exposed.

Some of the professional and technical skills ATs experience in the academic environment which benefit employers are as follows:

  • Extensive written and verbal communication skills are developed through the lecturing, tutoring and research tasks of ATs.
  • Critical analysis of technical material and data, and logical reasoning in the explanation and presentation thereof to others.
  • Research skills in accountancy related fields.
  • The ability to explain difficult technical concepts in multiple ways in order to ensure that the entire audience understands them.
  • The ability to plan a project properly, which is learnt through ATs having to take responsibility for the preparation of their own lectures and lecture material for courses presented by them.
  • Development of a high level of technical proficiency in one or more of the core technical areas (financial accounting, auditing, management accounting and finance and tax). Employers can benefit from these skills once they join at the beginning of their second year of traineeship.

Other benefits of the ATP?

In addition to the above, other benefits of the ATP to the employer and the profession include the following:

  • Only high quality, academically strong students are selected for the ATP. Therefore, even though the AT “misses out” on the first year of the practical training programme, (s)he has the ability to catch up very quickly.
  • ATs come to the employer at the beginning of their second year of traineeship and can be utilised immediately as they are not studying for QE1. This alleviates the resource problem many employers face at this busy time of the year during which first year trainees have either not yet started work or are not 100% efficient due to priorities related to Part 1 of the Qualifying Examination.
  • Accounting educators in higher education institutions play an important role in SAICA’s efforts to alleviate the current dire shortage of qualified chartered accountants in South Africa. ATs are given a glimpse into the academic world. Many of them enjoy the experience and eventually decide to return to academia after qualification – something that not many CAs(SA) without experience of academia are willing to consider. Employers allowing trainees to follow the ATP are therefore making positive a contribution to the future of the accounting profession by assisting in the development of potential accounting educators of the future.
  • In the same vein, given the staff shortages experienced by accounting departments of many South African universities, ATs provide essential academic resources to these departments to maintain or even expand their capacity to educate future CAs(SA). In particular, they are often used as valuable resources in academic support programmes, Thuthuka programmes and other initiatives that support growth and transformation of the profession. Employers allowing trainees to follow the ATP are therefore making a valuable contribution to the future and transformation of the accounting profession by providing additional resources to universities.

Concluding remarks

Employers should not be reluctant to consider reasonable requests by future trainee accountants to spend a year in the ATP as, when ATs start work with the employer after their year of academic traineeship, they have the same if not better professional skills than trainees who don’t fllow the acedemic traineeship route. They also have the same level of, but a different type, of technical skills which, if put to innovative use by the employer, can be very valuable.

  1. SAICA. 2008. The SAICA Academic Traineeship Programme – Questions frequently asked by employer firms. Available upon request from the SAICA Project Director: Education.

Prof Pieter von Wielligh CA(SA), PhD, MAcc, is a Professor in Auditing and Head of Auditing in the Department of Accounting, University of Stellenbosch.