CLA hosts high school students to expose them to accounting

CliftonLarsonAllen welcomed a group of about 30 high school interns and Future Business Leaders of America to the Top 10 Firm’s New York offices on Tuesday to tell them about accounting, consulting and other careers.

CLA launched a summer high school internship program in March in conjunction with FBLA, which has been preparing students for generations to join the business world (see story).  The students, who hailed from Marvin Ridge High School in North Carolina, as well as Philadelphia, attended a panel discussion and later broke into smaller groups to collaborate and explore different concepts such as accounting, finance and the workforce of the future.

They also learned to build LinkedIn profiles and had professional headshot photos taken. Later in the day, they enjoyed a pizza party in the CLA offices followed by a boat ride around New York City. 

Students listen to panel discussion at CLA’s high school intern event with Future Business Leaders of America

Courtesy of CLA

“When you can really get students here in your office location, it is so special,” said CLA CEO Jen Leary. “They’ve told us so. It’s really special for us as well at CLA because there’s just a liveliness to the office today that you really cherish, so we learn a lot from them as well.”

The accounting profession has been working to attract young people as the pipeline of accounting graduates appears to be shrinking. The AICPA’s 2023 Trends report found 47,067 students earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in the 2021-22 school year, down 7.8% from the previous year (see story). Meanwhile, the number of students who earned a master’s degree in accounting dropped 6.4% to 18,238. 

FBLA clubs have long been a presence in high schools across the country inspiring students to build business careers. “We see, as a national organization, as students are sorting through career opportunities, because this generation is so brand driven, they often don’t realize that a company like CLA is a driver behind their favorite brands,” said FBLA president and CEO Alexander Graham. “We’ve done focus groups with middle school and high school students, and they will not pick or choose or identify with an organization like CLA because they don’t see the relevance to themselves. But when they go onsite, they say, ‘Well, wait a minute, this is a company that I know who it is, or I understand,’ because they’re so brand conscious, just by virtue of their devices and how society has become.”

Future Business Leaders of America president and CEO Alexander Graham

Courtesy of CLA

He sees a need for students, particularly post pandemic, to really open up their thinking about what the future could be, and organizations like CLA can be part of it. 

Students shared their experiences with the CLA executives as well. “They talked a lot about just having an opportunity to be out at the client location and spend time learning about their businesses,” said James Watson, a regional managing principal at CLA. “That happened later in my career. To see that on the front end and make that connection of what they’re trying to accomplish while they’re witnessing it in real time, I think, is unbelievably impactful for them. To me that was the biggest takeaway from our high school internship program. Secondly would probably be working together in groups. They seem to do that really well. In education, that seems to be the focus, but they really got a big kick out of being in the office together and sitting around a table and working through problems.”

Panel discussion at CLA’s high school intern event with Future Business Leaders of America

Courtesy of CLA

Students are beginning to consider accounting as a future career thanks to the program. “I’ve never been interested in accounting, but coming here to CLA and listening to everyone’s experiences and their history with accounting has definitely opened up my eyes,” said Natasha Naheir, a student at Marvin Ridge High. “And even when it comes to AI, I think AI is something that can enrich accounting. It’s not something that will push it down, necessarily, but I think CLA has opened up my eyes to the field of accounting, and even looking at other fields in relation to accounting.”

Another student, Robert Fan, is also looking at accounting more favorably because of the experience. “I took an accounting course in high school, and it was really interesting, so I definitely considered going into accounting,” he said. “But then with the rise of AI and machine learning and things like that, I was thinking accounting might get replaced by machines. From this experience, I realized that accounting isn’t just numbers. It can be working with clients. It’s definitely refueled my interest in accounting.”

High school students listen to the panel discussion at CLA’s event with the FBLA.

Courtesy of CLA

Teachers see students showing varied interests, not just accounting. “Students are interested in business, but they don’t know which direction to go,” said Troy Burns, who teaches IB business management and computer science at Marvin Ridge High.

“I teach a class called Theory of Knowledge where we look at what we know or what we claim to know and how we know it,” said history teacher Robert Branan. 

The event didn’t just present accounting to the students, but also other areas that students could pursue.

“Today it’s been all about exposure, and just showing them what’s possible in their career,” said Leary. “At CLA, we have multiple service lines. It could be accounting, it could be finance, it could be wealth, it could be cyber, all kinds of different things. We talked about AI in the discussion there. FBLA is where they get those strong skills. And I think it is a confidence builder for high schoolers to say, ‘I know I can put myself out there, I can try for something that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise done. And I can be competitive at my local school level, at my regional level, at the state level, and maybe I can make it to nationals.'”

The national FBLA competition took place at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta in June and attracted 14,000 students, supported by about 2,000 educators, and CLA was there as well.

“They go through a competitive process, and we really try to make sure we keep teenagers busy, especially smart ones, because they will find other things to do,” said Graham. “We really look at it like a three-legged stool. When they’re not competing, they’re in our Future Leaders Expo networking with colleges and universities, employers, and having fun. We make sure they’re busy. We offer over 100 different workshops: resume development, even down to personality profiles, like strengths finder, and things to teach them what it’s like in the real world.” There’s also time for games, playing cornhole, but even there, it’s competitive. 

CLA hopes the student interns will want to build a future at the firm. “For us to be the employer of choice for that young generation, that is 100% a focus of ours,” said Leary. “The energy that we want to put into this next generation is beyond just creating jobs. It’s about building strong, confident individuals.”