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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Brian Thomason

COMPREHENSIVE/DOCTORAL INSTITUTIONS
Incentives of University In-House Internships

Internships are an essential part of preparing students for jobs and careers postgraduation. At Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif., we have developed internship opportunities outside of traditional channels, while creating efficiencies in the
business office.

Because I teach not only accounting and auditing as an adjunct but also work in the finance office, I have developed a number of connections with accounting firms, banks, and investment management firms. That means I have a near-constant stream of students asking for introductions, recommendations, and help lining up internships with the firms that recruit on our campus. The competition for those internships is stiff, especially given the number of other institutions near Pepperdine. 

After discussing this issue within the finance office, we realized that the university itself is a fairly complicated organization that could offer an intern many learning opportunities. Pepperdine, for instance, has several international locations that provide a significant amount of work related to multicurrency finance and accounting, plus domestic and international tax compliance. We also have a well-developed planning and forecasting group and a significant investment portfolio.

At the same time, we needed assistance with seasonal workloads and nonessential but "nice to have" projects. An internship program could provide additional staffing, while tying the work of the finance office more directly to the university's mission.

An internship program has enabled Pepperdine University's finance office to reduce staffing levels and lower costs, while still handling seasonal workloads and tackling special projects.

Pepperdine UniversityAn internship program has enabled Pepperdine University's finance office to reduce staffing levels and lower costs, while still handling seasonal workloads and tackling special projects.

Personnel and Projects

In the summer of 2011, the Pepperdine finance office began its formal internship program, which is open to majors in accounting, business management, international business, finance, or economics. Initially we offered a paid, full-time internship for the summer only. Two years later, we expanded the program to operate year-round, with interns scheduled for 10 to 15 hours per week during the school year and full time in the summer.

We typically have two interns at any given time. Each open position usually attracts 10 to 15 applicants, solely through word-of-mouth advertising. After applicants submit their resumes, we put individuals through an interview process similar to that for an entry-level, full-time candidate. Finalists return for a second interview, and then the final candidate is selected by consensus of the university's controller, director of accounting, director of financial planning, and the current interns.

One main goal of the internship program is to expose our students to many different areas so that they can develop a skill set and a sense of where they might like to specialize upon graduation.

At first we recruited juniors and seniors, but now focus on hiring underclassmen to lighten the training burden; if we hire a freshman or sophomore, we have the possibility of having that intern for three or four years, which reduces the learning curve significantly. The interns deal with more sophisticated information and tasks than do our regular student workers, who predominantly focus on filing and scanning documents. Accordingly, we pay the interns more. Their salaries, which are competitive with off-campus internships, are funded from salary vacancy dollars within the finance office. 

One main goal of the internship program is to expose our students to many different areas so that they can develop a skill set and a sense of where they might like to specialize upon graduation. For example, our interns often assist with the audit during the fall semester, then shift during the spring semester to projects related to the budget planning process and the university's tax compliance.

In the summer, they typically work on special projects, such as developing a regression model to forecast the tuition rate increases of our competitors or assisting with the compilation of documents for a bond offering. We also provide interns with opportunities to enhance their professional writing skills—for example, by researching and drafting a memo on the taxability of a payment or stipend.

Our internships also encourage development of the intangible and social skills necessary to succeed in an office environment. We intentionally build in time for unstructured, one-on-one mentoring, so senior staff members and supervisors can build relationships with the interns and help them process their work, their learning, and, on occasion, issues in their personal lives.

A Few Challenges

As one might expect, the internship program hasn't been all unicorns and rainbows. We initially underestimated the time commitment for supervisors to do a proper job of training. Some of these students have never held a job before, so it takes a lot of handholding to get them up to speed and ensure that they feel adequately prepared for the work they are doing. To mitigate this issue, the interns work for several people in the department who can share the training load.

We encountered some resistance from the HR and IT departments about giving interns access to internal data and systems, especially in the area of salaries. Overcoming this concern required a lot of conversation and communication about the nature of these students' work. Our interns are required to sign confidentiality agreements, and they are well aware that any breach will result in being fired on the spot, with no questions asked.
Although each internship runs for one full year, we hire interns with the caveat that we will reassess their work after each semester. This gives us—and the intern—an out if schedule conflicts or performance issues arise. On occasion we end an intern assignment early; we always provide those students with feedback on how to be more effective in their next job.

Most of our interns have completed one full year, at a minimum, and several have stayed for several internship cycles. Three former interns have accepted permanent positions in the finance office. That's an unexpected benefit of the program: We're developing an in-house recruiting pool of potential employees who know our office and our work, and are a good fit for the university. Other interns have transitioned to Big Four accounting firms, investment banks, and wealth management and real estate firms.

Our internship program has allowed us to reduce staffing levels and internal cost. The finance office has fewer FTEs than it did 10 years ago, and we use the interns to cover staff vacancies rather than hiring temporary employees. We have brought back some previously outsourced services—such as managing registrations for charitable solicitations—to save approximately $70,000 annually. 

Perhaps most important, the internship program has enabled a back-office operation to directly impact the lives of our students and to feel more connected to Pepperdine University's mission. In fact, seeing our success, at least two other departments have followed our internship model.

SUBMITTED BY Brian Thomason, associate vice president and controller, Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif.


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