Ready to work: a service-based learning project helps students hit the ground running upon entering the workforce.

Author:Dickins, Denise
 
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PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYERS FREQUENTLY COMPLAIN THAT STUDENTS ARE NOT work ready. In fact, study results suggest that a large percentage of employers question whether students have the skills needed for workplace success. According to Are They Really Ready to Work?--a report published by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management--U.S. employers see little excellence in new entrants to the workforce. When asked to describe entrants' overall preparation for work, nearly two-thirds of employers surveyed for the report said four-year college graduates' preparation was merely adequate, whereas less than one-fourth said preparation was excellent.

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A lack of work-ready skills may be especially problematic in internal audit careers. Audit departments often consist of small groups of one to four individuals, limiting the ability of organizations to permit on-the-job training. Moreover, departments frequently must hire experienced individuals, trading the cost of on-the-job training for higher entry salaries. This problem could be abated, however, if academic curricula included activities that better prepare students for actual workplace experiences.

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To help address the need for skill development, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) established a curricula framework that focuses on developing broad-based competencies. Specifically, the framework covers functional and technical competencies, such as decision making and critical thinking; personal attributes, including professional demeanor and communications; and broad business competencies, such as strategic thinking and understanding business environments. To become professionals, students must learn not only to think in certain ways, but also to perform certain skills and act consistently with the norms, values, and conventions of the profession.

At East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., instructors used elements of the AICPA model to implement a service-based learning (SBL) project intended to enhance students' internal audit, critical thinking, and communication skills. The project gave students the opportunity to participate in an actual compliance audit of a service unit within the university. After project completion, students reported that the experience improved their skills and increased career preparedness. Moreover, potential employers reported a willingness to hire students who participated in this or similar SBL projects that enhance student work readiness. The ECU project results point to the potential benefits of SBL work and serve as a potential reference point for other institutions looking to better prepare students for careers in auditing.

SERVICE-BASED LEARNING

SBL is a form of pedagogy, or teaching and learning strategy, designed to both support specific learning objectives--such as understanding the complexities of the internal audit process--and benefit the business community. SBL techniques are gaining popularity in business education because they engage students and provide them with hands-on experience and skills development while simultaneously providing value to business partners. SBL also moves students away from the mind-set of asking, "Do I need to know this?" or "Is this going to be on the test?" Instead, projects focus on delivering practical, real-world experience that students can later apply to an actual job setting.

Students benefit from SBL in several ways. They become more engaged learners because of their interaction with the business partner, and they receive an opportunity to apply course knowledge rather than just acquiring it in the classroom. SBL students also assume responsibility for their assigned portions of the project, and they develop a professional skill set that includes many of the skills employers desire, such as interpersonal relations and critical thinking. Accordingly, participating in SBL activities deepens internal audit skills and helps students develop areas of competency that are essential for real-world success.

THE INTERNAL AUDIT PROJECT

The ECU internal audit SBL project came at the request of the school's College of Business (COB) Proctoring Office. Internal audit class instructors were asked to perform a review of the office's processes and controls, and to make recommendations for improvement. Management sought to evaluate whether the Proctoring Office was meeting the objectives of its constituent groups, including students, faculty, and off-site proctoring institutions.

The Proctoring Office handles exam...

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