VITA: Enhancing Your Core Competencies Through Tax
Accounting students take note!!! The accounting profession
has clearly expressed a need to hire accounting graduates with specific
core personal, functional, and broad business perspective competencies.
The accounting profession evidently knows what it needs in its new hires,
has expressed those needs in formal terms and will satisfy those needs
through its hiring practices. What does that mean for accounting students
such as yourself? It means that unless you enhance your core competencies
while still in school you will take the risk of being unemployed once
At this stage you may be asking yourself two questions, first ¡°What
are the core competencies the accounting profession wants me to enhance?¡±
and second ¡°What specifically can I do to enhance my core competencies?¡±.
The best resource for answering the first question is to refer to the
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants¡¯ (AICPA¡¯s)
Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession (see
www.aicpa.org/edu/corecomp.htm). The AICPA has broken out the core competencies
into three broad categories: personal competencies, functional competencies,
and broad business perspective competencies. In addition, the article
titled ¡°Inside the Mind of Your Future Boss¡± by Cynthia Bolt-Lee
and Sheila Foster in the October/November 2000 issue of New Accountant
provided a good summary of the core competencies and their components.
This article will suggest how students can enhance their personal competencies
and better prepare themselves for entry into the accounting profession
by serving in the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. It will
also discuss how serving in VITA may improve students¡¯ personal financial
situations and the communities in which they live.
VITA is a free tax preparation service administered by the IRS for those
with limited incomes, individuals with disabilities, non-English speaking
and seniors (TCE Tax Counseling for the Elderly is a related tax preparation
service). The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) administers
a similar program titled TaxAide. VITA and the other free tax preparation
services, rely heavily on volunteers from the communities they serve.
VITA volunteers range from retired tax partners, to housewives, to first-year
accounting students. These volunteers both provide and receive significant
benefits due to their service. Based on the VITA training materials, ¡°Every
year more than 71,000 volunteers assist more than 3.5 million persons
with their federal income taxes.¡± At current market rates, the tax
preparation bill for these 3.5 million persons would be in the tens of
millions of dollars.
Enhance Your Personal Competencies through VITA Service
Aside from highlighting the millions of dollars that volunteers can save
for those who can afford it the least, I would now like to highlight how
students can significantly enhance their ¡°personal competencies¡±
through their service in VITA. According to the AICPA, the core personal
competencies include professional demeanor, problem solving and decision
making, interaction, communication, project management, leadership, and
the leveraging of technology to develop and enhance personal competencies.
Over the course of a tax-filing season, volunteers have a wonderful opportunity
to enhance their professional demeanor. In the first few volunteer sessions,
many volunteers appear disorganized, uninformed and, simply put, unprofessional.
However, as the season progresses, the students¡¯ quality of work,
efficiency, professionalism, and personal appearance begin to improve.
Students begin to organize their thoughts before giving advice, to speak
with confidence after researching the facts and to show respect, in spite
of personal criticism, throughout the engagement. By improving their quality
of work, increasing their efficiency, refining their professionalism and
personal appearance, appropriately managing stressful situations, and
objectively evaluating criticism, the students begin to be respected as
professionals. From the beginning of the tax season to the end, I have
noticed significant improvement in man students¡¯ professional demeanor.
In providing a professional-level of service, volunteers are often faced
with new and unfamiliar tax situations. Naturally some tax situations
are beyond the scope of VITA and the volunteers are trained to refer taxpayers
with such situations to a ¡°paid professional preparer¡±. However,
many issues are practical problems that volunteers have been trained on
but need a little practice in applying. These situations are excellent
for improving students¡¯ ability to solve problems and make decisions.
They learn quickly how to use decision modeling to analyze a problem by
gathering all useful information, analyzing alternatives, arriving at
an appropriate decision and implementing a solution. By continually practicing
the decision making process students also improve their problem solving
In a very realistic sense, each new taxpayer brings with her a small shoebox
of new problems for the volunteer to solve. The volunteer¡¯s solution
to a problem is a complete income tax return. In order to solve the taxpayer¡¯s
problems, the volunteer must quickly develop a relationship of trust by
interacting with the taxpayer in a friendly, non-threatening, professional
manner. If the volunteer fails in the initial interaction phase of the
service, the likelihood of errors and dissatisfied clients will increase.
VITA volunteers have the opportunity to significantly improve their ability
to interact with a diverse group of people ranging from retired executives
and immigrant workers to single mothers and struggling students. Volunteers
often work in teams to handle unusual issues and to train each other.
I have no doubt that these interaction skills will not only benefit students
who will become tax consultants but also those who will become financial
auditors, consultants, internal auditors, managerial accountants and chief
Coupled with an improvement in the volunteers¡¯ ability to interact
with others comes an improvement in their communication skills. Volunteers
practice interviewing, listening, mirroring, empathizing, and summarizing.
The VITA training materials teach volunteers how to set a comfortable
tone for the interview by making necessary introductions, engaging in
small talk, sharing their intentions and any hopeful results/benefits
for the taxpayer and allowing the taxpayer to share any expectations,
needs and/or concerns. They are also trained on how to respond with active
listening skills by creating a ¡°safe¡± climate, paying attention
to nonverbal listening clues and then restating, paraphrasing and encouraging.
Other skills taught are checking comfort levels, responding to misunderstandings
and overcoming communication barriers. All told, the communication competencies
that can be developed in VITA are critical in a diverse corporate world
and VITA will provide students a head start in developing them.
Some VITA sites tend to be very busy with more than 100 taxpayers being
served per session. Although the leadership and project management skills
involved are not highly complex, VITA does provide some good experience
for individuals to lead as a VITA administrator. I recall one of my friends
in college who was the VITA administrator for a campus of 25,000 students.
Her site served thousands of taxpayers and even received an award from
the IRS based on the volume of service performed. As an administrator,
she was required to organize volunteers, train them, arrange their service
schedules, publicize the service, order the tax forms, and report service
statistics to the IRS. Naturally she quickly learned to delegate and manage
the project for success. The hands on leadership and project management
opportunities she had in VITA were excellent supplements to the management
courses she took in her masters of accountancy program.
Many VITA sites also provide volunteers the opportunity to leverage technology
to develop and enhance their personal competencies. Students learn how
to use tax preparation software that will improve their professional demeanor
(technology tends to heighten taxpayer¡¯s view of a volunteer¡¯s
professionalism) and to use on-line research resources to solve problems
and make decisions. Volunteers have the opportunity to use CD-ROM based
tax research libraries, on-line resources such as the IRS web-site (www.irs.gov)
and other on-line tax sites. The official software to be used in the VITA
E-filing (electronic filing) program is comparable to the software used
by many large tax consulting practices. By requiring volunteers to use
this software VITA effectively give students a technological edge ¡°leg-up¡±
if they choose to join a tax consulting practice. Even if students will
not work in a tax consulting practice they will become confident in their
ability to use tax preparation software in preparing their own personal
tax returns and even those of their friends and family.
Enhance Your Personal Financial Situation
Aside from all the professional benefits resulting from a season of VITA
assistance, volunteers will also be able to improve their own personal
financial situation. Volunteers will be able to grasp the basics of the
US federal income tax system, be able to learn to work with it and be
able to take specific actions to positively and legally influence their
personal tax situation for the better. Students will become familiar with
tax planning issues related to the timing of sales and purchases of equity
securities, the timing of payments for medical bills, business expenses
and charitable contributions, the benefits of tax deferred savings plans
and the difference between tax credits and tax deductions. These are only
a small sample of some of the most basic concepts that the average US
taxpayer should be very familiar with in order to best manage his/her
tax situation and which can be learned through VITA. If I were to have
my way with the US educational system, I would require all US students
to take an introductory federal taxation course that includes some VITA
Enhance Your Community
When the last tax return is bundled up and sent off, the real redeeming
value of VITA goes beyond enhancing your personal competencies and your
personal financial situation. It lies in the opportunity to provide a
valuable service to those in need. The tax laws have become so complicated
that many US taxpayers feel totally incapable of complying with the tax
laws on their own. Many of these individuals rely solely on VITA to help
them comply. Comments from former volunteers at the Brigham Young University-Hawaii
- ¡°I like the VITA. If I am allowed, I would like
to do it again next year. It makes me feel good for helping people.¡±
- ¡°The best part was actually helping people file
their tax returns.¡±
- ¡°The VITA program is excellent, the skills learned
and used in VITA will help me for a lifetime. Hands-on experience supplementing
the not so easy to understand text is the best way to go.¡±
- VITA is a wonderful service for students and community
alike. By serving as VITA volunteers, students will significantly enhance
their personal competencies, their personal financial situations and
For more information, see www.irs.gov and www.aarp.org/taxaide
KEVIN KIMBALL is an Assistant Professor of Accounting at Brigham Young
University-Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii.