Rona Gilbert

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

The Family Medical Leave Act

Enacted in 1993, the intent of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is to prevent employees from having to choose between their jobs and their families. The FMLA applies to private sector employers who employed 50 or more employees in 20 or more work weeks in the current or preceding calendar year and who are engaged in commerce or in any industry or activity affecting commerce. The FMLA also applies to public agencies, including state and local government employers, regardless of the number of employees.

“The FMLA ensures the employee continuation of group benefits during the period of the leave and assures the employee a return to the same or similar job,” says Nancy Conrad, an employment law attorney in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at White and Williams LLP.

Smart Business spoke with Conrad about the FMLA and how employers should navigate the law.

Who is eligible for FMLA benefits?

The employee must work for a covered employer for a total of 12 months; have worked at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months; and work at a location in the United States or in any territory or possession of the United States where at least 50 employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles.

What kind of leave is an employee entitled to take?

A covered employer must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons: for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee; for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care; to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition; or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

Must an employer provide a reduced schedule under the FMLA?

Under certain circumstances, employees may take FMLA leave intermittently — meaning they may take leave in blocks of time, or by reducing their normal weekly or daily work schedule whenever medically necessary to care for a seriously ill family member, or because the employee is seriously ill and unable to work. Intermittent leave for birth and care or placement for adoption or foster care is subject to the employer’s approval.

What certification must an employee submit to qualify for the leave?

Employees requesting FMLA leave are required to provide 30-day advance notice when the need is foreseeable and notice is practical. Employers may also require employees to provide medical certification, second or third medical opinions (at the employer’s expense), periodic recertification, and periodic reports during the leave regarding the employee’s status and intent to return to work.

How should employers inform employees of their rights under the FMLA?

Under penalty of fines, covered employers must post a notice approved by the Secretary of Labor explaining rights and responsibilities under FMLA. Employers can obtain a sample notice from the U.S. Department of Labor (WH Publication 1420). Covered employers must provide specific written information on what is required of the employee and what might happen in certain circumstances, such as if the employee fails to return to work after FMLA leave. This information can be included in employee handbooks or other written materials, including collective bargaining agreements.

Covered employers must also provide written notice designating the leave as FMLA leave and detailing specific expectations and obligations of an employee who is exercising his/her FMLA entitlements. Employers may use the U.S. Department of Labor’s form ‘Employer Response to Employee Request for Family or Medical Leave’ (Optional Form WH-381) to meet this requirement.

Must an employer hold a job for an employee on FMLA?

Following FMLA leave, an employee must be returned to the employee’s original job, or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. An employee’s use of FMLA leave cannot result in the loss of any employment benefit that the employee earned or was entitled to before using FMLA leave, nor be counted against the employee under a no-fault attendance policy.

Additionally, under specified and limited circumstances where restoration to employment will cause substantial and grievous economic injury to its operations, an employer may refuse to reinstate certain highly paid key employees after using FMLA leave during which health coverage was maintained.

NANCY CONRAD is an employment law attorney in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at White and Williams LLP. Reach her at (610) 782-4909 or conradn@whiteandwilliams.com.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Professional growth

It’s not uncommon for professionals without any formal management training to find themselves taking on management roles as they rise through the ranks in their career. Improving their management skills can help them better deal with everyday workplace challenges and issues, and also sets them apart as highly skilled employees in an increasingly competitive workplace.

However, for those without an undergraduate business degree, obtaining a Master of Business Administration (MBA) can be a daunting task. But the Master of Science in Management (MSM) may be the perfect solution for those with no formal management education, according to Tomas H. Parks, Ph.D., dean of the School of Business at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

“The MSM prepares people to excel as managers in any number of industries,” he says. “Unlike an MBA, an MSM provides advanced training in business without requiring as many number-crunching courses, focusing instead on organizational and personnel management.”

Smart Business spoke with Parks about the MSM program and who would benefit from receiving such a degree.

What is the MSM program?

The MSM is a graduate program requiring 36 credit-hours that looks at many of the different areas and challenges faced by today’s managers. It is designed for people who did not necessarily foresee themselves in management roles, but through career progression have taken on greater management responsibilities. While the MSM program has been around for a very long time, many people aren’t aware of it because there has been so much focus on MBA programs.

What are the benefits of receiving an MSM degree?

The MSM is applications oriented. While students do spend some time learning the theories of management, they really benefit from gaining tools they can use in their jobs. The program is structured as a building process, beginning with the foundations of executive management and moving ultimately into strategic management and looking at the organization from a big-picture perspective.

One of the things I really like about the MSM program is that many managers think the organization’s strategies are irrelevant to them, but organizations really benefit when every manager thinks strategically.

How does the MSM program differ from an MBA program?

In terms of the length of programs, the MSM and MBA both take the same amount of time to complete, but there are significant differences in content. The MBA program is much more quantitative, which is great for those with a background in accounting, statistics and finance. Also, in most cases, the MBA is for somebody with an undergraduate business degree because it builds on that foundation of knowledge.

The MSM, on the other hand, has no prerequisites, so an undergraduate business degree is not required. Anyone with any major can earn an MSM, which focuses more on the people side of the organization rather than the numbers side.

Who should consider the MSM program?

In addition to being a better fit for someone without an undergraduate business degree, the MSM is also better suited for those in certain business segments — such as not-for-profit organizations — because of its strong focus on people management. The MSM is also ideal for those who come from nontraditional management positions in industries like nursing, engineering, computer science and education. People who progress throughout their careers in these industries often don’t have the traditional foundation of business classes that those with an undergraduate business degree have. The MSM is a great way to augment and strengthen their management skills.

How can obtaining an MSM degree help employees who are looking to move into leadership roles?

The MSM program offers working adults significant opportunities for career advancement. In fact, a number of our graduates have received promotions as a direct result of having obtained their MSM degree.

How can working adults earn an MSM while working full-time?

The MSM program at Mount Vernon Nazarene University is set up specifically for working adults. It is offered in an accelerated format, allowing students to complete the program in 22 months. Students attend class one night per week for four hours a night. This program is ideal for this accelerated format because it integrates students’ work experience with their class-work. We tap into the real issues and challenges that they face during their workday and make them a part of the learning process.

TOMAS H. PARKS, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Business at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Reach him at (740) 392-6868, ext. 3310 or tparks@mvnu.edu.

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning used to be a concept that most people believed was reserved for just a privileged few who had the time and money to devote to exploring their passions or learning new skills. But times have changed and lifelong learning is now considered a necessity for any working adult to remain competitive in today’s job market.

Jobs that were historically considered to be “safe” are disappearing, so many working adults are finding that they need to learn new skills to take advantage of today’s hottest jobs, according to Jim Brodzinski, Ph.D., SPHR and a professor and chair of the Department of Business Administration and director of the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program at the College of Mount St. Joseph. “Lifelong learning is simply a mindset that today’s successful employees must take on as part of taking full responsibility for their own careers,” he says. “Employees can no longer expect employers to guide them.”

Smart Business spoke with Brodzinski about lifelong learning and why it’s essential that today’s employees seek opportunities to learn new skills throughout their careers.

What changes are occurring in the job market that will have an impact on career choices and changes?

There’s volatility in the job market as more and more jobs are being outsourced and the industrial sector continues to shrink. A lot of people who were in what were generally considered safe jobs are now finding themselves looking for work, and they are having difficulty finding comparable work because those jobs simply don’t exist anymore.

The overwhelming growth area is now in the services industry. The Bureau of Labor predicts an increase of 21 million jobs in the U.S. by 2012. The vast majority of those will be service jobs, primarily in the areas of health care, government and hospitality. While this poses some interesting opportunities for job-seekers, it will require many to learn new skills.

Why are lifelong learning skills important?

The average person changes his or her career at least five times during a lifetime, but perhaps the most important reason is technology. The divide between people who have technology skills and those who don’t is increasing as technology skills become more important in the workplace.

How have higher education institutions changed to accommodate lifelong learning?

The old education model was teacher-centered, meaning students would learn information from their teachers. The big shift has been to a learner-centered model with the goal of engaging the students in their own education. It’s really a switch from a passive education model to an active model where the students are provided an environment to explore and take responsibility for their own education.

In this model, students are given problems or situations and must work to find their own solutions, rather than simply have an answer provided by the teacher. As part of this model, co-op experiences are becoming more popular, giving students a chance to put their knowledge to use in an actual work situation. We’re also seeing new opportunities like networking workshops to help students learn how to develop social and professional networks. And, of course, the growth in online courses has allowed people to fully take advantage of lifelong learning in a more convenient and accessible format.

What skills do individuals need to become effective lifelong learners?

Today’s employees need to take responsibility for their own careers and take on a mindset that the job they’re in may not last so they have to continue to upgrade their knowledge. At its most basic level, it’s essential to at least understand where your industry is going.

Improving technology skills is essential, but it’s also important to learn transferable skills like planning, critical thinking and creativity. It’s hard to teach a course on those things, but you can build those skills by going through a formal education process. Just the act of continually educating yourself gives you these skills. Try branching out into an unfamiliar area with the idea of increasing the breadth of your knowledge, not the depth.

Employees should keep in mind that communication is the number one requested skill by employers, so anything they can do to improve their ability to speak and write effectively is also a plus.

JIM BRODZINSKI, Ph.D., SPHR is a professor and chair of the Department of Business Administration and director of the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Reach him at jim_brodzinski@mail.msj.edu or (513) 244-4918.

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Patent donations

Intellectual property is considered intangible property by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It can be gifted, assigned, sold, leased or even donated, just as any other type of property. If a business finds itself with a patent that doesn’t make sense for it to continue maintaining, that business may want to consider donating the patent to a qualifying charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code in exchange for a tax deduction.

It’s not uncommon for a business to develop an idea and create a patent but fail to use it to its fullest income-producing potential, for whatever reason. In that case, that business may want to consider determining the patent’s fair market value or its basis and take a deduction by donating it, according to Nicholas C. Tomlinson, an associate at Gambrell & Stolz LLP. “While it’s important to work with an attorney and accountant who are familiar with charitable contributions and patent donations, donating a patent can be a smart business move for many businesses,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Tomlinson about patent donations and how businesses can benefit by donating a patent.

How are patent donations deductible under the Internal Revenue Code?

The IRS considers a patent to be property, and Section 170 of the code covers all charitable contributions, including patent donations. Congress established limits on intellectual property donations as part of the American Jobs Creation Act passed in 2004. There were concerns about abuse — specifically in the area of patent donations — so this was an attempt to crack down on those abuses. Companies and individuals are limited to using the lesser of either the fair market value or the basis — both of which can be tricky to determine.

How can a business determine the value of a patent that might be donated?

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t address the area of determining value; however, the three accepted methods of evaluating patents are the same basic methods used to determine the value of any other property.

The first is the market method approach, which looks at what’s comparable on the market. This is inherently a challenge because, by nature, a patent is supposed to be unique and original so using the market approach raises questions about the validity of the patent itself. The second method is the income method, which takes into account the future income that the patent would produce from royalties or if the patent were sold.

The third is the cost approach, which is basically the cost of developing the patent.

What are the limits for the donations?

Section 170 of the IRS Code differentiates between corporations and individuals. A corporation may take a tax deduction for a donation up to 10 percent of its net taxable income. For individuals, that deduction can’t exceed 50 percent of the taxable income base. Many partnerships are LLCs, and their taxes are passed through the individuals so the individual limit would apply. Anything in excess of the 10 percent for corporations and 50 percent for individuals can be carried forward for five years.

What are some potential pitfalls of making a patent donation?

Because this is an area that has come under considerable IRS scrutiny, people looking to donate a patent should keep in mind that this type of transaction could lead to an audit, so it’s important to make sure everything is well documented. It’s also important to consider the costs involved with determining the value of the patent, as it can end up costing more than the value of the patent itself. Individuals looking to donate a patent must have a qualified appraisal done by an independent third party. An appraisal is also strongly recommended for corporations. The IRS closely scrutinizes these types of transactions, so you want to make sure to follow all of the proper procedures for determining a patent’s value. Someone should do the appraisal who is qualified to make the appraisal on that particular type of technology that the patent protects.

In addition to the tax benefits, are there any other advantages to donating patents?

While the tax benefits can be fairly substantial, depending on the value and the basis of the patent, there are other reasons why a business or individual might consider donating a patent. Patents can be costly to maintain due to yearly maintenance fees that can run into thousands of dollars. When a donation is made, the acquiring entity assumes the cost of the maintenance fees. Donating a patent also creates goodwill and promotes business relationships in the community.

NICHOLAS C. TOMLINSON is an associate at Gambrell & Stolz LLP where he practices in the areas of taxation, corporate law, trusts and estates, and employee benefits. Reach him at (404) 221-6537 or ntomlinson@gambrell.com.

Sunday, 29 October 2006 05:26

Hiring co-op students

Hiring a co-op student is a learning experience for both the employer and the student, with the most successful programs providing an extended learning environment for the student that is beyond just copying and filing. Co-op students are typically enrolled in college, are usually juniors or seniors, and the work program is structured around their class schedules.

While hiring co-op students requires a commitment on the part of the employer, like hiring any employee, there is an initial learning curve. However, the advantages far outweigh any inconveniences, according to Sister Sally Duffy, SC, president and executive director of SC Ministry Foundation.

“Co-ops are such a mutually beneficial program and a wonderful way to build professional relationships,” she says. “So often, we seek ways to give back to society and participating in a co-op program is a way to do that, right in your own workplace.”

Smart Business spoke with Sister Duffy about the ways in which employers benefit from hiring co-ops and how a successful co-op program can be structured.

How do employers benefit from hiring co-op students?
While students gain important professional experience, employers also benefit greatly from participating in co-op programs. Co-op students bring to the workplace their own perspective and expertise, as well as their educational background. Perhaps most importantly, co-op students are generally very curious by nature and ask a lot of questions during their employment that forces employers to get out of the habit of their everyday thinking and see the workplace through a fresh set of eyes. If employers take the time to really listen, they can learn a lot from these students.

An added benefit we’ve seen is that many co-op students are proficient in technology, so they bring insights into different processes and techniques that can help employers be more efficient and effective. We’ve also found our co-op program to be a great recruiting tool by creating an internal pool for hiring good, well-trained employees when an opening arises.

What factors should an employer consider when hiring a co-op student?
In many ways, hiring a co-op student is just like hiring any other type of employee.

First and foremost, it’s essential that there be a mission compatibility between the student and the organization, and the student should be committed to that mission or purpose. Other factors to consider include how well the student will fit into the organization’s culture and the student’s level of flexibility to try a lot of new things during the co-op experience.

What is the most rewarding part of employing co-op students?
It is wonderful — and very rewarding — to watch not only the personal and professional growth of the co-op student, but also the growth of your staff and the rest of the organization as a result of the program and the students you employ. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my staff mentor the co-op students, which really enhances the experience for everyone.

Employers can also benefit from listening to co-op students’ questions and ideas. We have found that co-op students really help us to challenge ourselves, our thinking, and the ways in which we do things — just by asking insightful questions and offering fresh, new ideas.

How should employers structure co-op programs to achieve the best results?
Employers first need to consider the co-op student’s major when determining appropriate tasks. But it’s also important to match a student’s passion with his or her work by finding out where his or her interests lie and what he or she would like to accomplish during the co-op experience. It is especially important to create goals to ensure mutual understanding of expectations. Employers should seek to match the student’s expectations and make sure there’s a good fit and compatibility.

There are many ways to structure a co-op program. We typically hire one co-op student per year who works with us for an entire year, giving the student plenty of time to really learn and understand our organization. I recommend that employers try to use a consistent manager or supervisor for the student, providing regular performance evaluations and ongoing feedback and communication. We have found it especially instructive to have the co-op student evaluate our organization’s performance and his or her own experience. This information then helps us improve our program for the next student.

But I truly believe that the employers who benefit the most are the ones who can turn the co-op experience from a raw experience to a reflective one by really getting to know their co-op students, spending time with them, and listening to them.

SISTER SALLY DUFFY, SC, is the president and executive director of SC Ministry Foundation, a public grantmaking organization. Reach her at (513) 347-1136 or sduffy@scministryfdn.org.

Friday, 22 September 2006 06:07

Managing employee relations

Employment litigation is rising as our society continues to become more litigious. Employers often don’t realize that they can actually add fuel to the flame by being too relaxed during the course of employment; by not being entirely honest with the employee about problems or concerns; and by not having mechanisms in the workplace that would enable an employer to effectively manage employee performance, discipline and discharge. This, according to Rick Grimaldi, a labor and employment attorney at White and Williams LLP.

“The cost of good employee relations is minimal compared to the cost of defending against a lawsuit,” he says. “Litigation often can be avoided if employers implement good strategies for discipline and performance management before a discharge ever occurs.”

Smart Business spoke with Grimaldi about steps employers should take long before a termination occurs and ways employers can protect themselves from employment litigation.

What steps should an employer take for terminating an employee to best protect the company from a lawsuit?
The steps should begin at the time the employee is hired. Employers should have an employee handbook that covers things like disciplinary procedures, performance reviews, terminations and other important policies and procedures. Of course, the key is to not just have a set of policies and procedures, but to follow them and enforce them consistently from employee to employee.

In most jurisdictions, employers can hire and fire someone for basically any legal reason — with certain exceptions. However, employers are vulnerable when they do not have a valid, nondiscriminatory business reason for terminating someone.

When it appears that an employee is on a path to termination, employers should focus on being objective with the employee. Stay away from statements that could be construed as defamatory or personal attacks. Rather than state that someone isn’t a team player, employers should be prepared with specific examples to demonstrate that point. Unless the termination is based on some act of misconduct, employers should try to keep the discussion focused on the duties of the job. Lastly, it’s essential to utilize a progressive disciplinary process so that the employee is made aware of the employer’s expectations and also the consequences of not meeting them. This forces the employee to take responsibility for the performance problem or conduct and provides him or her with an opportunity to improve, while at the same time creating the proof necessary to defend against a challenge to the employer’s action.

How should employers communicate with employees about disciplinary or other concerns that might eventually lead to termination?
It really boils down to maintaining an open and ongoing dialog and being honest with employees when problems or concerns arise. Good employers are consistent in yearly performance reviews, and they make sure there’s good informal communication throughout the year between the employee and his or her supervisor.

The more fair and transparent the process, the less likely employers are to find themselves in a litigation situation. And if they do, they will be more likely to be successful in defeating the challenge. It all goes back to the concept of maintaining good employee relations.

How should employers document discipline issues and other concerns?
There is a perception that if something is written, it’s true; if something is typed and written, it’s really true; and, if something is typed and written on a form, it’s really, really, true.

The point is that communication about employee performance should always be documented and the documentation should confirm that both parties understand the issues that were discussed and the steps to be taken as a result. This is true whether the documentation consists of notes made contemporaneous to an informal discussion, or is a form utilized during a formal performance review or disciplinary action.

How can employee handbooks help employers protect themselves when disciplining or terminating an employee?
It is certainly easier to be fair with employees when an employer has a handbook to rely upon for guidance. Employers should know and understand what is contained in their handbook and work rules, and be prepared to consistently adhere to the letter and spirit of both.

How can employers defend themselves if a terminated employee files a lawsuit?
Employers can’t stop an angry former employee from suing, but they can prepare strategically to defend and win a lawsuit if they practice good employee relations. This includes, from time to time, auditing employment practices; reviewing policies, handbooks and work rules; and, always communicating with employees.

RICK GRIMALDI is counsel at the law firm of White and Williams LLP. Reach him at grimaldir@whiteandwilliams.com or (215) 864-6350.

Friday, 30 June 2006 11:07

The graying worker

The median age of the domestic work force is rising steadily while at the same time, the rate of new entrants to the work force continues to decline. As fewer and fewer new workers enter the labor pool, employers will become increasingly dependent on the mature work forceaged 50 or older. This has significant implications for employers and how they recruit, manage and optimize the graying work force, according to Steve Wajda, district director at Spherion Corp.

“As the Spherion Emerging Work Force Studies illustrate, employers who are not focusing on this issue will face serious challenges in attracting skilled workers in the future,” he says. “Savvy employers realize they need to reconsider their current recruiting, development and employee retention strategies in order to maximize the talents, loyalty and stability of mature workers.” (Spherion Emerging Work force Studies are conducted periodically by Harris Interactive, a world-renowned market research firm.)

Smart Business spoke with Wajda about how the maturing work force affects the workplace and how employers can best accommodate older employees.

How do companies benefit from a maturing work force?
Mature workers can invigorate and improve business through lower turnover as well as increased loyalty, stability, experience and leadership. Our research reveals that 55 percent of mature workers are likely to stay with an employer for at least the next five years, as compared to 43 percent of workers aged 49 or younger. Also, when it comes to loyalty to colleagues, managers and employers, mature workers are more likely to rate themselves as ‘very loyal’ than younger workers. Mature workers also offer stability in an era where younger employees have grown comfortable with job-hopping.

Mature workers bring decades of work experience and industry expertise to their jobs. Their skills can be called upon in teaching and mentoring younger workers, analyzing and improving processes, and building a strong foundation of company knowledge.

What are the implications for recruiting and hiring practices?
Employers must first cast a wider net to ensure they are reaching mature candidates. Job boards and classified ads may not be as effective as professional associations, professional recruiting firms and community organizations. There’s also a growing pipeline of experienced managers taking on project work and other flexible or temporary assignments as a bridge to their retirement. These workers can offer depth and breadth of experience and proven leadership skills — while also giving employers more flexibility in structuring their permanent work force and associated payroll.

How can companies best manage mature workers?
The key to success in managing mature workers is flexibility. While not all mature workers are planning immediate retirement, many have already achieved their core career goals and are starting to move into the final stages of their careers. They’re looking for new and different opportunities to contribute, or for ways to achieve better balance between their professional and personal lives. Trends we’re seeing are a desire for reduced job-related travel, less pressure and a better work/life balance.

How can employers effectively tap this resource?
First, employers can provide mature workers with the flexibility to cut back time in the office, or work from home or part-time. Working fewer hours and telecommuting are often viewed as well-deserved rewards for years of service.

Secondly, employers should recognize that mature workers often find it extremely rewarding to apply their knowledge and experience to completely new functions, and are often happy to move laterally within an organization. Upward advancement, typically, is not their driving force.

Remember that mature workers are just as interested in learning, gaining new skills and increasing their contribution as younger workers. If employers don’t see their mature workers as high-potential contributors, they will notice — and the results will be evident in their job satisfaction, productivity and loyalty.

How can a company devise a work force transition plan that recognizes this new reality?
Most companies link compensation to tenure or experience. They tend to fill lower-level positions with the youngest workers and pay less compared to more experienced levels. However, the reality is that there are plenty of senior, experienced people who are willing to take entry- or lower-level jobs that will enable them to ease into retirement or continue to work while collecting pensions, accruing retirement savings, etc. Forward-looking companies will sponsor initiatives in recognition of this trend — they’ll update their current thinking and adjust their HR hiring, compensation, and benefits models accordingly while removing the traditional ceilings tied to experience and compensation.

STEVE WAJDA Steve Wajda is a district director at Spherion Corp. Reach him at (813) 623-6399 or stevewajda@spherion.com.

Public companies have come under great scrutiny in recent years, thanks to well-publicized corporate scandals in 2001, including Enron and WorldCom. Of all of the new regulations created as a result, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOA) enacted in 2002, and in particular Section 404, has had the most significant impact on public companies. Section 404 became effective in December 2004 for accelerated filers, resulting in significant increases in SEC compliance costs over the last two years. While Section 404 hasn’t yet impacted non-accelerated filers, there are reasons to believe non-accelerated filers will also soon be faced with significant changes in SEC compliance, according to Michael R. Bodwell, partner in the Assurance & Advisory Services Practice of Whitley Penn LLP, CPAs and Professional Consultants.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in future SEC compliance for middle market public companies,” he says. “While a lot of non-accelerated filers are nervous about what the future will bring in terms of SEC regulation, there is reason to believe regulators will come out with more pragmatic, realistic approaches to compliance for those companies.”

Smart Business spoke with Bodwell about the impacts the SOA has had on middle market public companies and what regulation changes businesses can expect to see in the future.

How have you seen the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other reforms impact middle market public companies?
The non-accelerated filers have really struggled with how to implement Section 404 of the SOA from a time and cost standpoint. Non-accelerated filers, which still have yet to implement section 404 of SOA, are apprehensive about how they’ll be able to get it done, how much it will cost and when or if it will finally be effective for them.

Why has the SOA made middle market companies more apprehensive to become public?
Companies considering going public have to be concerned with the dramatic increase in the cost of being SEC compliant. Those costs are leading to more apprehension to enter the public markets and we’re seeing a much higher threshold in terms of the size companies feel they need to be before going public. We’re seeing a lot more companies who would rather be acquired or obtain money through some sort of private equity capital raise versus becoming a public company, because of the cost and the amount of time it takes to comply with SEC regulations.

What recommendations would you have for selecting a public accounting firm for middle market public companies?
Businesses are getting away from selecting a firm simply based on its name and size. They are wisely focusing on who will be the actual team performing the audit and who the partner and manager will be, because those are the individuals that are critical to a quality audit.

In particular, businesses should consider how much SEC audit experience the proposed audit team has and identify comparable clients of such firm in terms of size and industry. They should also consider the depth of the firm - if the lead partner or manager left the firm, is there enough depth in the firm to adequately provide audit services for the company’s needs? Companies should also focus on whom the concurring partner will be to ensure they fit properly into the equation. Companies should focus on the entire team, from partner through staff that will work on the engagement as they all have critical roles.

How have options changed in selecting public accounting firms for international companies?
Right now we’re seeing a significant number of second- or third-tier public accounting firms that have international alliances, as these alliances give them similar strength to the large international firms in performing an audit worldwide. For instance, Whitley Penn LLP is a member of Nexia International, which has representation in approximately 100 countries. We’re seeing a lot more firms doing the audit work of international companies by using those affiliations and alliances, which is providing choices companies’ desire.

What regulation changes are on the horizon for middle market public companies and how will businesses be affected?
Section 404 of the SOA is still in play for non-accelerated companies. Right now there’s a big push to not require those companies to be compliant with section 404; however, the other side of the table is arguing that if these companies are going to be public, they need to comply with all of the same rules and regulations as the big companies.

After the events in 2001, the pendulum swung far toward setting very strict regulations on public companies. We’re starting to see some backlash and pullback and the regulators will probably come out with more pragmatic, realistic approaches regarding regulations for those companies. Middle market companies are key to the future of the U.S. economy, and regulators have to afford them reasonable possibilities to access public markets.

MICHAEL R. BODWELL is a partner in the Assurance & Advisory Services Practice of Whitley Penn LLP, CPAs and Professional Consultants. Reach him at 972.392.6622 or michaelb@wpcpa.com.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006 05:45

Value-added education

Executive education takes many forms. There are all kinds of options to choose from to help employees further their knowledge, learn new skills, and generally do their jobs better. Whether it’s a day-long, week-long, month-long or 2-year degree program, chances are there’s an executive education program that can meet the needs of just about any corporate workplace.

The key to choosing the right program comes down to knowing what the employer and employee hope to accomplish and how the information learned can be applied back in the workplace, says David Springate, associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management.

“If you come at it the right way, executive education can be a tremendous investment that can really change or jumpstart an employee’s career and bring bottom-line results to the company,” he says. “Employees who embrace the opportunity will find better ways to perform and bring those skills and knowledge back to the office.”

Smart Business spoke with Dr. Springate about executive education and how to go about choosing an executive education.

How do employees benefit from executive education?
Executive education programs provide employees with skills and education. A short program can help employees pick up new skills that they can use in their jobs. This can range from learning a technical skill such as programming to more high-level skills like financial analysis.

There are also more extensive programs, such as 2-year education programs, where employees earn a new degree, rather than a specific skill. Either option can lead to career advancement. Ultimately, employers benefit by helping employees find better ways to perform.

How does executive education benefit employers?
One of the best benefits of executive education is the opportunity for employees to work in teams. Many companies send an entire team of individuals to work together in a classroom setting, in order to tackle issues they’re facing in their jobs, bringing direct results back to the workplace. The trend is toward customization, so employers can actively help shape the courses and customize the curriculum to meet their individual business needs.

Ultimately, companies are looking for a return on their investment. Improving profitability is a big focus in executive education, and programs help employees learn new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things at work. Employees are able to learn from other participants who may have experience dealing with similar issues or problems and can provide a different perspective or solution.

How can employers support their employees’ executive education efforts?
The easiest way for an employer to support employees is to encouragethem to enroll in executive education programs. Supporting their efforts financially is one way, but there are other things employers can do.

One easy thing is simply to provide information. Most companies can allow colleges to link to their programs or provide program details directly on the company’s Web site. It’s also helpful to allow the schools to have an audience with the human resources department to better understand the company’s needs and how the school might be able to help meet those needs through executive education programs.

How can employees make the most of their executive education experience?
The people who get the most out of their executive education experience — whether it’s a degree program or a shorter course — are the ones who can think more broadly about how they can apply the information and knowledge that they’ve learned. Employees should look internally at themselves and at their work situation and figure out how they can make the best use of this opportunity.

Being engaged and having the right attitude are probably the best things employees can do to maximize their executive education experience.

How does one go about choosing an executive education course or curriculum?
Employees and employers alike should know what they need and what they hope to get out of a program. It’s also important to research what’s available and understand how the different options will help them learn or accomplish what they need.

Program information is readily available on the Internet, and schools are more than happy to talk over the specifics of a program or to answer any questions employees or employers might have.

Employers looking for measures of validity should ask whether a school’s programs are accredited and how they rank by various ranking bodies.

DAVID SPRINGATE is associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management. Reach him at 972-883-2647 or spring8@utdallas.edu.

Monday, 24 April 2006 06:28

Changing careers

As baby boomers grow older and require greater health, it is estimated that more than 1 million new and replacement nurses will be needed by the year 2012. As a result, nursing schools are seeing a trend of people changing careers and going into the nursing profession. According to Susan Johnson, associate professor of nursing and director of the nursing program at the College of Mount St. Joseph, people of all different backgrounds are returning to school to pursue a nursing degree.

“People who are not satisfied with their current jobs are looking into nursing because of the number of jobs available and the salary levels offered,” she says. “Additionally, more and more people want to feel like they’re making a contribution through their work, and nursing is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

Smart Business spoke with Johnson about why adults are entering the field of nursing as a second career and how someone without a nursing degree can make such a career change.

How can someone without a nursing undergraduate degree make a career change into nursing?
There are a variety of degree options to enter the profession of nursing, including diplomas, associates degrees, baccalaureate degrees and — more recently — the master of nursing degree. All of these degrees prepare you for bedside nursing, but the accelerated programs really are the way to go for someone with a baccalaureate degree. They can finish the program in less than two years, once they have taken the required prerequisite courses.

How can professionals benefit by changing careers and going into nursing?
The wonderful thing about nursing is that anyone who graduates from an accredited program will find a job. Another great benefit of a nursing degree is the starting salary, which is generally around $42,000 per year and can be even higher for those working evening or night shifts.

There’s also a lot of job variety for nurses. While most new graduate nurses work in hospitals, positions are also available in doctor’s offices, clinics, home care, community agencies and insurance companies. More specialized positions are available to those who receive a master of science in nursing.

What job opportunities exist for someone who decides to go into nursing later in life?
While nurses are needed in all sectors, hospitals and long-term care facilities are really struggling to fill their nursing needs, so jobs are especially plentiful in these areas. Most students go to work in a hospital initially and then go on to find the area of nursing that they most enjoy, whether it be in the hospital, community or business arena.

Another wonderful opportunity is to consider a career in nursing education. One of the main reasons there is such a nursing shortage in the United States today is because we don’t have enough nurse educators, resulting in a very high demand. Nurse educators have the opportunity to mold new nurses and do research, and they have greater flexibility in their schedules, with most major holidays and even summers off. To teach in a school of nursing, a master’s degree is required, a doctoral degree preferred.

How can a non-nursing professional prepare for a new career in nursing?
Prospective students should explore several different programs to find one that matches their learning style. Determine what prerequisites are needed to enter the program, and explore different options to get these met (classes, tests, etc.) Additionally, it’s always a good idea to shadow a nurse to see first-hand what he or she does. Hospitals are a great place to do this — and it’s a good way to find out if this is something you really want to do.

If you are unhappy in your current job and are waiting to get into a nursing program, consider becoming certified as a patient care assistant (PCA). The training gives you a little more of an edge to do well in school and, by working as a PCA while going to school, you can really see what nurses do day in and day out.

How do health care providers benefit from this trend?
Typically, people who go back to school later in life are more serious and focused on their education than their younger counterparts. Health care providers who hire people who obtained a nursing degree later in life usually find these nurses can think critically and have a passion to be a nurse.

Older students have to make a lot more sacrifices to go back to school and are generally more motivated to perform well and to learn.

SUSAN JOHNSON, Ph.D., is an associate professor of nursing and director of the nursing program at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Reach her at (513) 244-4503 or susan_johnson@mail.msj.edu.

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