Academic awarded for the business of getting accounting graduates into jobs

Here’s an impressive number from the accountant; 95 per cent. That’s the quantity of Dr Kate Ashman’s regional Bachelor of Business/Accounting students who are employed after their work placement.

“It’s huge,” says the Bendigo academic. “It’s really successful and they achieve jobs out of it. The businesses see it as a good way to get staff. Local firms are really happy to have local students, because the training they put into them ultimately pays off. Locals are more likely to stay local. They have connections and that’s good to bring in clients down the track. It’s that whole circle of life.”

Kate is leader of the Accounting Experiential Learning Team, which this month received a Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award for their work facilitating student work placements.

“There’s so much work for accountants in the regions,” Kate says. “Now I’d love some more students!”

Kate is just the person to sell the profession. “Initially you learn the basics, then you can choose where you want to go. Some people love doing taxation or auditing. Some go into private industry as a management accountant and actually grow a business.

“Accounting is the language of business. You can take it and evolve. Look at me. I’ve been an accountant, a teacher and now I’m here.”

Kate’s career journey inspires

Kate graduated from the Bendigo Campus herself in 1994, with a degree in accounting and a graduate diploma in teaching. “I was a typical 22-year-old and I didn’t know what I wanted any more than they do now,” she laughs. She took the first role offered, which was a six-month accounting contract in Bendigo.

Kate then moved to Melbourne, where her early experiences make for good stories in the classroom.

“Your first year out, you do a lot of the counting,” she says of her auditing role at Moore Stephens Hughes Fincher. “I counted everything from lace curtains, to golf clubs, to nails, to one of my very early jobs, bricks. I was sent to Selkirk in Junortoun to count the bricks, as all the juniors do. There was no occupational health and safety in the mid-90s, so we climbed up and counted them. I was probably in heels. You still have to be professional!”

An equally memorable moment was spent in the safe at Tattersalls, checking the big winners of that year. “It was really surreal,” Kate says of holding a division one winning ticket in her hand.

After a couple of years as a senior auditor at one of the “big six”, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Kate moved back to Bendigo with her husband to make good use of both her qualifications.

As a young mum she juggled two children, casual accounting roles and relief secondary school teaching. She soon found a passion for the classroom, which still drives her.

“It’s the ability to make a difference in someone’s life,” she says. “You see them grow. You see their confidence grow. You go from seeing that ‘I’m not sure I should be here’ school kid to suddenly they’re in their first professional placement, then they’re working, then – and this makes me feel really old – they’re coming back to me as the supervisor!

“That cycle, that’s what I like. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed working in business and you can make a difference there too. But perhaps I always wanted to teach because I like being able to interact with students. If you can just get one person to do a little bit better than they have been, that can make a huge impact on their lives. I don’t know how much impact I’ve had, but I like to think I’ve given it my best shot.”

It’s that personal care and the local connections Kate has fostered that makes her work placement program so successful. That, and knowing her students well enough to know where they’ll thrive.

Unique opportunities open doors

“I had a Mildura student do a placement with Victoria Police in forensics last summer and that was awesome,” she says. “It was never going to lead to a job, but it was so successful the police come back and asked if we have another student for them because they’d like to do this again.

“So, while you don’t get an employability stat, you look at the bigger picture of what that’s given the student. It would have to be fabulous on a resume. What price can you put on that?” The student had spent his summer chasing money trails in the name of justice.

Kate has been connecting students with future employers since she first started at La Trobe in 2009, took a look around the city, and decided the local firms needed to be involved with the program. And now, her efforts are coming full circle.

“One of the students who went through in the first year of the placements has just employed one of our students. Our students are our future employers. They go into various businesses and they can spread the word as to what we do.”

What does Kate do? Educate, inspire, mentor, break down barriers for first-in-family students, and foster the careers of regional professionals.

The VC’s award also recognised her past team member, Carolyn Scott.

“It’s not just the academic, you need the team approach,” she says, “and I can’t thank the experiential learning team enough, especially this year during Covid. They’ve managed to facilitate placements off site, on site, with Covid plans, and it’s still changing.

“Most students have worked in their placements from home, which means they’ve learnt different skills. We tend to focus on what students have lost this year, but I think we can look at what they’ve gained as well, in terms of communication and technology and independent learning, for better or for worse. They’ve all learnt something about themselves.”

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