My Vision of the Educational Opportunities Available to COPAS in the Next Few Years

Thomas O’Byrne March 15, 2014

It’s my belief that a revolution has just begun. Within the next decade the face of education will be very different from what it is today.  These changes coming are the result of two diverse forces operating from two different directions.

The Decline of the Educational Cartel

From one direction, we find the beginning of diminished emphasis of college degrees and certification from accredited institutions such as colleges and universities which has existed for the last 100 years.  Even certification such as Certified Public Accountant (CPA) has required college accreditation. These institutions have had a virtual monopoly on accreditation enabled by state and federal licensing and regulation.

Sadly, institutions of higher learning, what I call “brick and mortar schools”,  have slowly over the years, changed focus from quality student education to focusing on research, preservation of bureaucracies, and expansion of facilities. Like all public institutions, it’s a slow, creeping process. It’s neither sinister nor evil; and the process is carried out by well-meaning people acting in what they see is the best interest of themselves and others. Educational institutions have increasingly become more dependent on government funding; via direct taxation, grants, or exorbitant student tuition (funded by government student loans). Tuition increases have far outpaced inflation and the value of degrees from educational cartels has begun to diminish. While I’m sure the process can go on much longer, students (and their parents) are wisely starting to question the cost/benefit relationship of a college degree.

The Explosion of Cost-effective Internet Software

Simultaneously, from another direction, the internet information age has blossomed in the past decade. Today, information is instantaneous from any web enabled smart phone. Production of instructional videos, webinars, podcasts and even complete educational systems has become much easier from a technical standpoint, and available at a very low cost.  These lack only professional content to be available TODAY! The cost of hardware/software production of any of these educational methods is a mere fraction of what is was even a decade ago. In just in the last few years, inexpensive or even free internet software has become available which allows dynamic informational websites to be created without programming. Even more recent is the appearance of a handful of on-line Learning Management Systems (LMS). What once was possible only after hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of development can now be obtained for a few hundred dollars and available as fast as content can be created. LMS software offers an inexpensive and very effective method of learning by combining several types of video, screen casting, and voice-over communication systems inside a seamless program that manages the learning process. Immediate learning aides coupled with sophisticated testing, student performance tracking and even certification can, when well implemented, allow motived students to achieve a level of expertise in a time span that previously took years to attain.

Where COPAS Needs to Focus Resources

COPAS is in a unique position to take advantage of this revolution and position itself as the de-facto standard for the education of petroleum accountants and guidance on energy related accounting issues. The window of opportunity will not last forever as others will see the opportunity and try and take advantage of it.  I suggest a good model for direction is the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Granted there are many differences, but there are also many parallels between COPAS and the AICPA.   It’s my vision that what the AICPA is to accountants in general, COPAS should be to accountants within the energy industry.

The AICPA likely enjoys at least has ten times the membership and revenues to match.  A visit to the AICPA website http://www.aicpa.org gives you a flavor of what is possible. The site has the appearance of professional design and offers a dynamic and changing format. It includes a combination of ever-changing format (news, trending, and events boxes in the footer; and sliding banner in the middle), and static information options (menu selections across the top – membership, become a CPA, etc…). The dynamic ever changing information is designed to invite browsers to continually return to the site. I would bet that most contact with the AICPA now begins with a visit to this website and marketing efforts must take this into consideration. The internet is leveling the playing field between big and small and COPAS can, and must, develop an interactive website, rich with content, similar to this one. It appears that the COPAS website is now WordPress driven, an excellent choice for dynamic design capabilities. I’d guess efforts are already underway to enhance the design.

The AICPA and COPAS have in common three major functions.

  1. Research and Publication of accounting issues and guidelines
  2. A clearing house of information through education and conferences
  3. Certification via testing e.g., the uniform Certified Public Accountant exam (CPA)  and the Accredited Petroleum Accountant exam (APA®)

All three functions are critical to claim legitimacy for these organizations.  Let’s look at each of these:

1.  Research and publication of accounting issues and guidelines

COPAS does a really decent job in this area. The structure of the organization, history of success in keeping up on emerging issues, and resulting guidelines in a (usually) timely manner is commendable. There is a lot of effort and participation going on for an organization of COPAS’s size. The only constructive suggestion I could make in this area is to take advantage of a dynamic website’s ability to provide a talking head video (similar to what the AICPA does) to keep members apprised on emerging issues and upcoming events. Online surveys covering all types of issues can be immediately completed inviting participation from every member and immediate feedback.

2.  A clearing house of information through education and conferences

One of the great strengths of COPAS is the local chapters that take responsibility for education and conferences. I’ve been on the COPAS Colorado Education Committee for the last three years. I can attest to the effort many people make to put on one of these events.

The Spring and Fall Conferences volunteered by various chapters take money and enormous time. The events I have attended are as professional as they get and are beneficial to the attendee’s.  I don’t think you can improve on this at all.

Efforts to bring educational opportunities to the membership via the national office have been spearheaded by the JV Mpact agreement with Martindale consulting. There are at present nine courses that are presented as one day events around the country. I’ve attended one of these classes (Revenue Accounting – The Basics) and found both the materials and presentation to be top-notch.

The drawback to one day events however is the additional cost of travel and lodging for many of attendees who are not located in major cities where these events are scheduled.  In addition, the many scheduling conflicts that so many busy energy accountants endure also act to prevent attendance.

A possible solution and number one priority of COPAS should be to take the each of these Mpact courses and make them available as on-line, on-demand video courses through the national website. The time consuming part of creating excellent content has been accomplished. The LMS software is available now. Conversion could be started literally tomorrow!  The starting point of on-line conversion is utilizing the print materials from each of the classes into a power point presentation followed by a voice-over speaker walking the students through each lesson. Quizzes testing knowledge throughout the course will help student’s measure retention; successful completion can be configured to allow certified CPE certificates to be issued on-line.  If one is familiar with the on-line Learning Management System (LMS) being used, the design of the online courses can be quickly established.

The intricacies of converting written content to an instructional video, and marrying that with the LMS can be done by a single person. However it is important and unavoidable that each instructor, whose voice will drive the video and its timing, must still have the skill to create and edit the voice-over for the course. I suggest (and use) a program named Camtasia, from software publisher TechSmith, for recording video which can be used with any LMS system. This program is easily the industry standard. It’s the most expensive software I have purchased at about $300. While Camtasia is somewhat complex, with more options than one would ever use, once the basic features are mastered, and with some experience in the “art” of editing, a completed lessons can be recorded. There is a learning curve to this, but I believe I could teach it to others in a reasonable time, sitting side by side until the basics are mastered.

Because of the size of videos and the need for quick access by on-line users, each video is usually saved in repositories “in the cloud”. The most common repositories are Amazon’s Amazon S3, or TechSmith’s Screencast.com. Both charge for storing content, but total cost of storage for one class is only few dollars per month.

So, in summary, to create on-line, on-demand instructional videos require two distinct steps which need to be married together.

  1. The creation of an instructional video, which demand skill and some “artistic” ability.
  2. The LMS system that will use the video and seamlessly provide other features such as testing, student tracking, certification and billing.

The AICPA bills its online video courses in a range of $25-$65 per CPE hour. If we assume a minimum charge of $25, each video course offering eight hours of CPE per course yields COPAS a gross of $200 per course. Projecting a sales level of 50 courses per month equates to revenue of $10,000 per month or $120,000 per year with almost no associated costs after original creation. I believe the revenue potential is much greater than that.  The best part is that once a course is created, the revenue stream continues month after month will little additional effort.

 3. Certification via testing e.g., the uniform Certified Public Accountant exam (CPA),  and the Accredited Petroleum Accountant (APA®) designation

The third common function the AICPA has with COPAS is certification of an individual’s expertise.

It’s my opinion that the AICPA would not enjoy its “lock” as the de-facto organization for professional accountants without the acceptance of the uniform CPA exam by each of the State Boards of Accountancy. Their website mentions the efforts of “…hundreds of volunteers contributing thousands of hours…” toward maintenance of the exam and creation of questions. If only COPAS had that level of contribution!

The COPAS Board of Examiners (BOE) and the associated task force members have done a heroic job keeping the APA® exam updated and pertinent to the needs of the energy industry and accountants. Having completed and passed each of these exams I can attest that, while not perfect, the exams certainly meets professional certification standards.

Having passed both the uniform CPA Exam and the APA® exam, my best guess is that the task one must undertake, and the effort expended to attain either certification is comparable. The amount of preparation and study for either exam I estimate on average is about 550 hours.  Many would say even less.

COPAS has most recently demonstrated their serious intent to take the next step in improving the testing standard necessary to attain the APA® certification. The “Seacrest” report, commissioned by the Board of Directors, resulted from an examination of the APA® program by persons familiar with professional certification programs and I understand it had many helpful recommendations to consider for improvement.  In addition, the BOE has begun, in the recent past, and effort at improvement in question writing through workshops and discussion of hiring a Psychometrics expert. It is my hope that a psychometric analysis of the APA® exam would be extremely useful in assessing how the exams measure the actual knowledge of the test-taker and suggest ways to improve testing. In my opinion, these are giant steps in the right direction.

Even with all the positive steps above, the APA® certification program is suffering from an ever decreasing level of interest from prospective candidates. If not reversed, the relevance of the exam is in danger of falling into obscurity. In my opinion, there are two basic problems to solve in order to revive interest in the exams. Solving both problems are critical to success:

  1. The APA® designation and the technical knowledge it infers is unknown employers, recruiters, and job seekers alike.
  2. There is no support for candidates attempting the exams.

Let’s examine both of these issues:

a. The APA® designation and the technical knowledge it infers is unknown employers, recruiters, and job seekers alike.

I find it both interesting and frustrating that energy employment ads often mention preference to CPA’s or MBA’s when neither designation adds any value to the candidate’s ability to perform at a specific energy related job. A job candidate who has passed Financial Reporting or the Joint Venture section of the APA® exam, or even a certificate from attending one of the Mpact one day classes is much better suited to be productive. An unscientific survey I made ranging from the VP of Human Resources of a public exploration company (He had no clue what the APA® designation was, and asked “should I?”), a few top of the line employment recruiters (again, no idea what “APA” stood for), and even non-members of COPAS employed in the accounting side of the energy industry (“never heard of it”). In every case excepting COPAS members, no one in the petroleum industry knew what the APA® designation was or anything about it! It is my opinion that COPAS will never be considered the de-facto source of information and guidelines in the energy industry unless this perception is changed.

To become relevant, COPAS must endeavor to reach out to every human resource department and energy industry recruiting firm and make them aware of the APA® designation and its specific contribution to the competence of an energy accountant. Further, it’s my belief that too little emphasis is given to the benefits of passing just one exam which is pertinent to the skills needed to perform specific functions (such as joint venture or revenue accountant). While passing any one of the exams will not make you an expert in that particular area, it certainly equips the job applicant with a manifold increase in required knowledge over a typical inexperienced CPA or MBA.

There is a lot that can be done from such a miserable starting point:

  • A video and related text pitch on the APA® exam should be on the COPAS website, front and center. The power point buried in the website is a great starting point and actually very well done!
  • A personal visit to give half hour pitches to the human resource departments of every major oil company and energy recruiting firm we can get in front of. The objective is to educate them on the value of an APA® designation and even more important, suggest that they add “APA” to the list of preferred designations on job offerings. This one little thing could have a tremendous impact! Note that with less than 200 APA’s, it’s doubtful that an APA would actually apply, but the preferred designation both legitimizes the certification, and has a multiplier effect as job seekers read the ad and become curious about the designation.
  • Phone calls pitching the APA® to anyone we can’t personally get in front of, followed by mailing a brochure and a follow up call.
  • A presentation to local chapters. I just provided a one hour presentation to the Colorado society that earned one hour of CPE. Judging from the questions garnered at the end of class, it was great success.
  • A presentation to other organizations such as the Independent Energy Human Resources Association (IEHRA) www.iehra.com

 

b. There is no support for candidates attempting the exams.

The second factor critical to success of the APA® program is that, at present the only information on the APA® exam is TR-46 – APA® Accredited Information guidebook. Included in this document are the reference outlines for each exam. Basically, the reference outlines are the reading/study assignments for material that is covered on the exams. When added up, my particular assignments totaled 2,650 pages of assigned reading. TR-46 should be considered the “bible” of what a candidate could be tested on.

Sadly, many potential candidates are discouraged as they seem to lack the skills to interpret the reading assigned, organize a plan of study, discipline to follow the plan, and determine when they have succeeded in mastering the subject matter sufficient to pass an exam. The most often reason for failure of an exam I hear is: “I had no idea the test would cover the material in such detail!” There is something to be said about giving points for signing your name at the top of the page! Much more information must be available to assist candidates in preparation for the exam.  It should be on the COPAS website, not be dependent on my website PetroleumAccountingGuide.com.

Compared to the uniform CPA exam, there are no other study materials available from COPAS to assist the candidate in preparation of the exam. Visiting the AICPA website reveals tons of information concerning the CPA exam: Outlines of subject matter, rules for testing on the latest pronouncements, a FAQ section, exam announcements, a tutorial of the testing software (analogous to Examsoft’s mock test), and even sample tests are available.  Further, and more important, the aftermarket is flooded with third party exam review guides and classes: the Becker CPA review, Rogers review, and Yaeger CPA review  being among the most widely used and costing up to $3,600 for access.

I have personally endeavored to help the relevance of the APA® designation by helping students to pass the exam. My website www.PetroleumAccountingGuide.com is dedicated to assisting candidates by providing free study guides I wrote while I studied for the exam, as well as tips and information about the exam that is available nowhere else. Recently, I installed a forum for students to share information and it’s actually being used. With almost two years of under my belt, feedback is starting to roll in that I’m making a difference. The problem I find is that my time taken answering questions, updating for changes made by the BOE, corrections to the study guides and finally, debugging and testing the ever more complex website is slowing up my development time.

My next task, independent of COPAS, is to develop an on-line study review course using the LMS software mentioned above. A sample actual one-hour class is already available on my website at www.PetroleumAccountingGuide.com , as well as a video overview of how the software works. Although free to all, in the end this website must become a pay site as the volume of material and hundreds of hours of content are a major undertaking. Think of my site as potentially analogous to the Becker CPA review course and its separate relationship to the AICPA.

Conclusion

The revolution has started.  It is no longer enough for persons in the work force to have a “degree”; employers are once again emphasizing the need for specialized skills that can be put to immediate use and benefit of the company.  In other words, they want employees that are effective the minute they start working.

COPAS is in a unique position to fill this gap for the energy industry. Generally, much of what we do we just need to keep doing.  Education days, conferences, Mpact, identifying emerging issues and publication of guidance for the industry are things we do very well.

To keep up with the explosion of internet usage, COPAS must update its website with a more professional, marketing oriented design. It should offer ever-changing content as well as a plethora of static information that continually draws the browser back to the site. It has a good start by converting to WordPress.

It is vitally important to provide on-line educational opportunities to members and others. The conversion of existing Mpact course to on-line, on-demand courses is the best starting place and offers revenue opportunities to support the conversion effort.  This is something that only requires effort and focus, all the pieces are in place.

Marketing the APA® exam is critical to maintain COPA’s position as the de-facto organization governing energy industry accounting. Without marketing, the program may fall into obscurity.

COPAS currently depends on my third party, volunteer website to support APA® Exam candidates.  It should consider adding much more information to the site instead of depending me or other third parties.

The creation of an APA® review course involves hundreds of hours of video lessons and is a huge and costly undertaking. COPAS needs to make a decision if it wants to try and do this in-house or, like the AICPA, depend on third parties to develop and promote review courses.

Failure to act leaves a gap for some other organization to fill if we don’t proceed in a timely manner.  I believe we are going in the right direction. I’m hopeful that we can take advantage of this revolution and leap-frog into the technological future!

Comments

  1. majorliability says:

    This was such a fantastic read. I think it’s the entrepreneur in me who read this and really got worked up and excited about what the state of the APA looks like today and what great potential they really have if they simply start viewing the AICPA as a benchmark and begin making changes that will push them to that level.

    I first learned about COPAS and the APA about 2 months ago. Just by looking at their website and finding almost no reviews about them online I almost passed it up. It was only after scanning LinkedIn pages on people who have taken the exam and asking them about the experience did I think that it may be something that is worthwhile.

    From info. I’ve seen, COPAS has been around since the early 60’s. In my own opinion on what I’ve seen from them, they appear to be just drifting along, doing the same thing they’ve done for years, making minor adjustments that are years to late. I think if at anytime during their existence there was a time to shake things up it would be right now. The energy landscape in the U.S. is booming right now, where a significant amount of jobs in the field are being created and people like myself are fascinated and excited about the industry’s development. They really need to take advantage of this potential for more APA candidates. I won’t even go into mentioning how it should be done, because you’ve clearly pointed out many of the excellent ways in your article already.
    Great read!

  2. duchessanne says:

    TEO, great essay!
    My two cents on the APA exam. I can’t offer a solution but it seems to me it is “stuck in the middle”. My impression is that the content and material is far too advanced for people new to the industry (e.g. college grads, young professionals), I think the exam is intended for people who are already working in energy related fields. For people who are already in the industry for a long time, they are already specialized in a particular field (i.e. revenue, joint interest, but not both), that they might not consider APA as worthwhile because a person working in JIB probably has no interest in Revenue, and vice versa. And will getting accredited bring financial rewards and career advancements? With some companies, esp large ones, who are outsourcing and offshoring revenue and other accounting functions, it is a depressing state. So I can see why there are not more people wanting to complete the program because it is hard to quantify exactly “what is in it for me?”

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