What the Accounting Profession Says About Its Talent Shortage

“R u hiring? If so, give me a call.” Okay, that was a text message received by an HR manager in retail, not accounting, but it made us think about the well-documented shortage of accountants seeking a career in public accounting. Is there really a talent shortage, or is there just a disconnect between what firms are looking for and what job seekers want?

To try and find the answer, we interviewed a cross-section of professionals—and we found a few common threads:

Public Accounting Has a Perception Problem

True enough. It’s kind of ironic, but accounting students are taught to look at the Big 4 as the Holy Grail even though they’ll probably be working longer hours than at other firms. Firms struggling to land talent need to find a way to portray themselves as a positive choice, not a consolation prize.

“We realize that, as a small firm, we aren’t going to attract the same people as a Big 4. But that doesn’t mean we’re not getting good people,” says Pat Laubacher, shareholder at Judd, Thomas, Smith & Co., PC, Dallas. “We try to showcase our family-friendly culture and flexibility. It works. ”

Stephen Mayer, Managing Partner at SD Mayer & Associates, San Francisco, noted that potential hires think private industry is “better” because there isn’t the same deadline pressure and people are treated well. “But that’s not necessarily so. Think about your favorite teachers: they motivated you, gave you real life examples and got you involved,” he said. “That’s what we try to do. Our people feel rewarded because our partners are in the trenches with them, teaching them new things and letting them have direct access to clients.”

Annabella Green, Director, Human Capital & Firm Administration at PKF Texas, Houston, said “We’ve perfected our pipeline of entry level people, but we’re finding they leave to go to private industry earlier than ever before. Higher salary is one reason, but there is also the work/life balance issue. Still, we’ve had people come back because they are bored in private. We always leave the door open with the caveat that if they stay out too long some of their skills may get rusty and we’ll have to hire them back at a lower level.”

What Staff Wants Versus What Management Can Offer

This can be an issue, particularly in the many firms with a traditional, hands-on management style. Although the number of virtual firms is growing, many firm leaders find it hard to embrace the concept. (Never mind that many millennials wear earbuds and listen to music while they’re working—they’re at their desks, aren’t they?)

Sally Glick, Principal at Sobel & Co., LLC, Livingston, NJ, noted that “Middle-market firms are struggling to hire accountants who want to be impressed with what you can offer. Often, they just don’t get that you want to be impressed by them, too.”

Laubacher commented that “Once we’re on the verge of making an offer, we send the potential hire to lunch with a group of peers. No shareholders allowed, so the conversation can flow freely. We showcase who we really are, not just who we say we are. And in the process we get a picture of who they are. When they commit to us, we both have a pretty clear picture of what we are buying into. Managing expectations this way is working well for us.”

And think about Grant Thornton’s latest enticement: unlimited vacation time for its 6,700 U.S. employees. It doesn’t matter whether these employees will actually take time off, most mid-market firms cannot even support such an offer.

Finding and Retaining Good Talent Through Nontraditional Methods

Traditionally, accounting firms either advertised or used headhunters to recruit talent. But the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways, including recruiting. Firms that don’t have a careers page on their websites, don’t show that they offer the work/life balance Gen Y and Millennials are looking or continue to look only at direct experience are missing out on great job candidates.

As Mayer says “There is a shortage—unless you look at the talent you are hiring rather than the specific skills they have. We’ve had great success and hired about 12 people using this philosophy. Some of the people we’ve hired wouldn’t have made it to the first round of interviews at other firms.”

Laubacher noted that his firm was successful recruiting accountants with H1B visas. “Firms are afraid of the visa process,” he noted, “but it really isn’t that difficult.”

Green’s firm has been able to retain experienced employees who relocated by allowing them to work remotely and bringing them in for training and important firm events. “We have to be creative,” she said, “especially because Houston is growing so fast.”

Glick wondered how firms can find accountants who leave the Big 4. “We know many CPAs leave the Big 4 at the 2-year mark, but we haven’t found an effective way to reach these people so we can tell them how rewarding it can be to work at a mid-market CPA firm. Where do they all go?”

So is there really a talent shortage? Yes, there is. The firms we spoke to range in size and come from different geographic areas, but each is distinguishing itself by showcasing why it is a great place to work. Firms who can create a standout culture, offer unique benefits and harvest talent in new ways always will have an advantage over their peers.

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    November 10, 2015
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