Firms step up recruiting amid talent shortage

Accounting firms are trying to entice more young people to join the accounting profession as the number of open positions grows during the Great Resignation and a wave of retirements.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many accounting students delayed scheduling and sitting for the CPA exam because of testing limitations and challenges, according to a report from the staffing agency Vaco. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy saw an 18% decrease in the number of exam sections processed in fiscal year 2020, and according to the American Institute of CPAs’ Trends report, 2018 saw the lowest number of CPA candidates in 10 years. Meanwhile, the AICPA estimates that 75% of its members became eligible to retire in 2020.

Despite the challenges, some accounting firms are managing to meet their hiring goals by finding ways to attract talent and keep their existing staff members happy and productive.

“First take care of your current staff,” said Mark Goodman, managing partner of Janover LLC in New York. “Make sure you keep them happy. Make sure you pay them right. Do the things you need to do. Of course, you’re always going to lose people, but keep your recruitment to a minimum. The less you lose, the less you recruit.”

Janover gave out interim raises last November, in addition to the annual raises it handed out on July 1. “At the end of November, we gave out another series of raises to people because we saw what’s happening with the market.,” said Goodman . “We didn’t wait for people to come back to us and say I have another job and are you willing to give me a raise? We see what’s happening in the market and we gave everyone an increase.”

Matthew Wright, a shareholder at Geffen Mesher in Portland, Oregon, is also seeing salaries rising at his firm. “The current trend right now is the compensation levels that are being requested by candidates are moving very rapidly,” he said. “One of the challenges is just keeping up with what the requests are going to be. But we’ve actually done a really good job of recruiting and responding to a lot of these challenges.”

One way to stay competitive is to continue to offer remote work options. “We are committed to being flexible with our people in terms of their desire to work either remotely or on a hybrid basis,” said Wright. “When we see resumes coming in in response to our recruiting efforts, I’m going to guess 90% or more are candidates looking for fully remote work. I think a lot of midsized CPA firms have put their foot down and have been less flexible than us. That’s been one of the competitive advantages that we’ve been able to utilize recently.”

Janover is relying on good word of mouth from his current employees to new staffers. “We’re trying to use our employees a lot to recruit,” said Goodman. “If you have good employees and they’re happy, we have them reach out to form co-workers, and that’s been helpful.”

Janover also has an intern program in place, with six to eight interns starting this summer, but attracting young people to the profession can be difficult without high salaries to offer. Starting salaries are growing quickly for young accountants, but it’s still a tough sell for many students.

“What I’ve seen over the last few years is I’ll talk to a student who is in college and they’ll say to me, ‘Well, my professor says to me that robots are going to take over accounting soon. Why would I want to become an accountant?’ That’s one of the major hurdles our industry has,” said Wright. “College professors are certainly not helping us out.”

Recruiting becomes more important in such a competitive environment. “We have a full-time recruiter and she’s very good at what she does,” said Wright. “She’s the type of person that just picks up the phone and calls people. So many people in those roles these days just want to send an email or send a message on LinkedIn or something like that, but she’s adamant about calling and following up with text messages.”

Firms need to be competitive with their benefits packages as well. “Like all other firms, we’re constantly looking at our benefits packages and trying to be competitive,” said Wright. “Our PTO policy is pretty competitive compared to the rest of the market.”

He is also concerned about students who may accept job offers and then decide to go elsewhere when they graduate. “My focus is making sure that one-year period of time between when they accept the offer and the day they start, that we maintain connectivity,” said Wright. “Whether that’s inviting them to firm functions or just reaching out to them, letting them know that we’re thinking about them, sending them firm swag, stuff like that. I think that’s super important.”

“What accounting firms need to do is continue their internship programs,” said Jodi Schulman, vice president at LHH Recruitment Solutions. “A lot of them have them in the summer, especially going into the prospective graduate senior year. It really gets these students involved. It establishes a rapport with that specific public accounting firm and it also provides a clear and straight path for them to go on and get their CPA certification. They get training, they get test prep, they get audit hours. Most first-year CPA firm employees leave in the first year because they don’t get enough audit hours that are needed to become a CPA, so the firms need to find a balance of providing an environment where they’re setting up their associates and their new hires to be able to then continue on and obtain their CPA license. In order to do that, they have to provide opportunities to earn those hours. They also need to make sure they are engaging these recent grads, and having social and team building hours.”

Firms need to provide a welcoming environment. “Most of the Gen Z people who are graduating now want to love who they work with,” said Shulman. “They want to enjoy it because they’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. If they don’t feel a certain level of engagement and connection to their colleagues, they’re going to leave and look for another opportunity. The incoming grads want a continued seam of flexibility in location and flexibility, and in their dress code. Being remote and working remote means a lot to the current candidate pool. They want to be able to work when they want to work when that’s conducive to what their lifestyle is.”

Recruiting a diverse set of talent is also key. “We’re not trying to set up programs that incentivize for diversity, but we’re trying to increase our outreach to find better candidates for diversity,” said Goodman. “Part of that is we’re hiring more and more outside of our region, from different locations. We just made a diversity hire, for example, outside of Atlanta, and some others in some other locales.”

“It’s a challenge in our field because the pool of qualified candidates isn’t necessarily that diverse to begin with, so one of the things we’re trying to do is add more diversity to our recruiting team which will help with that as well, said Wright. “One other thing that we’re doing is we do have a DEI Committee. They’ve been reaching out to some of the community colleges in Oregon and trying to reach some similar diverse populations in those areas. We haven’t necessarily seen the results of that yet, but we’re hopeful that will happen.”

To improve recruitment and support for women accountants, particularly during the pandemic, Twyla Verhelst, a CPA and head of the Accountant Channel at FreshBooks, created the Women in Accounting Mentorship Program, an online community for women to collaborate with each other, provide mentorship, and a safe space to talk about the challenges of being a woman in accounting.

“It’s to support not only women who are already in the profession, but to inspire others to join the profession,” she said. “There’s data to support the fact that most new people who join the profession do so with some sort of influence from those who are already in the profession, whether that’s a close family member, a friend of the family. They tend to still be seeking out some sort of inspiration and some sort of influence from others as to why they would even get into the profession. I believe as a profession at large, it’s important to support one another so that we have good experiences so that we can thrive in this profession and continue to nurture those whom we consciously or unconsciously are inspiring to join the profession.

The Women in Accounting Mentorship Platform was developed in response to the isolation of COVID-19. “It was the most challenging time I’ve been in this profession, which is over 20 years now,” said Verhelst. “It’s something that was really calling to me to bring women together to have this safe space to enable mentorship relationships and also a sense of community when we weren’t getting together in person and able to network and support one another.”

It’s important to keep the staff happy in the meantime, especially during busy times like tax season. “This year we set up a DoorDash account for everyone and put $100 at a time here and there throughout busy season to help them out,” said Wright. “The bottom line for us is we’re a very flexible firm in terms of remote and hybrid. That’s very attractive to people.”

The labor market in general is experiencing shortages, not just in the accounting profession. Small businesses, as well as midsized and larger companies across various industries, are experiencing trouble, according to a recent survey from ADP.

“We are seeing a strong pickup in the desire to find qualified workers,” said Nela Richardson, economist chief at ADP. “Small firms’ intent to hire has only grown since we last asked them. We’ve seen the smallest firms with headcounts under 50, those who said finding qualified employees was their top challenge. It went to 55%, and that compared to 39% in our first-quarter survey. That’s a big jump, and then for firms with employees over 50 and under t00, that jump goes from 62% when we asked in our first-quarter survey to 79%. Again it’s a big jump in those who said there it’s hard to find talent out there. For these larger firms, it’s not just finding qualified workers but keeping and retaining their employees. The number of the largest firms, the 50 to 500 firm size, who said they have trouble retaining employees went from 34% to 40%, again a big jump in just retaining current headcount.”

Accounting firms are not alone in these recruiting challenges.

“To me, the challenge is not unique to our firm or to public accounting, or to business even in the United States,” said Goodman. “We have an environment right now where labor is tight, particularly for white collar jobs. The key to making yourself as attractive as possible as a candidate. While that includes compensation, it’s also branding yourself as a great place to work where people want to put their lives there so to speak.”

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