Winning the war for talent

The No. 1 problem in CPA firms today is probably people. Everybody knows there’s a talent shortage and everyone is feeling it. So how do we recruit talent? It’s different today than it was pre-pandemic and firm leaders need to approach staffing from a new perspective. 

“When you work in professional services, your people are everything,” said Rachel Anevski, CEO and president of Matters of Management. “The top line is growing thin because firms are unable to develop their own talent, their own people.” 

Without that internal succession planning, the only other alternative is to buy talent from the outside. Unless there is another way. 

A new way forward

In terms of where to start today to find talent, Anevski commented that it’s a buyer’s market. 

“We’ve come out of COVID-19 and learned what it felt like to change,” she said. 

That means there are fewer people coming into the profession making it a great opportunity for change, despite the challenges. It’s not just the people who are changing, either. It’s also the firms. They are evolving and getting away from compliance and commodities. That will naturally change who they are looking for, too. So it’s not just that the people aren’t there, it’s also that we need a different kind of talent than three years ago. 

Anevski recommends taking a few steps back to look at job descriptions and sort of go back to the drawing board. Not everyone needs to be a CPA. They might not even have to be accountants. Look at the actual activity and what they do. 

“There are alternatives to hiring an entry-level accountant, who’s probably looking at job offers from competing firms with crazy high salaries,” Anevski said.

AT-062822-War for Talent - Challenges

Rather, consider jobs like a data entry clerk or automation analyst. Those jobs weren’t around a few years ago, but the job market of tomorrow means firms have to start filling them today. Start over and find a new way forward. 

This is doable. After all, there has never really been a way for the client to identify if the person who was touching that tax work had any bit of education in accounting. The CPAs can do the work that only a CPA can do, including signing off on the work. 

This is something very small firms figured out years ago when they couldn’t compete with midsized or large firms for talent and had to look elsewhere. In my prior firm, I can’t tell you how many music majors I hired, or how often I went to the community college to find paraprofessionals, for example. We trained them, as opposed to expecting that they would come in with all the right experience. 

And that’s exactly what firms of all sizes need to start doing now. There’s a learning curve when someone joins a new firm anyway, regardless of years of experience. It’s not that big of a stretch to focus on job development and training, rather than education and specific experience.

Tech’s role in staffing 

Technology helps here, too. This goes back to pricing. Get rid of the work that can be done by automation and then have your people do the work that only people can do. It’s another solution that requires you to look at this problem from a different perspective, especially when overseas talent is beginning to dry up, too.

The tech conversation needs to extend to your internal people, too. Automation is changing accounting already. Upskill your current employees! 

The choice is yours

Accounting leaders have a choice: Either let your current employees continue to leave or figure out what’s the thing they want that would keep them around. For some, it’ll be remote work. Others, more training. Some will want to be cross-trained to tax or audit or vice versa. A lot of people may want to experiment and augment technology in their roles.

And yet, a lot of firms still haven’t found ways to work smarter. There are so many potential great leaders who will leave the profession if their experience is that the industry just cannot change, to say nothing of their own firms!

“I see some wonderful things about being a public accountant,” said Anevski, “but I think we do a terrible job of selling the profession.” 

Could you ever envision a tech major or a business major running your firm someday? Maybe merging doesn’t have to be the answer, you know? 

While I was hiring music majors, Anevski was hiring bartenders when she was in-house because she was looking for customer service skills, and “It was very clear to me that we could teach accounting,” she said. 

This is a hard sell for a lot of partners, especially senior partners who are mostly focused on their own exit strategy at this point. The key will be to find and talk about these early success stories so the profession can see the potential for growth through this change. 

At the end of the day, which firm will be more successful: the one whose employees come in, do their job and go home, and sooner or later leave — or the firm that prioritizes a well-rounded experience; a firm that understands its people and the business of accounting? I bet more loyalty and longevity will come out of the latter scenario.

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