insight magazine

Revving Up Recruiting in the New Roaring 20s

Recruiting and retention has historically been a top issue for CPA firms. Here’s a new talent strategy for the next decade. By KRISTINE BLENKHORN RODRIGUEZ | Spring 2020


As accounting firms of all sizes take aim at strategic growth in a fresh decade, many are facing a historical challenge—finding the right team. 

“This is the tightest labor market we’ve seen in years,” says Ann Guerra, vice president and metro market manager for Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Chicago. “Unemployment is the lowest it has been in 50 years, which is great, but it’s making it much harder to find talent in the marketplace. It’s a candidate’s market.” 

In a new Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey of CFOs, 93 percent said it’s challenging to find skilled candidates for professional-level positions. As a result, respondents said their search could take a month or more to fill staff-level accounting or finance positions and five weeks to hire for management-level roles. Another survey from the firm found nearly six in 10 job seekers (59 percent) have received two or more offers simultaneously when applying for jobs. 

The takeaway: Many firms are having to get creative to gain a competitive advantage in signing the best and the brightest. From expanding the candidates you’re considering, to fine-tuning culture, to harnessing the latest tech, here are some ways to build your dream team in a tight labor market. 

Untapped Talent

Janel O’Connor, chief human resources officer for professional services firm Sikich, has watched the hiring sea change. “I entered this profession when you posted an ad in the newspaper, candidates flowed in, and you picked one,” she explains. “We’re so far from that now.” 

Firms are increasingly looking at groups they might have traditionally overlooked years ago. “In a market like this, you don’t want to beat your head against a brick wall. Look for groups that are talented but have not traditionally been as sought after,” encourages Tiffany Dougherty, founder of Ardent Services, who has built her career on recruiting from the military; women’s, LGBT, and minority groups; and more. 

Military Might

“Who wouldn’t want a candidate from a culture where the motto is ‘Be all you can be?’” Dougherty asks. “The level of urgency and attention to detail required in the military is a great fit for accounting and finance. No one gets through the military by being just okay or skating by, so you’re getting a candidate used to giving 100-plus percent.” 

Erik Casarez is proof of that mentality. A former Green Beret, he and wife Rebecca own ProAdvisor CPA, a Silicon Valley-based accounting firm. “A lot of the things I learned in my military career didn’t translate to me becoming a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. But what I lacked there I made up for in leadership skills and life experience, which go far beyond what your average job candidate brings to the table,” Casarez says, adding that his military experience taught him to solve problems using out-of-the-box thinking, which ultimately translated to him and his wife creating an accounting firm that is not dependent on tax season or hourly billing. Both decisions, he says, were made to benefit the firm and its employees, but he wouldn’t have had the courage to forego the traditional model and approach without his military training. 

Parental Prowess

“Returnships” are on the rise in many firms as leaders recognize the value of workers who have taken time off to care for families or pursue other interests. Becky Egan and her husband started their accounting firm in 2005. Having two young children, they’re more than familiar with juggling the demands of home and work, and see the skills used at home as useful at work also. 

“It started when we had a man come to work for us who had been home raising a child,” Egan says. “He was actually a client. He was a fantastic employee and it made us realize this was an untapped talent pool for us. I mean, who gets the work done better than a working parent? Then we hired another CPA who had been home with her family for a few years. It has worked out really well for us.” 

While their returning working parents are success stories, Egan cautions that the environment has to be right: “Some large firms are just not flexible enough to make this work. Most workers don’t want to jump from being home to corporate hierarchy. But here, it works. My babies used to come to work with me. We’re family-friendly, and we are happy to employ people who are just trying to make it all work.” 

Some organizations might also find fresh talent in hiring candidates who aren’t looking for the traditional 40-hour workweek. 

“We see variable labor in our future model for sure,” O’Connor says. “The retiree who wants to work part-time. Or, a stay-at-home parent who only wants to work certain times of the year–even someone who just wants a client or two. All of it works for us, as long as they are qualified candidates with a great work ethic.” 

Transitioning Talent

It’s all too easy to hold an unconscious bias against unemployed or transitioning workers, but they’re another group of talent that shouldn’t go overlooked in this market. While the reasons workers depart from their existing career path vary, many people in transition have the potential to fill important roles at the right organization. 

Jami Phillips, employment consultant at New Directions Career Center, helps place women in transition with companies looking for dedicated workers. “We provide holistic programming and career counseling to women who need a leg up,” Phillips says. “Maybe a worker was downsized or stayed home with her kids for a decade. Maybe she wants to switch careers later in life. Some of our candidates are coming out of prison or have fought addictions. We place women with a GED to a Ph.D., and everything in between.” 

New Directions holds job boot camps, where they walk women through self-exploration and identification of skills and interests, as well as practical skills like resume writing and interview prep.

“I’d say we place 10-to-15 percent of our candidates in financial roles, from accounting departments to banks,” Phillips says. She admits some firms initially battle skepticism but are glad they took the chance on a candidate when they look back. “I have one firm that calls me regularly with their openings, telling me they need another ‘Sarah.’ We placed her years ago, and she has moved up within the company. Another woman is graduating in May with a dual degree and already has a job in a large insurance company. She got that dual degree, by the way, in just three years while being a single mom of two. These women are motivated. They want someone to take a chance on them.”

Culture Counts

Firm culture used to be considered a soft issue. Not anymore. The ability to both attract and retain talent—millennials, especially—hinges directly on a firm’s commitment to culture. According to Glassdoor, culture is a top factor for job seekers today. In fact, the company’s Mission & Culture 2019 survey shows that American millennials are more likely to value work culture over salary (65 percent). 

When candidates are choosing between two excellent jobs, culture is often the deal-breaker. Collaboration, diversity, integrity, respect, performance recognition, and coaching rank among the most important culture components across industries and professions, according to findings from Glassdoor and MIT Sloan Management Review.

“More than ever, people are really looking for companies that give back to their communities,” Guerra explains. “It goes beyond donating to charities at the holidays. It’s working together at a local food bank. It’s offering internships to disadvantaged communities. People want to feel connected to your mission, and that connection builds rapport within the office.” 

That doesn’t mean you can skimp on the other basic elements of a welcoming office culture. “You still need to stock the refrigerator, offer work-from-home benefits—especially in Chicago where commutes can be 60 minutes or more—relax the dress code, etc.,” Guerra says. “But getting people to connect to your mission and purpose—that’s where you can find the true fit.”

Tapping Technology

As filling key roles becomes more challenging, many organizations are looking to technology to help them hire the best and brightest. 

O’Connor says Sikich’s hiring leaders are using data analytics to think strategically and identify blind spots. For instance, analytics on candidates help the firm see how diverse and inclusive the hiring pool is, which skills are available, and what they may have to provide training on. 

However, it’s not just about using technology internally. Firms can benefit from using technology to market themselves and recruit externally. For instance, UK accounting firm My Accountancy Place turned to social media when they needed to recruit a new controller. Using a video featuring two of their current controllers, they let their employees do the talking, detailing their positive working experience at the company—and giving potential candidates a view into the corporate culture they’d be walking into. 

“Social media is a must,” Dougherty says. “Instagram is the new thing for the next generation of employees. I have clients that insist on using LinkedIn because it’s more ‘corporate’ but that’s not where young candidates are at. One good Instagram story will get you eyeballs from young talent in a way few other social outlets will.” 

Technology is also benefiting retention efforts during a time when Robert Half says 43 percent of professionals plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months. O’Connor says Sikich uses technology regularly to take employees’ engagement pulse: “We can break it out by direct manager and key practice area, so we can really pinpoint where people are feeling good and where we have work to do to improve. Sometimes that makes for difficult conversations with leaders. Sometimes we find someone who is technically excellent but maybe shouldn’t be leading a team. But it brings the transparency that fosters trust in our people. They know we’re on it and we care about their employee experience.” 

While there’s no quick fix for the talent troubles the profession has historically faced when candidates have as many choices as they do today, exploring new tools, expanding your potential candidate pool, and building a healthy company culture can rev up your recruiting and retention results in this millennia’s roaring 20s.

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