Firms across the country still have a bit of a recruiting problem on their hands, and as they struggle to attract and hire top talent, the Millennial worker remains a largely elusive type to peg down.
A July 2016 survey from the Institute of Management Accountants found that two-thirds of polled senior finance professionals cited recruiting Millennials as a “challenge” (22 percent saying “definitely,” and 40 percent saying “somewhat.”)
We sat down with experts on the topic to discuss what successful recruiting could, and should, be all about for accountants.
Our experts are split on what the biggest contributors to recruiting struggles are, but they are all problems that firms of all sizes need to address in today’s hiring landscape.
Kim Gottschalk, senior regional vice president of accounting and finance staffing firm Accounting Principals, believes that firms need to be mindful of where to focus their recruiting efforts — and where not to.
“Simply put, many business leaders aren’t fishing where the fish are,” she said. “Young talent is operating in an almost entirely digital space, and some employers aren’t there yet. Companies that don’t have a solid online presence — especially on social media — are missing the opportunity to interface with the Millennial and Gen Z talent that they’re hoping to recruit.”
“On the flip side, the talent shortage that the accounting and finance industry is currently experiencing is in part tied to digitization,” she continued. “Companies are looking for the total package when they make a hire, meaning soft skills are equally important as hard, technical skills. While young talent often has a technological advantage, because they are so accustomed to online forms of communication rather than engaging in-person, they sometimes lack verbal skills and struggle to articulate themselves in a professional environment, like a job interview.”
Jeff Phillips, CEO of online career center Accountingfly, feels there’s a dearth of talent ready for more senior firm positions. “The greatest struggle is definitely recruiting at the senior and manager level,” he said. “The single biggest contributing factor is the perception among seniors and managers that their careers would be better served working in industry. What we know is that the workforce wants more work/life balance and flexibility than they believe is available in public accounting generally. The workforce is also not well-informed about compensation opportunities available to them as a partner in a CPA firm. What we see is talent being lured away by industry with a modest increase in pay and a belief that they won’t be working the same hours as they do in public. “
J. James O’Malley, a partner at Chicago staffing firm TalentRise, sees basic problems in firms’ structure. “The traditional employment value proposition of most firms is not appealing to young people (work your tail off and in 10 to 12 years you can be a partner — [they’re] not interested). Culturally, young people need frequent feedback, lots of training and praise, and they want to work with tools and technology, etc., and traditional firms are not set up to provide this.”
A GROUP EFFORT
Our experts agree that there isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to recruiting. Rather, true change will only come when the whole firm takes steps to treat staffing just the same as any daily operation.
“I think firms need to take the same approach they do with recruiting talent as they do their clients,” said O’Malley. “It needs to be a priority. I have never had a partner tell me, ‘I can’t do this client meeting because I have to conduct this interview,’ but I have had partners — literally hundreds — cancel interviews with candidates for a client meeting or call. Why does one become more valued than the other when, frankly, they should be equal?”
Gottschalk urged that a firm-wide understanding of recruiting goals is key to attracting the right people. “[Firms] can enhance their recruiting efforts by thinking about recruitment as an integrated effort,” she said. “An effective hiring program should involve employees at all levels of the organization — not just one hiring authority — and should ensure that each and every employee understands the types of people the business needs to recruit in order to succeed ... The more integrated the recruitment process, the more compelling the potential outcomes, including increased new hire referrals, a more defined company culture, and even improved retention, productivity and engagement rates.”
Internships are often seen as a surefire way to attract talent by roping them in early during their college days, but recent numbers can be a bit dim. In the aforementioned IMA survey, only 31 percent of polled finance professionals found internships to be the most successful practice in recruiting young people (51 percent, the majority, cited employee referrals as the best tool). With this in mind, our experts still strongly advocated for these programs as ultimately beneficial.
“Employers and job seekers alike are always looking for the best long-term fit [and] internships are one of the best ways to do that,” said Gottschalk.
“I am all for building a pipeline of candidates before the need to hire them occurs and that is what an internship program does,” said O’Malley. “I think the future of campus recruiting will shift and firms will spend more time cultivating and curating their interns and less time on the event-driven fall recruiting that so many firms are investing so much time and energy and expense on.”
TOO MUCH, OR TOO LITTLE?
A trend gaining steam has been catering to Millennials in the office space and culture. From flexible working hours to collaborative work environments and the latest technology, Millennials are on the constant lookout for the best that firms have to offer. For more traditional firms, however, this can be a bit of a challenge to tackle, as they may not have the desire or means to overhaul their practice.
There are solutions, though, available to firms of any size. “In my mind it’s not about catering to young talent,” said Phillips. “It’s about creating a great place to work for everyone on your team. To create a great place to work, you’re not just competing against other public accounting firms; you’re competing against innovative companies like Facebook. These companies have changed how they cater to all talent and have created a new normal for all employers ... This is not a future issue; [young people’s] preferences have changed and they are looking for greater flexibility and work/life balance.”
O’Malley believes in showing the same specialized courtesy to potential hires that one does to clients. “It is adapting to and customizing what it is you’re offering young talent,” he advised, “in much the same way that you are providing a methodology and solution to your clients, but ‘tailored’ in a way that fits their individual needs. Culture is a good example. All firms talk about it, but it has a different meaning for a young recruit than it does for a 20-year partner.”
“Due to the candidate shortage that exists … many [firms] will have to be more generous than they were in the past in order to compete,” said Gottschalk. “Those who are shortsighted and don’t refine their recruitment techniques will likely see their workforce fall behind. My advice is to embrace young talent and work hard to understand the way they think, what they care about, and how they fit into the future of your business.”
MORE THAN A JOB
Firms struggling to recruit need to keep in mind that the game has changed.
“We’re hearing from young professionals that they want to work for companies that stand for a larger purpose, something beyond making a profit,” said Gottschalk. “Employers are more attractive to young candidates when they have established core values that are ingrained in the company culture and tied to meaningful programs, such as social responsibility, health and the like.”
“What we’re seeing is this workforce changing really quickly,” said O’Malley. “They want their content, their news and their relationships now. So I think firms need to start looking at how they deliver feedback to their employees [and] how they show them mobility quicker. I think the mistake a lot of firms make is that they think [young people] work for the firm. No: They work for their clients, their colleagues and bosses. They don’t work for the firm.”
Sean McCabe is a senior editor with Accounting Today.