CPA INSIDER

8 tips for finding, hiring, and retaining the best busy season staff

The bottom line? Be diligent, be creative, and be prepared.
By Cheryl Meyer

Public accounting firms have begun the countdown to their busy season, and many are prepping by gathering data from clients, reevaluating client lists, and updating CPAs and other staff on processes and tax law changes. They also have another crucial task: Hire interns and other seasonal staff.

"As long as the workload levels are not an anomaly, you can reasonably estimate the number of supplemental staff needed each year to deliver a high-quality product without burning out your current staff," said Renee Fulton, CPA, CGMA, of busy season. "If you don't handle it properly, you can hurt yourself and lose your current workers." Fulton, who previously worked in the public accounting sector, is president of Talis Group Inc., a staffing firm in Louisville, Ky.  

But adding interns and other seasonal staff comes with challenges. First, you have to find prospects, which takes work, time, and creativity. Second, particularly with interns, you need to court, interview, hire, and then train them before crunch time. Third, you will face competition from other public accounting firms (and companies), which are vying for a share of the seasonal worker pie.

So how do you ensure your firm is adequately staffed come January? Expert sources offer the following tips to help you find, hire, and possibly retain the best busy season interns and staff:

  • Connect with colleges and universities. A lot of seasonal hiring comes from campus recruitment, so cultivating relationships with schools is key, particularly since many seasonal hires will turn into permanent employees. Focus on higher education institutions—including community colleges—in your area. Associate with school career offices and professors. "Some of the placement offices can keep you in mind for the perfect candidate that just walks in the door," Fulton said. Also, use the schools' career placement resources. A school such as the University of Denver, for instance, offers a self-serve website that allows employers to upload job descriptions and encourages students to apply for them. "Our experience is that close to 100% of the internships with established employers that come to campus and recruit on campus turn into full-time jobs," noted Sharon Lassar, CPA, Ph.D., director of the university's School of Accountancy.
  • Start recruiting early. While there is no hard-and-fast rule for when to visit college campuses in preparation for busy season, begin recruiting months ahead. Employers courting accounting interns at the University of Denver schedule interviews in April with eyes on the next busy season, Lassar said. Mueller Prost, a public accounting firm with four offices in Missouri and California, holds a kickoff event in May for the fall recruiting season. Two years ago, the firm launched a summer leadership program, a two-day event during which current staff meet college students—even freshmen—and introduce them to the practice, noted Gayla Hannon, CPA, the firm's chief administrative officer in St. Louis. The program includes casual events and plant tours with clients, and gives managers an idea of which students may be a good fit. "There is so much competition that you have to be on campus year-round," added Lauri Dahlberg, manager of firmwide recruitment at Eide Bailly in Minneapolis. Get involved with schools' accounting clubs and career fairs to help educate freshmen and sophomores about recruitment timing.
  • Be creative. While much seasonal recruiting happens on campus, consider other avenues as well, sources say. Post detailed ads online, on sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, LinkedIn, and Indeed.com. Tap your state CPA societies, many of which offer job boards, networking conferences, and advertising opportunities. Talk to last year's interns about possibly returning for another busy season—or ask them and current staff for referrals (and consider a referral bonus). Consider asking former employees, such as retired CPAs or stay-at-home parents, to return for a few months. "Talk to contacts at fellow CPA firms to see if they are fully staffed. Perhaps they will share résumés received that look good, but are no longer necessary for the season's hiring," Fulton said.
  • Tout your brand. It's all too easy to focus on finding candidates but ignore what you are selling —an opportunity to work at your stellar firm. To attract the best seasonal help, put time and thought into job postings, and view these ads as a sales tool. "Ensure your job posting is very good with plenty of detail and selling points," Fulton said. "Your brand is important."
  • Hire for skills and attitude. Finding qualified temporary staff for busy season is critical for your firm, so hone your interview skills and look for potential staff who are well-rounded. "We like to find people who have really good communication skills," Hannon said. Also, hires should enjoy learning, have a strong work ethic, and, if possible, be willing to work extra hours. They should be able to meet deadlines, handle stress, be flexible, be a team player, and think strategically. "Problem-solving skills are extremely critical—to identify a problem and make an attempt to find a solution before asking," Dahlberg added.
  • Say, "You're hired," quickly. Today's accounting students and seasonal CPAs have plenty of options, so don't delay choosing your top picks for the coming busy season. Invest time to screen applicants carefully, and then extend the offer. "They should be hired as soon as they are identified," Lassar said about interns.
  • Stay competitive. Most interns earn salaries and are paid time and a half for overtime during busy season, sources say. Competition for these workers is stiff, so don't penny-pinch. "It is already difficult to find seasonal workers, and it is not a time to save $1 an hour," Fulton said. "If you could go above market, it would really, in the long run, help your business."
  • Maintain relationships. Many internships turn into full-time hires, but this is not a given. After the interns enter another year of college or prepare for graduation, stay connected. "Try to keep your best employees (or a few of them) all year with part-time hours," Fulton said. "Maintaining the relationship is key to a quick ramp-up."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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