US companies are finding fewer candidates

Staffing problems are a challenge in a hot economy.

Buoyed by optimism in the broader economy, more companies planned to hire in the next 12 months, according to a survey of finance decision-makers released by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Companies also need to retain existing staff to keep expansion plans on track.

But there's a hiring hurdle. The nation's unemployment rate was 3.9% in April — its lowest point since 2000. With less available talent, companies might need to spend more time and money to compete for employees.

Thomas Sign & Awning Co. illustrates the point. The company, which designs, manufactures, and installs about 6,500 commercial signs each year, recently experienced a boost in volume from repeat customers and new business. As a result, the Clearwater, Fla., company has accelerated its hiring efforts in recent months.

"We are always recruiting," said Charles Copp, CPA, CGMA, the company's CFO. "We're looking for welders, fabricators, salespeople. We are trying to be proactive and increase [pay rates] to keep people that are good."

Thirty percent of respondents to the second-quarter Business & Industry Economic Outlook Survey said they didn't have enough workers and plan to hire. That was up from 24% in the same period last year and 19% in the second quarter of 2016.

At the same time, availability of skilled professionals registered as respondents' top challenge for the fourth consecutive quarter. Employee benefits and costs, the top challenge a year ago, ranked third. Staff turnover, which didn't rank as a top challenge two years ago, ranked seventh in the latest survey. Regulatory requirements/changes ranked second.

Among businesses of all sizes, 43% said they need to add workers, but some are hesitating to do so. Businesses with annual revenues between $10 million and $100 million are the most likely to add staff; 33% of that category said they planned to hire in the next 12 months. About half of companies said they have the right number of workers.

Of course, if companies were more worried about the economy, they might be retrenching or shelving expansion plans. And the hiring conundrum might be less of a concern. That was the case in 2012, when respondents ranked domestic economic conditions as their top challenge in the survey. During that year, the availability of skilled talent ranked no higher than their eighth-biggest challenge.

But these days, finance decision-makers maintain a positive view of the economy and, as a result, are planning for growth.

It should be noted that the CPA Outlook Index (CPAOI), a nine-component measure of economic sentiment, declined slightly from the previous quarter. But all nine components — including elements such as revenue, profit, capital spending, and employment expectations — were higher on a year-over-year basis.

The latest CPAOI is 79, two points lower than the previous quarter's record high for the 11-year history of the index. A CPAOI reading above 50 indicates positive sentiment.

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