The city of McPherson — a tidy little town with a main street and tree-shaded neighborhoods surrounded by the vast plains and farmland of Kansas — is home to about 13,000 people.
"It's a great place to raise a family," said Tamie Prieb, marketing and HR manager for the accounting firm Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk & Loyd (SJHL).
But McPherson — an hour's drive north of Wichita — is not the easiest place to hire new accountants.
"When you're just out of school, it's not typically at the top of your list," Prieb said.
And yet, even as companies across the United States struggle with talent shortages, SJHL has nearly tripled in size over the last six years, and it's doing "shockingly well" at staff retention, thanks to a set of employee-focused strategies, Prieb said.
It's part of a pattern: Even before the pandemic, many accounting firms were in a race for talent. But some of the firms facing tough hiring challenges made adjustments that prepared them for today's tight labor market.
Prieb traces part of SJHL's evolution to 2016, when the firm first embraced remote work.
"It was out of necessity and thinking creatively," Prieb said. After hiring a few seasonal accountants for virtual engagements, the firm realized that it had unlocked an option for growth.
"It was like an 'aha' moment," she continued. "[We thought,] 'We can hire Valerie from Florida. We have the technology. Let's just do this.' "
Since then, the firm has grown from 35 employees to about 90, and about a quarter of new employees are virtual. Besides attracting new hires, the early embrace of remote work has helped the company retain staffers — even when they've had to leave Kansas. "It's definitely helped us with the growth," Prieb said.
But flexible working arrangements are only the beginning of how SJHL and other firms are handling their staffing challenges. Some are setting new expectations for clients, while others are ramping up hiring bonuses and embracing recruiters.
Perhaps more than anything, firms are trying to convince new and current employees that an accounting career offers longevity, balance, and rewards.
"What you have today is a situation where young, bright people have so many opportunities. They can go in so many different directions. It's overwhelming if you're a college student," said Mike Parton, CPA, CGMA, managing principal and partner for Coulter & Justus in Knoxville, Tenn. "If [firms] don't adapt today, you're not going to have enough people to take care of your clients. We're being forced to adapt and evolve."
RECRUITING STARTS NOW
As fewer job candidates have responded to postings, firms have refocused their recruiting efforts.
"We're going to go deep in hiring out of schools. We're going to hire more entry-level folks," said Vic Alexander, CPA/ABV/CFF, chief manager of KraftCPAs in Nashville, Tenn. "The ability to get experienced folks the way we used to is not going to be there. We're going to try to grow them ourselves."
For many firms, that includes hiring more interns, hiring younger interns, and building better connections with local colleges.
"When we're recruiting entry levels, we are now making internship offers at the sophomore-junior level of undergraduate. And then we're making permanent offers at junior-senior level," Parton said. "We have to do that to be competitive. We're getting ahead of the curve earlier."
By focusing its recruiting efforts on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the firm has built up its reputation. The firm regularly participates in on-campus events and connects with professors. Its practice administrator has been building relationships with schools for a decade, Parton said. As more students share positive experiences with the firm within their social networks, it becomes easier to find the next intern or hire.
While firms are adjusting their recruiting strategies, they can also consider ways to increase the diversity of their pipeline. One idea is recruiting from different institutions than they normally do, such as minority-serving institutions (e.g., historically Black colleges and universities), schools with large diverse populations, and community colleges. There is often untapped potential there that is worth their investment.
Virtual recruiting is another strategy firms are using to reach more candidates.
"Virtual works very well for some folks — or it can have the opposite effect," said Stacee Rash, CPA, a partner with Martin Starnes and Associates in Hickory, N.C. "There's a lot of crickets sometimes. How do you connect with [candidates] through a screen?"
The firm's HR manager, Mia Snipes, has tried to counter Zoom fatigue by securing earlier spots in colleges' recruitment windows, and she has included a video presentation in virtual meetings to "really convey our best face to them," she said.
And the firm has made sure to stay in touch with students and other prospective candidates as they develop. Each time the firm's staff checks in with prospective candidates and students, they make sure to set a date for a future conversation.
"You have to remember, too, that students' lives have changed dramatically [during the pandemic], and their families' lives have changed," Rash said. For example, she said, a hiring manager might learn that a student has canceled plans for grad school and now is available to hire.
Some firms have found success with recruiters.
"We've got two dedicated recruiters [on staff] out in the marketplace. We brought on the second one literally within the past few months," said Alexander, whose firm employs 230 people. "We feel like we need that level of effort."
COMPLETING THE HIRE: MONEY AND MORE
Firms also are seeking help from their own staff to get new candidates in the door. Crowe LLP has about 5,000 employees — and it has been hiring at a rapid pace, thanks in part to a well-designed incentive program that pays bonuses to employees who refer candidates for a successful hire, said Julie Wood, chief people officer for Crowe.
"I think there's just a natural sense of competitiveness that we're tapping into, and I think compensation is always an incentive," she explained.
But Wood cautioned that money alone won't convince employees to get involved in a recruiting effort. "To decide they're going to tap into their professional network, they have to feel pretty good about putting themselves out there," she said.
That's one reason why, over the last year, Crowe has been redefining its brand and what it offers to employees. CEO Mark Baer led a group that evaluated the company's purpose and values.
"We want people to know: This is a long game for us. We want them to be a part of helping to shape this better tomorrow, that we have a sense of purpose in our work, that we're focused on not just the short term but the long term," Wood said.
Of course, job candidates also have growing financial demands. The rise of remote work means that firms in smaller cities are facing greater wage pressures.
"We're losing people who are staying in our communities but are working remotely for a company out of New York City or Chicago," Parton said.
Leaders have some options for slowing those increases. For example, a signing bonus can be an effective incentive that doesn't raise ongoing costs, Alexander said.
But, ultimately, partners are bracing for a continued rise in entry-level pay, which also increases wage pressure for current employees.
"If we find that that's a continual issue, then we know we probably need to adjust our existing team members' [salaries]," Alexander said.
SET EXPECTATIONS FOR CLIENTS
The hiring crunch is changing the relationship between firms and their clients, too. With a shortage of workers on both sides, firm leaders are trying to set new expectations about the flow of work.
"We are working more closely with clients to establish timelines for submitting their work, and not letting the traditional timelines and filing deadlines drive the work," Rash said. "They're very open to that. It gives them a goal and some internal deadlines. And I think they all understand we're needing additional help. They don't want to be in the middle of the madness, either."
With limited staff resources, firms also may consider letting some clients go, especially ones who create problems for staff. A bad working relationship with a client can lead to frustrations and attrition, especially when teams face increased workloads already.
"If you don't deal with that one way or another, then your team members start to get discouraged," Alexander said. "We listen to our team members, and we assess from a financial standpoint and a strategic standpoint what [a potentially difficult] client means for our firm." If Kraft ends its work with a client, Alexander refers that client to other firms.
Changing the mindset
As employees request flexibility and better work/life balance, leaders are trying to soften the mentality that some associate with the profession. Some leaders have "been very reluctant to leave behind the grind that is an expectation of public accounting," Parton said.
Changing that is crucial, he said, to creating an enduring appeal for the profession.
"I think being respectful of people and respectful of the need for a life outside our career is the most important thing we can do as leaders — and that doesn't mean not expecting them to do a good job," Parton added.
He suggests hiring more people, instead of trying to get by with the smallest possible staff. "It's OK to work less. It's OK to spend a little more," he said.
SJHL has specific targets for reducing its workweeks. It set a 50-hours-per-week limit for busy season, and leadership hopes to reduce that to 48 hours and then 45 hours in the years to come.
The firm's managing partner, Chet Buchman, CPA, CGMA, "drew a line in the sand," Prieb said. "He said, 'All three of my kids are active in sports. It's important to me that I am present to support them.' "
At Martin Starnes, firm leaders are determined "to meet people where they are right now," Rash said. The firm employs many parents of young children, so it has long offered flexible scheduling for school closures, illnesses, and sports games, plus remote work options. That has kept staffing levels high through a competitive market.
At Crowe, a quarterly survey tracks employee satisfaction, with a goal of improving engagement and retention, and the results are used at both the firmwide and local level. The questions change, with focuses ranging from diversity, equity, and inclusion to career progression. "But at its core," Wood said, "we consistently ask questions around people feeling valued, their sense of pride in the organization, their opportunities for career growth and development. Do we feel that it's being recognized?"
Create a path
These firms aren't just trying to get through 2022. They're making changes to keep employees engaged in the years and decades ahead.
At Crowe, that means giving workers options. The company is spinning up a "talent marketplace" that should make it easier for employees to find a new job within the company.
"What has been really hard is to see people leave Crowe to do something elsewhere that they could have done at Crowe," Wood said. "Let's open up those opportunities within Crowe."
Parton, of Coulter & Justus, is thinking about opportunities, too. His firm sets a mandatory shareholder retirement age of 62 — which, for him, is coming up in five years.
"Every day between now and then, I'm making sure that the skill set is built and developed for others to replace me," he said.
The goal, he said, is to create not just a career path but a "vacuum" that draws people up into partnership. That kind of long-term planning can ensure that accounting is not just a job but a career.
"When you come to work here, not only are we going to give you a really great place to work, we're going to take care of you," he said, "and we're going to give you the firm."
Firms also are seeking help from their own staff to get new candidates in the door.
About the author
Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.
"How Companies Are Responding to Rising Pressure on Wages and Benefits," JofA, Dec. 21, 2021
"Companies Embrace Unusual New Strategies to Survive a Labor Crunch," JofA, Nov. 10, 2021
"Finding the Best Talent Using Remote Interviews," JofA, July 1, 2021
"Find Success With Virtual Campus Recruiting," CPA Insider, April 19, 2021
"How Hiring Practices Have Shifted as a Result of the Pandemic," JofA, April 9, 2021
"Powerful Internship Programs for Smaller Firms," JofA, Dec. 1, 2018
"Recruiting, Flexible Working, and Tax Season Issues for Small Firms," JofA, March 15, 2022
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