How firms find skilled staff during a hiring boom

Both traditional and creative solutions help firms staff up.
By Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA

As an independent recruiter, I've worked with firms for the past 12 years to help them hire staff. This past year has been by far the most challenging. Accountants are in such high demand that CPAs who are on LinkedIn or have posted their résumés on job boards have been bombarded by recruiters looking to place them—even if they're not actively looking for work.

Firms are also struggling to hire staff with the right skill sets. If staff aren't technically up to speed, their supervisors will need to work harder to ensure accuracy (and materiality). Compounding the problem is the fact that CPAs need broader skill sets. Mario Maresca, CPA, a partner at Jones, Maresca & McQuade, P.A., a three-location firm based in the Washington area, said that CPAs need the ability to present and communicate well and to understand their clients' businesses.

"Also, with more businesses using in-house accounting software, we need accountants with a wider range of skills," he said.

In a market like this one, firms need to take different approaches to market themselves to attract CPAs. Having a strong online and offline presence is important. Some firms believe that, because they get most of their business from referrals, they don't need to have an online presence beyond a website and a LinkedIn page. However, job-seeking CPAs may shy away from applying to these firms if they can't find out much information about them online.

Firms can enhance their visibility by writing or contributing to articles that are distributed and posted online, creating a blog, participating in state CPA society membership listservs, and presenting webinars.  Advertising in business publications or sponsoring conferences and seminars can also help boost firms' name recognition with job seekers.

In order to appeal to CPAs who have the right skills, firms need to be creative to differentiate themselves. Here are some tactics my clients are using:

Increasing pay. Maresca said that, due to the competitiveness in hiring, his firm has had to pay higher salaries for skilled CPAs—which means that they've had to raise fees. Clients, he said, "don't mind paying" higher fees; what they want is "the personal touch" and for their accountants to do "a professional job."

Giving potential staff a test drive. David Brotman, CPA, partner at Jacobson Brotman PC, a boutique firm in Virginia Beach, Va., asks prospective employees to spend a few hours at his firm. This "second interview" is helpful in reconciling what is on the candidate's résumé with his or her actual skill set, he said.  Brotman asks professionals to do some accounting and tax work, answer a series of "real life" questions, and take a straightforward accounting skills test.  This gives both Brotman and the candidate a feel for the type of work the firm does and what the particular position entails.

Being flexible. Brotman says he handles his hiring challenges by being patient and thinking creatively.  He approved telecommuting for a staffer who moved away, interviewed candidates from as far away as Texas (the firm would be willing to assist with relocation costs for new hires, he said), and always keeps an eye open for someone who might be a good fit.

Providing more options for career paths. Drew Smith, CPA, managing principal of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CLA) in the Washington region, says the firm has focused on branding itself as The Career Builder Firm, partly to gain a competitive edge in recruitment and retention.

CLA has implemented strategies to give employees multiple career path choices that can help them professionally and personally. The firm offers its professionals a "customized journey," Smith said. They work with career coaches to shape the best path for them "based on the kind of work, flexibility, and career goals they desire," he said, noting that staff can change roles within services and industries. They are also able, Smith said, "to expand their skills and responsibilities at a rate that makes sense for them."

Reaching out to alumni. CLA encourages employees who leave to consider themselves "alumni" who are welcome to come back. The firm has had remarkable success with this tactic: Over 200 alumni returned last year. Other firms may want to consider reaching out to employees who left on good terms to see if they're interested in returning.

Other tactics to try during a hiring squeeze

Other firms, when faced with staff shortages, have used such strategies as:

  • Being open to nontraditional employees. For instance, they've supplemented permanent staff with contractors and seasonal employees, and hire CPAs who return to public accounting later in their career.
  • Increasing flexibility around workload and hours. Firms that allow reduced and/or flexible hours and telecommuting can attract CPAs from a wider geographical area and those who need to care for family members.
  • Investing more time and money in training, coaching, and mentoring. Instead of hiring experienced staff (who can be difficult to find) for management positions, some firms focus on bolstering the skills of the employees they already have—for example, training a technically adept CPA who doesn't yet know how to manage staff.

"Our experience is that people are more likely to join an organization that is committed to helping them realize their potential through career path options, regular feedback, and flexible and remote work assignments," Smith said.

Good luck in hiring!

Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA, is an independent recruiter based in Maryland. To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.

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