With the dwindling supply of graduate accountants still a problem, firms offering flexible and positive workplaces are best placed to attract the diverse mix of new talent they need.
If you asked an accounting practice manager about the key challenges of their role a decade ago, the issues of recruiting and retaining talent would have been high on the list. Ask the same question today and the answer is likely to be the same. With an ongoing shortage of accounting graduates, it’s the candidates who are holding most of the cards. The big difference is that employers are now seeking talent from outside the traditional accounting mould.
CPA Australia’s 2007 Firm of the Future report explored the opportunities and challenges facing public practice. It identified recruitment as a key test for companies to deal with due to the declining number of students choosing to complete accounting degrees. While little has improved with enrolment figures – the number of Australians studying accounting fell by 20 per cent between 2001 and 2012 – more companies are finding opportunities by welcoming candidates who have come to the accountancy profession from the road less travelled.
David Cawley, regional director of Hays Accountancy & Finance, says while many organisations are seeking the typical accounting profile for candidates, employers are increasingly adopting a more open-minded approach. “Candidates need to be able to demonstrate life experience, and this can give security to an organisation that they have transferable skills,” he says.
Rob Thomason, executive general manager education at CPA Australia, says an increasing number of people are coming to the accounting profession from non-traditional backgrounds. Many of them are completing CPA Australia’s foundation exams as a pathway to the CPA Program.
“People who may have done an arts or science degree and have ended up working in accounting or finance areas know that to keep their career going, they’ve got to complete a certification program,” he says.
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There are about 8000 people enrolled in CPA Australia’s foundation exams. Thomason says completion of the exams can help to cover any shortfall in core knowledge. “It’s very hard to knock on the front door of a university and say ‘I would just like to do one or two subjects to fulfil my core knowledge requirements’. Universities are very good at enrolling people into degrees, but they’re not very good at enrolling people into single subjects.”
The average age of those enrolled in foundation exams is in the early 30s. “They’re people in their third or fourth job who are starting to establish their career, and that’s the attraction. It’s a rigorous but fast way to get to their career outcome,” says Thomason, adding that a diversity of backgrounds adds value to the profession.
While professional practice remains short on candidates, attracting and retaining the best talent also remains a challenge. Andrew Hanson, director of Robert Walters in Sydney, says competition between public practice and commercial firms means public practitioners need to work on their sales pitch. “One of the things public practice needs to be able to do is pitch and deliver on a positive, flexible working environment. This is where some of the commercial businesses may be able to get a leg up because they might have fashionable office space or cool products.”
Candidates today are looking for even more. Hays’ 2015 Hiring Report shows that flexibility and work-life balance are the top priorities for accounting and finance professionals seeking a new role. They even outrank the desire for a higher salary. Cawley believes accounting firms need to develop new ways of marketing themselves to potential candidates. He says some companies are engaging with people through content marketing and building a sense of lifestyle around their brand. “Simply posting a job on LinkedIn is just not a strong attracter.
You need to be able to engage your audience and articulate what your organisation stands for and what’s so good about working there,” he says. “Candidates want to be able to find out information, so you need to make sure that they have access to relevant content. Create a portal and publish blogs and information about prominent topics like diversity and career planning and work-life balance.”
Once the right candidates are in place, retaining their talent is never a sure thing, especially in the case of Gen Y. “The younger generation is still not concerned about leaving a job every 12 months,” says Chris Potter, director, accounting and finance at Hudson. “If you go back in time, companies would always look at stability on a candidate’s CV, whereas now there’s an understanding that people may stay in a role for 18 months and then move on.” Potter adds that like their older co-workers, younger employees are looking for flexibility at work.
“The generation is also attracted to organisations that offer variety, whether that’s internal moves or secondments. This is not necessarily a promotion but it keeps them interested and challenged.”
Management style is also a key factor for whether a Gen Y employee will stay or go. “Younger generations want a manager who is a coach or mentor rather than a traditional director or allocator of work,” says Cawley. “They want to feel that being part of an organisation is not just about work.”
While salary is no longer the main drawcard for candidates, it is still high on their wish list. Research from Hays shows that while 17 per cent of employers did not increase salaries in last year’s review, this year looks slightly more promising. Although 20 per cent of employees don’t expect to receive a raise this year, only 13 per cent are likely to miss out.
Approximately 65 per cent of accounting and finance employers plan to increase salaries by 3 per cent while only 1 per cent will be offering a raise of more than 10 per cent.
“There’s not a huge movement in salaries,” says Cawley. “What we are seeing is the return of counteroffers and candidates having multiple offers on the table, and the speed at which decisions are being made has massively changed. Up until about a year ago, [our] clients were in control and they could dictate the pace of hiring decisions. Now, because of candidates having multiple offers, we’re seeing clients missing out.”