Covid-19 adds to accountancy's recruitment crisis
Accountancy firms struggled with hiring before Covid-19 added to their HR woes. How will they rebound from the latest recruitment crisis? Richard Hattersley examines the current talent challenges.
Going into 2020, 46% of small, medium and large firms in the Accounting Excellence awards said their biggest concern was recruitment and retention. Little did they realise that a global pandemic was about to force firms to furlough staff and make redundancies.
The coronavirus sent accountancy’s recruitment challenges into further disarray. Firms have to make difficult decisions about downsizing underworked and pandemic-hit teams, while others are benefiting from the new talent now available on the market.
The current recruitment crisis is the subject of a new AccountingWEB talent survey with the ACCA, the Cranford Business School and sponsored by Ordo. The study aims is to understand the people challenges firms face and the changes they've made to protect their businesses.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that people issues aren’t going away.
The talent crisis
The talent crisis dates back to the 2008 economic crisis when the big accountancy firms scaled back their training programmes. A dozen years later the profession is paying the price for this decision with a diminished talent pool.
In addition, technology has displaced traditional skills, leading many firms to look for roles that don’t exist yet or strugging to find people with the right mindset and experience.
“What we're doing is different to mainstream accountants so we’re asking more from those finance candidates,” said flinder’s co-founder Alastair Barlow.
“It really is hard to find all those qualities in someone who’s ready to move on, is at the right point in their career and has got the right qualifications and experience. So it’s hard, really, really difficult.
It’s too early to predict if the coronavirus pandemic will repeat the pattern of the 2008 economic crash, but judging from the initial news of furlough, pay cuts and redundancies, it doesn’t look good.
Grant Thornton was one of the first big firms to ask staff to take a 40% pay cut to mitigate the coronavirus impact. Similar stories showed up on Any Answers, with one reader saying that “refusal to accept could lead to you being pointed towards the door”.
Soon after, the furlough scheme froze many accountants’ careers.
As the furlough scheme began winding down, redundancies follwed. In August, Baldwins Accountants announced job cuts following a period of acquisition led growth.
Firms still employing
Although the portents don’t look good, there are some positive signs. Accounting Excellence Award winner Green & Co has taken on seven people since lockdown, including a senior tax manager, senior accounts manager and accounts trainees, bookkeeping and payroll team members.
“These are mainly planned job roles to provide services to our expanding client base, but we have also been very busy providing extra services for clients during lockdown,” said Nick Park, a director at the Cwmbran-based firm.
Fellow Accounting Excellence Award winner flinder is also on a recruitment drive. Alastair Barlow, co-founder of the firm, said in the past few months he has taken on new associates and business advisers in flinder’s outsourced finance team.
Mazuma, too, has added roles ranging from accountants through to a digital marketing manager. “Despite the pandemic we have been able to implement at least part of our growth strategy and our recruitment reflects planned growth for the future as well as trying to combat the busy period of January that is rapidly approaching,” said Mazuma co-founder Lucy Cohen.
Finding new talent
The growing numbers of redundancies have enabled firms like these to tap into an experienced talent market. The trouble comes when trying to find the right people for the right roles.
“I don’t think we have this nailed yet,” said flinder’s Barlow. But the Accounting Excellence firm has not had to hustle too much in the recruitment market.
“Out of those roles, one came through LinkedIn and the rest came directly to us from the strength of our brand, which emphasises the importance of building a brand.”
Meanwhile, Green & Co uses several different methods, from recruitment agencies to approaching individuals for two of the big posts.
“Other practices don’t appear to be hiring at the moment, so we have been able to identify individuals who fit our practice brilliantly. Some have come from national firms and a couple from similar-sized firms to us,” said Green & Co’s Park.
Barlow is still actively recruiting for two senior associates and two managers, but in a firm where culture plays such an integral role, the current home working rule has handcuffed one of the flinder’s key selling points, its emphasis on face-to-face contact.
“Even though we're locked down, we’ve released videos of our new starters’ first year at flinder and they’ve talked about what it's like working here,” said Barlow. Included in those videos is footage of previous social events, so applicants can see the culture.
The team was planning on meeting this month but the new government measures have changed that. While the social environment may not be the same for new recruits, flinder is doing everything it can to ensure the culture prevails.
“We’ve got a ski trip organised for next year, who knows whether it’s going ahead or not, but we’ll still stimulate the excitement around it and we’re still talking about things we’ve done in the past. We’re not physically together, but the camaraderie and banter is still there on Slack.”
Like every other sector, accountancy is likely to contract as a result of the pandemic, with many finally throwing in the towel. Questions still remain about whether firms will be willing to take new people on with the economy in such a delicate state.
Pandemic or not, accountancy firms have never been busier. This year firms have worked all hours to support clients through lockdown. As Green & Co’s Park pointed out: “All our normal compliance work was held up during lockdown. This means we are having to fit about a month’s extra work in the period up to 31 January. This is particularly frustrating as we thought we had banished the January tax return deadline blues.”
With more work than firms can handle and experienced accountants coming into the market ahead of the busy period, could the virus-induced redundancies end up solving the talent crisis?
Have your say in the UK 2020 accounting talent survey to help us understand how firm’s team and organisational structure has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Your feedback is important to help us analyse and report on what’s happening within the profession.