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Small practices continue to feel the recruitment crunch at Accountex

3rd May 2019
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With MTD taking a back seat at Accountex this year, accountants in practice headed to the accounting trade show looking to address the ongoing recruitment challenge.

“Recruitment is really tough at the moment,” chartered accountant Kylie Fieldhouse told AccountingWEB. “I don’t know if there is enough supply coming through.”

Fieldhouse highlighted the pressure recruitment has had on small practices in her morning session on day one at Accountex. From her firm’s kitchen table beginnings to now managing over 300 clients, she touched on the struggles she experienced along the way, like how she shook off the niche outlook of her startup practice and embraced her inner generalist.

But the “disheartening and heartbreaking” recruitment challenge continues to haunt her practice. For her latest recruitment, she had to go through five rounds before getting someone suitable, she said in AccountingWEB’s live podcast from the event.

“You get staff, they’d be the wrong staff and then I’d have to go through it again,” she said.

Fieldhouse found social channels like Facebook and Linkedin to be fruitful recruiting grounds, but also confessed to spending a lot of time crossing her fingers.

Having a great brand that people what to work for is key to attracting the right candidate, Fieldhouse said, but offering flexibility was just as crucial in her recruitment drive.

“If there was more flexibility I wouldn’t even be in practice. I would have just taken a job,” she said.

Flexibility doesn’t answer all the questions thrown up by recruitment. Judging by the number of recruitment-based exhibitors at Accountex, this year’s show gave accountants an opportunity to find answers to this perennial problem.

Training cuts come home to roost

One simple answer why small practices have struggled comes down to the lack of available talent. Melanie Johnson, who was exhibiting with finance and accountancy specialist Sunrock Recruitment, traces the talent shortage back to the economic downturn in 2008.

“Lots of companies weren’t investing in training and the shortage we are seeing now is a ripple effect of that,” she said

This shortage is limited to UK practices, among the Big Four accountants that take on many of the profession’s new entrants, newly qualified accountants continue to jump ship for industry roles.

Candidate quality

Michael Willis from the Cambridge Judge Business School highlighted candidate suitability as a factor in the current recruitment crunch and questioned the way students are trained in his day one talk on accounting education. 

“Firms do need a certain kind of person and I don’t think the universities are turning them out right now,” he said. “We train them in financial accounting, tax and put them through a series of exams and prepare them to be really good at taking exams…

“One of the problems is that accountants tend to be risk-averse. When in reality the industry needs leaders who are comfortable with and embrace ambiguity and are able to lead through change.”

Sunrock Recruitment’s Johnson also has seen firms searching for a different kind of candidate with a more varied skillset. “Before when candidates are traditionally finance-focused, companies now want a mix of commercial and finance. That’s a shift we have seen in terms of client’s needs,” she said.

“Generally,” she added, “firms are also looking for more of a commercial view.”

New Zealand-based Accountests responded to the global dip in decent candidates with its accounting skills-based test. “We find a lot of people come to talk with us because they think: should we look at different pools of people,” said Steve Evans, the director of Accountests.

“Is it just the accounting skills the accounting firms are looking for?” he asked. “In an ever-growing business advisory world, a lot of people who could deliver business advice may not be accountants at all - nut they could be good additions to an accounting team.” 

Grow your own option

Another option is to grow candidates internally. “People like the Big Four start at the very beginning with the [grow your own attitude],” continued Evans. “They suck in graduates from any discipline and turn them into accountants and spit them out after five years. But that is not a luxury most accounting firms can afford.” 

The grow your own option did not work for Fieldhouse: “I have hired both junior and senior and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t go senior at the start,” she told the attendees of her session. “But from a cost perspective, it is a lot of money for your first hire to be a qualified accountant. There is a huge amount of demand out there for them.”

Junior staff members can be equally pricey for a small practice: you are investing in their study time and need to add that to their hourly rate. “And what if they don’t pass their exams?”

To avoid the long-term impact of recruitment mistakes, Fieldhouse stressed the importance of using the probation period properly. “There is no point in keeping the wrong staff because it is hard to recruit. You are better off shifting off clients or putting a waitlist on until you find that staff. And then you just get lucky. I did luckily get lucky,” she said.

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Andrew Garvey
By AndrewGarvey
06th May 2019 11:19

Recruitment has been a major issue for small firms for a number of years.

At ICAEW I worked with hundreds of firms across the UK who hired graduates and school leavers. Lots of firms had a lot of success with candidates they brought through on the AAT-ACA fast track programme.

Many hiring managers told me that the biggest challenge was finding candidates with the right mindset. A stellar academic CV was not always an indicator of this.

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