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To retain or detain: The case for staff development. By Rob Lewis

28th Aug 2007
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Brain in handA good accountant these days is hard to find. So what can you do to stop them from leaving your practice? Well, put those bonuses back in your bank balance as, according to Rob Lewis, expertise and experience is what they really want.

Like the sun, suitably qualified accountants have been hard to find this summer. In fact, according to swathe of surveys and reports we are in the grip of an accounting recruitment crisis. So if accountants are so hard to come by, surely firms should be doing everything in their power to hold on to the ones they already have.

It is unfortunate if staff leave for reasons beyond a firms' control, but to lose valuable people through lack of care is ... well, careless. Yet a recent survey by executive recruiter Robert Half International (RHI), indicates that firms are losing staff they could easily retain if only they make them feel more at home. The survey was commissioned by the ICAEW to look at benefits and compensation packages, and what was important to both employers and employees. “Career progression scored most highly in what was desirable and it was also where there was the biggest discrepancy between what employees valued and what employers thought employees valued,” says Adrian O’Connor, regional manager at RHI.

The results are good news for switched-on firms. In the current economic cycle, accounting partnerships can’t hope to compete with banks and the financial services in purely monetary terms. O’Connor tells of how he recently placed one newly qualified ACA into a £50,000 salary. But, if you can offer your accountants a breadth of experience, a host of training and a variety of roles, you might find that both recruitment and retention rates improve dramatically.

“If people don’t see a career path they are going to look externally for that.”
Adrian O’Connor, regional manager, RHI

Despite the argument for facilitating career development, the truth is a lot of firms are shirking the issue. “It’s something that perpetuates the growth in the recruitment market,” says O’Connor. “If people don’t see a career path, they are going to look externally for that.”

Keeping them in

There is not necessarily an easy solution – even for the Big Four. “Retention is an issue,” admits Ian Barlow, senior partner at KPMG, who adds the company has been working hard to resolve the problem. “The reason it’s tough is that there’s an upswing in the economy, so there are competitive pressures taking our staff away from us, and people are quite keen to have a work/life balance.”

It took KPMG a number of attempts before they finally hit upon a HR strategy that put the employee first. If you’re hiring Generation Y (referred to by some commentators as ‘the apathetic generation’), this emphasis is probably essential. Barlow says the firm’s development and balance policies have seen retention rates improve markedly in the last three years, and that when KPMG lose accountants it’s almost always because they’re leaving the profession entirely.

Tony Osude, head of learning and development at ACCA, knows about the lengths even the Big Four have to go to. “I know of one firm where every per cent increase in turnover retention was costing them something like half a million pounds in terms of impact to the bottom line,” he says.

Could do better: What staff want from their employer

  • Positive attitude of staff
  • Location of office and travel time
  • Support for family commitments
  • Flexible working
  • Clear career path
  • Training and development

Source: Career benchmarking survey 2007, RHI.

The large firms aim for turnover rates of between 10-12%, he says. While things may not be perfect, current recruitment difficulties mean that retention is becoming an issue at last. “If you go back seven or eight years, we probably talked about retention but I’m not sure we measured it. If we did, we didn’t do anything about it,” Osude observes. “Now the issue is really coming to the fore.”

All these strategies occupy the same area, however, as O’Connor, Barlow and Osude would agree. Career development, not salary, is the biggest motivating factor for the working accountant. This is not surprising news: accountants tend to be hard working, ambitious and educated, and it’s natural they would want to advance their career.

If this is sometimes misunderstood in practice, it often isn’t even acknowledged in industry. It’s not unusual for accountants outside practice to find even less of a focus on learning and development, unless they’re lucky enough to be in a knowledge-based organisation. Historically, the amount industry spends on these things has always been less than practice.

Inside practice, the firms yet to grasp the career development nettle tend to be outside the top 50, Osude says. To be fair, the argument isn’t universally valid for all firms. A good proportion of the smaller partnerships are probably quite happy with the size of their fee income and workload respectively. Even in these firms, the obligatory continuing professional development (CPD) serves to provide advancement of a kind, although by its nature it might not be much of a differentiator on CV’s.

The idyll of the leisurely small practice in a laid-back market town hardly gives the whole picture. There are other firms who are rapidly growing and investing more in developing their people, Osude says. It’s about more than just CPD. The development offered might come in the form of secondments, project work, moving department, installing Oracle, or any number of things that serve to raise an employee’s profile. Regular and planned discussion about the matter are another essential.

“Career development is two-way. It can be about going up but it can also be about going wide.”

Tony Osude, head of learning and development, ACCA

“Career development is two-way,” Osude stresses. “It can be about going up but it can also be about going wide.”

That should come as a relief to partners everywhere. While for some people development is simply a case of getting to the top of the ladder, for others it’s about getting a broader range of expertise. While it’s a necessary retention strategy, it shouldn’t necessarily present or signify other problems.

Letting them go

“Firms do need to embrace it,” Osude says of the career development model. After all, it means firms have highly motivated, ambitious people on their books. Career development is also a “happy person’s problem”, unlike salary, for example, or title. But what if you just can’t give them what they want? The answer may be to help them leave.

It sounds radical but it isn’t irrational. Ironically, part of increasing retention is to accept your throughput: accept that employees are using you, Osude argues, and embrace the fact they will move on. It’s just another opportunity.

“The smarter firms use their alumni to create a network,” he says. “You’ll have friendly relations and good contacts, and work might even get passed back and forth. If they’re going to anyway, why not help them?”

If you’re the sort of partner who takes the jobs section out of the office newspaper so staff can’t read it, it might be worth thinking about. If people are going to go, they’ll go. Help them do so and more will stay.


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