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Recruiting up post-Covid as firms seek soft skills over technical


Accountancy recruitment levels are expected to considerably spike in 2021 but staff recruitment and retention remain a struggle for many accounting firms. Blaire Palmer explains how firms can adapt by shift the emphasis to soft skills over technical skills.

24th May 2021
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The AccountingWeb Talent In 2021 survey showed that 45% of accounting firms expect recruitment levels in 2021 to be higher than 2019. 32% of you believe that it’s harder to find the right talent since the onset of Covid. 

The demand for new people is on the rise at the same time as battling a feeling that it’s harder to find the right people than in previous years. A perfect storm if you like. 

So, what can we do to reduce the challenge and find the people we need for our growing businesses? 

The good news

While the picture is mixed (54% of respondents believe recruitment will be about the same or lower than 2019) it looks like many firms are predicting growth over the coming months. We can anticipate a healthy job market as people leave firms that are contracting in size and become available to those who are on the up. A recent American survey suggested that 1 in 4 people are considering quitting their role as a result of having time to reflect on what matters to them during the pandemic. If the trend is reflected here, this could also mean an influx of previously loyal professionals now looking for new challenges. 

In addition, a reduction in recruitment isn’t always negative. New technology, the productivity gains of working from home and simply needing to find efficiencies during a tough time may mean that some firms have found ways to maintain or improve quality and profitability while reducing their employee overhead. 

The (potentially) bad news

On the other hand, respondents are reporting that it is harder to find the specific talent they need. In particular, those with specialist industry experience, data analysis skills, cash flow forecasting/management skill, business advisory experience and cloud/digital experience are considered important skills but difficult to find. The pool of talent might be large but not strong in the areas that matter to you as you plan for the future. 

Skills or attitude? 

One conflicting message from the data though is the relative importance of technical skill versus attitude. While respondents talked about what skills were important but hard to find, they also felt that attitude, fit with the organization, adaptability and interpersonal skills far outweighed technical skills when it came to the selection of applicants. 

This presents an opportunity as far as I can see. 

About half of all hires ‘fail’ within 18 months (although I feel that keeping someone for 18 months can’t necessarily be considered a hiring fail). But of those who leave within 18 months, the candidate’s attitude (coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation and temperament) is cited as the reason 89% of the time. So we know that the most likely reason for a hire not to work out is the attitude of the candidate, and yet we continue to focus on technical skill as the primary criteria when we hire. 

Post-Covid, we need to put more emphasis on personal qualities. This means a number of things:

  1. Rethinking the job advert

There may be mention of the culture of the firm or some personal qualities in most job ads but the emphasis will be the checklist of qualifications or accreditations and past experience. 

However, the ability to learn new skills fast, to be adaptable to change, to be able to solve problems and collaborate with others may be far more important. The technology is changing so fast that what feels like a must-have skill today won’t be relevant tomorrow (desktop publishing, anyone?).

 Is it vital someone has specialist industry experience or are you really looking for someone who can quickly gain industry experience? Do you need someone with a business advisory track record or someone with strong people skills and an ability to grow within your organization who can learn to become a skilled business advisor? 

Highly specific technically focused job adverts are also bad for diversity. Women, for instance, are less likely than men to apply for roles unless they can tick ‘yes’ to every element of the advert. Men are more likely to apply even if they don’t meet all the criteria. 

In a complex job market, thinking about the traits of the person you need and focusing on those in the advert might give you access to a wider pool of potentially suitable candidates. 

  1. Be willing to grow people

This means, of course, that you may recruit people who can’t hit the ground running. However, remember that hiring purely for skill can be a false economy. They can start working for clients on the first day they arrive but cracks in relationships and eventual performance management issues, resignations or client complaints cost you later on. 

The upfront investment in developing skill with a person who is a great fit for your firm and wonderful with clients may end up being the cost-effective decision. 

  1. Spend longer on the recruitment process

Hiring remotely has helped the recruitment process in some ways. It’s more convenient to schedule an interview with someone who doesn’t have to leave their home to talk to you. You can access talent outside of your local area. And candidates may find the process less stressful meaning you see more of the real person than you would in a formal interview. 

However, there’s a difference between adapting short term to extenuating circumstances and strategically rethinking your recruitment process to adapt to a new normal. 

To find the right people in a tough market, expect to talk for far longer. Really get to know candidates. Introduce them to others in your firm at all levels of seniority and get feedback from them. Combine 1-2-1 conversations with group conversations. Explore personal attributes as well as test for technical aptitude. 

  1. ‘Test’ for new attributes

It’s relatively easy to test candidates for technical skill and you are likely to know whether they are bluffing or not as a technical expert yourself. 

But looking ahead we need to become more skilled at interviewing for attitude and personal qualities. You want to know whether a person can manage themselves autonomously, whether they have personal drive, how they manage their own time and keep up to date with their personal and professional development.

In a hybrid environment, it matters whether people have strong written communication skill since so much business is done by email. Increasingly people want to work more flexibly (it may be one reason they are back on the job market), but being able to do so effectively requires attributes that not everyone demonstrates. 

And you want to ensure they are emotionally resilient, that they have a life outside of work that gives them another focus and some balance, and that they have a support network to prevent isolation or burnout. 

Asking for examples of how they prioritized projects, how they stay in touch with their team, manager and clients when working remotely or how they keep up to date with new developments in the industry may be more important than asking what cloud accounting software they are familiar with. The latter can be learnt. The former is hard to encourage if it isn’t already there. 

Watch How to recruit UK accountants in 2021 on-demand with Lucy Cohen and Blaire Palmer – taking a deep dive into staff recruitment and retention issues in UK accounting firms.

Replies (2)

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By Steve578
01st Jul 2021 07:57

Great question, and I understand the challenges that can come with a big shift like that. The key here, I think, is transferrable skills. Fortunately, it sounds like you have an incredible amount of experience working with other stakeholders, a team, and customers. That’s incredibly useful, because in addition to technical skills, numerous companies are putting more emphasis on “soft skills” such as empathy, communication, and teamwork when they hire.

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By Croteau25
16th Jul 2021 12:35

I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not that good. I also found your posts very interesting. In fact after reading.

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