How businesses are dealing with a “super-competitive” recruitment market

Firms are facing a talent shortage. How are they seeking to stem the tide?

Post-lockdown, accountancy firms and finance teams are struggling to recruit the right people. The existing skills shortage has been magnified by the after-effects of the pandemic, with accounting professionals either being risk-averse and not wanting to switch firms or because Covid-19 has encouraged more experienced accountants to take early retirement. Specialist accounting recruiting firm AJ Chambers said last week that the recruitment market is now candidate-driven so firms are having to work harder to remain competitive.

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Yet not many firms are in a position to offer higher salary packages to attract senior financial professionals, so employee benefits including additional holidays, learning and development opportunities and private healthcare are playing higher importance. 

The annual AAT Salary Survey which reports on AAT members’ salaries and benefits including job satisfaction, job security and work-life balance revealed that:

  • Flexi-time, private healthcare, paid time off for study were some of the top employee benefits preferred by AAT members.
  • 60% of members rated flexitime as the most desired benefit.
  • Over half (55%) of AAT members are intending to stay with the same employer over the next twelve months, compared to just 9% who intend to move accountancy firms.

For firms looking to fill senior or more specialist roles, the task is a hard one, especially if many experienced professionals are unwilling to switch firms anytime soon.

We spoke to a group of accountants to find out about their recruitment experiences and how they’re addressing potential hiring challenges.

We approach recruitment like a marketing exercise

Carl Reader, business coach, entrepreneur and chairman of D&T

Although there’s a lot of movement in the recruitment market, there is actually very little movement among those with strong accountancy skillsets – that’s the core problem. There are candidates out there, but the right ones are hard to find. Add to this the existing skills shortage for new types of services and service delivery, it’s made things really, really tough. I’m seeing this issue played out across my own firm and other practices I speak to.

Next steps: We’ve always struggled with traditional hiring routes so we’ve adopted a marketing approach to recruitment, using sponsored advertising or display advertising (billboards) to get the word out. We’re also less reliant on location now than we were. Pre-Covid, we’d recruit candidates within 10 miles from the office but now we’re taking a nationwide approach. The move to remote working has been a godsend for us in terms of recruitment.

Verdict: We approach recruitment like a marketing exercise to promote ourselves better and get the word out.

We’re utilising recruitment agents and social media to engage with younger talent

Christina Nawrocki, managing partner, Wellers

There is a real shortage of new talent entering the market at the moment and a significant lack of quality candidates, it’s unlike anything we have experienced before.

Like many firms, we have struggled to fill roles at all levels with the right candidates. We can certainly find people, but we need to make sure they are the right fit.

This makes future business planning very difficult. We are currently considering a considerable expansion, but having a stable internal resource is essential to enable this, so it just makes everything a little bit more uncertain.

Next steps: We’re returning to using recruitment agents to assist in our search and we’ve found that social media is an effective tool to engage with younger talent. As an example, social media has helped us connect with people our current employees know who are still at college.

Verdict: We’re utilising recruitment agents as well as social media to engage with younger talent.

We’re futureproofing our teams by investing in L&D of new recruits

Nicola Davies, director of people and development, Quantuma

The candidate market has tightened up considerably and recruitment in the sector is very competitive. This can be for several reasons:

Firms are now reactive to potential people moves and are keen to pre-empt any losses of staff rather than training new recruits as a short-term gain. 

Interviewing remotely and working from home may make potential new staff hesitant towards a change in employer.

Firms fostered an increased sense of loyalty during the pandemic, so employees felt protected thanks to furlough schemes.

Next steps: We’re futureproofing our teams by adopting a strategy of bringing people in at junior positions and investing in their development. A number of our staff are working through AAT apprenticeships and we work to support professional qualifications and bring people in specialist positions before they grow and develop.

Verdict: We’re futureproofing teams by bringing in junior staff and investing in their development.

We’re taking a holistic D&I approach to recruitment

Anna Murphy, group head of resourcing at Azets

Recruitment in the accountancy industry is super competitive, and there are very few skilled, experienced candidates available in the market.  Accountants by nature are risk-averse and whilst the world is reopening, there remains a lot of concern about job security. We have noticed a slight increase in the number of offers being rejected due to candidates having a change of heart.

There are specific roles that are increasingly difficult to fill such as audit, senior and tax roles, yet filling these roles have always been challenging.

Next steps: Azets are responding to these challenges by:

  • Improving our basic package and benefits.
  • Introducing new parental and adoption leave benefits.
  • Incentivising teams to refer family and friends.
  • Launching a new campaign to target early retirees and those on a career break.
  • Establishing partnerships with D&I groups and charities to improve diversity.
  • Establishing a graduate programme with mentorship and reverse mentorship opportunities.
  • Enabling a culture of ‘WFA (work from anywhere).

Verdict: We’re taking a holistic D&I approach to recruitment to attract talent while improving existing remuneration packages and working culture.

Succession planning is key to overcome recruitment challenges
Sophie Austin, people partner, MHA Monahans

The bottom line is there are more roles available currently than there are candidates. In my experience, good candidates often have multiple job offers. 

Employers are competing not just on salary but flexibility, location and development opportunities. There’s also the expectation from candidates for a greater degree of flexibility, post-Covid.

There is still a lot of uncertainty overall – some candidates may feel it’s better to stay put and negotiate their current package which employers may be more open to at the moment, given the disruption to the business when they lose great talent.  

For MHA Monahans, as we continue to win new work, the pressure to find new talent is immense. Competition is fierce: not only do we have other practices to contend with, but opportunities within industry, too. 

Next steps: We’re offering competitive salaries and employee benefits packages and we’re benchmarking our market position: are we really shouting about what a great culture we have and how good it is to work here?

In addition:

  • We have a very flexible approach to hybrid working and a generous staff referral incentive scheme.
  • We’ve reviewed our onboarding process to ensure a great candidate experience from day one. 
  • We’ve increased investment in L&D
  • We’re revising our organisational structure to ensure plenty of internal opportunities and clear career progression pathways for existing talent.

Verdict: Succession planning along with benchmarking and reviewing existing benefits and salary packages can address recruitment difficulties.

Firms are fishing for talent in same small pond so alternative hiring methods are essential

Victoria Pounder, head of HR, Moore Kingston Smith

The covid crisis has caused people to pause and reflect on their lives and whether their roles are aligned to their own sense of purpose. This will inevitably create movement in the jobs market, although people are generally still feeling a little unsure of the future and therefore cautious about moving. 

We are certainly finding it difficult to fill certain roles, which suggests either a lack of candidates in the market or a lack of relevant skills.

Accountancy practices are all fishing for candidates in the same small pond, so we are likely to see firms coming up with alternative recruitment methods.

Next steps: We are focusing how to increase job satisfaction and engagement, particularly around creating a good work/life balance as well as listening to feedback, recognising contribution, and articulating purpose.

Verdict: Firms are fishing for candidates in the same small pond, so using alternative recruitment and retention methods such as job satisfaction and employee engagement is essential.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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