Gain powerful expert advice and insight in accountancy recruitment

Earlier this week Simon, Elevation Business Manager, had a Q&A with AVN's Andrea Higginbottom. Read on for an insight into recruitment in accountancy 

Tell me a bit about your background?

Business Manager at Elevation Recruitment, 10 years specialist finance recruitment experience gained, 8 years of these have been at Elevation. I recruit qualified accountants for both practice and industry across South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Humberside. 

A common theme that comes up from the smaller accountancy practices is that they say it is really difficult to get the right people for their practices. They say they may get people who are technically competent but can’t seem to find people who want to deal with clients – have you any thoughts?

There is no denying there is generally a talent shortage across a lot of skilled disciplines in the market and finding top quality Accountants are no exception.  I have personally met a lot of accountants over the years and the individuals who are technically good and would also be eager for client interaction and would have an active interest in business development, offering advice to clients and perhaps be wanting a focus on the added value piece to clients, are highly sought after and can certainly be placed in roles time after time. Arguably in my experience these candidates tend to be high in confidence, possess well developed interpersonal skills and a degree of commercial acumen depending on their level of experience they have previously had with clients. They are also able to discuss financial terms in a non-financial way.

To illustrate this point - I recently had a newly qualified ACCA candidate just like this from a small practice (2 partners, 12 employees) and previous to this, he had done his AAT with another smallish firm before being brought across by one of the managers who had set the new practice up. Within just 1 week of picking up the phone to a few clients, I had him 5 interviews - 3 in practice and 2 in industry and he was quickly offered a role in practice with one of the practice firms, having to decline a job offer from another firm and 2nd interviews at the other 3 businesses who were all disappointed as a result of him leaving the market so quickly. 

Attracting people of this calibre faces tough competition from an increasing number of other accountancy practices in the market as people break off from their employers in practice to set up on their own. They are normally quite ambitious people and are attracted to the prospect of joining a new and growing firm where they can prove themselves. Also, probably one of the biggest threats to losing these individuals in the market is them already coming to the decision to make the move to industry in the hope of gaining exposure in a more ‘commercial management role or in a group financial accounting role.

Stephen Ibbotson, director of business at ICAEW said he chose to leave practice and move into industry after building up a wealth of experience with a Big Four firm. He was an auditor with EY and wanted to do something that was more proactive,” he explained. “I wanted to get involved with a company that made a product, and the opportunity to help drive that business forward.”

Where the opportunity for smaller firms could be however, is if these individuals are competing against individuals from larger practices for Group Financial Accounting role in industry, the former sometimes lack the international accounting experience required so often miss out on these roles. As a result they will either move to another small practice in the hope of further development in practice or go into an SME business that they can utilise their experience better.

Jeremy Roberts, A Senior Manager for BT Open Reach trained with  a top-20 firm Moore Stephens, stated that before heading into industry he made the strategic career decision to go to a smaller practice first, to improve his breadth of skills and exposure to different industry sectors.

Do all career oriented candidates go to the bigger firms?

Not necessarily, I have seen people go from big four firms I.e KPMG where they have qualified with them and were focusing more on pure audit either as a senior or manager and chose to work for a smaller independent. This was to work in a more all round role where they could get exposure to special projects and business services where they can get involved in more client interaction and assisting with future business planning. 

Big firms ideally look for people from larger firms as they require the necessary audit experience and that will cater the size of client that they have on their books. 

What can smaller accountancy firms do to attract the right people?

  • Increase business presence - market vacancies on linked in 
  • Attend or sponsor networking events such young chartered accountancy groups to make qualifying chartered accountants more aware 
  • Should it be the case that a smaller practice wants to bring in someone who is technically good and has the desire to deal with clients then It is arguable that the best target candidates would be confident and commercially-minded individuals from other smaller practices as although they have the desire and ability to be client-facing, they enjoy the culture and are accustomed to the smaller accountancy practice. The question would be how you would attract them and get them to work for you. 
  • Enlist the help from recruitment agencies as they will be working with or at least have access to passive candidates 
  • Be more accessible by creating links with colleges/ universities and schools 

What methods are of recruiting?

  • Job board advertising - links to indeed 
  • Graduate recruitment
  • A level school leaver recruitment - offering AATS
  • Networking - events 
  • Linked in/ social media
  • Recruitment agencies 
  • Via word of mouth/ referrals

What will a good agency provide that is different?

  • Meeting all candidates face to face prior to representation or sending them out for interview 
  • Checking credentials I.e qualifications, right to work etc 
  • References will have been achieved if immediately available in the market 
  • Good agencies will not waste your time - if they have people they will send them, if not they won’t. It is quite common for a practice to have a good relationship with a particular agency but if they receive speculative cvs via email from another agency it may be worth looking over as this is how a lot of good practice candidates are marketed out to firms.
  • If you haven’t worked with the agency before just ensure terms are agreed up front. I.e percentage fee for placement (if successfully hired) and rebate terms are agreed, I.e a normal rebate period for a free replacement or proportionate refund (depending on how long they have been with the company is normally 12 weeks.
  • Avoid agencies offering very low fees or free temp to perm (after a short time) it may seem like you are getting a good deal price wise but it means corners must have been cut somewhere along the line and they must not value their service. They are aiming to win business purely on offering low fees. The same goes to industry and practice businesses though, it doesn’t always pay to negotiate a free to a point where it is not commercially viable for a good agency to work to as the consultants time is a precious resource and in a market where there is a talent shortage (of certain types of skilled people) they would sooner work with other businesses that are content with a certain fee level.
  • For example we advertise on 8 job boards, have premium linked in licenses, have generous budgets for networking events and sponsorship deals with the likes of ICAEW, experienced and long standing consultants who know the market with well defined core values to ensure that we have good candidate attraction and strong customer service at all times. We therefore charge higher fees as a specialist and as I mentioned earlier certain candidates are highly sought after so looking at these candidates as a ‘quality product’ that we can easily place in a business, then we will specifically target certain firms that we have pre-arranged and acceptable fees with.

What about job boards? 

If it is what your recruitment budget allows, it is one of the cheaper methods of recruitment but they can be a recruitment cost with no guaranteed return on investment. You have your ad put up for 2-4 weeks on a job board and are relying that your ideal candidate will be searching through the job boards during the time your advert is ‘live’. 

There are three types of candidate - active, passive and inactive.  We know the ‘best’ candidates in the market are generally the passive ones. These candidates are happy in their jobs and potentially doing well for their employer - their employer would be upset to see them go and aren’t aware that they have just one eye on the market. These candidates aren’t necessarily looking at job boards or if they do, it will be infrequent and periodic. These are the candidates that are on LinkedIn as ‘open to opportunities’ or perhaps on an agency database, talking to one or two agencies - just to keep up to date with the market. If their perfect role comes along and is mentioned to them then they will be perhaps interested in meeting with a firm, that is if the development and progression opportunities are there, the location is better or they perhaps get more client interaction or another aspect of accountancy they want to develop their experience in.

What advice would you give our Members?

Successful recruitment is achieved by proactively investing an amount of time and resources into a range of recruitment methods rather than just one. An option is to invest in a premium LinkedIn license and use it to build a network and positive employer brand by posting updates regarding growth, news about the firm, links to your career page in order to generate more knowledge around the market regarding what you can offer people as an employer. You can actively engage with agencies when they send literature or speculative CVs to you – If you just aren’t recruiting or the CV they have sent isn’t quite right at that time, tell them the CV isn’t what you are looking for right now but you would love to continue receiving further CVs of any other interesting candidates that might come to market. When they do and you like the look of a particular CV, agree terms together in a positive way so you are both happy with the outcome and the agency will be more likely to engage and want to work with you and help promote your firm to potentially suitable candidates. Set up good referral schemes in the workplace to promote the idea of your existing staff recommending people for the organisation. There is also a lot to be said for developing home grown talent as well so you have some clear succession planning (if your time and resources allow for this) For a long while now, Some of the bigger firms, especially ‘big four firms’ have been actively engaging with colleges, schools and universities in order to attract trainees at the very start of their careers, providing a platform for learning and paying for their additional accountancy studies, accountancy degrees to create their own ambitious, confident client-facing accountants.  

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