Despite the financial crisis that has engulfed both Wall Street and Main Street, the demand for skilled accountants during tax season remains as strong as ever."Firms continue to hire skilled accountants and they continue to be in short supply," explained Jon Zion, president of eastern U.S. operations for Robert Half Finance & Accounting. "The unemployment rate for highly skilled finance and accounting professionals is 2.5 percent, while the overall unemployment rate is over 6 percent."

That's why a firm looking to hire additional help for tax season needs to begin early, according to Zion.

"Now is the time to be out there and have a strategy in place," he said. "You need to start early and take a look at your staffing patterns from last season. Identify where you need additional personnel or hard-to-find specialists, and how many are full-time and how many are temporary. Since the competition for people is especially high in the tax area, you have to get out and lock people in early."

Glen Dubiel, vice president for professional services at staffing concern Spherion, agreed: "The demographics for tax pros make it difficult to recruit. There still aren't enough college grads that want to go into this area."

Events during the past few years generated a pull away from tax toward more regulatory services as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley and other legislation, Dubiel noted: "But that's pretty much done. There aren't so many distractions now, so tax might now be more in fashion."

Jim Mack, vice president of Kelly Financial Resources, also noted the difference between the general unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for finance and accounting professionals. "The pool is a lot tighter than people realize," he said. "There was a college drop-off four or five years ago, so now there's a gap of qualified people with four or five years' experience. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire as well, so anyone looking to hire someone on a temporary basis has to make a decision quickly. The potential hires out there have more than one opportunity."

"Moreover," Mack continued, "you have to be realistic about your pay scale, especially in tax. Be prepared to pay more of a premium because of the shortage. Someone with four years' experience can demand pretty high pay."

"Most accounting candidates will want to get into a full-time position," he said, "And you need to be candid. Be prepared to lose a candidate if there's not a possibility of a full-time position down the road."

Zion offered a different take: "It's become part of human resource strategy to hire a growing percent of the professional workforce on a temporary contract basis," he said. "Especially in the public accounting sector, I would urge firms to expand in that area, because there's a whole generation of people in the tax and accounting area that don't want to work on a full-time basis anymore. They enjoy working on a contract or temporary basis, and learning about new companies."

"It started in the information technology area, where there's a whole workforce of people working on a temporary basis that have no interest in ever working on a permanent basis," he said. "That attitude has migrated into the accounting area. The old notion that if someone is working on a temporary basis they're not qualified is part of the distant past. In many cases, they're equally or better-qualified, and you have the advantage of dealing with a variable, rather than a fixed, cost."

Jodi Chavez, senior vice president for Ajilon Finance, a division of the Adecco Group, observed a slight increase in qualified candidates as a result of layoffs by the Big Four.

"Those are usually the ones to get hired first, but it's not enough to flood the market place," she said. "Recruiting for the busy season has to start at the end of the previous tax season, because it takes that much time to develop the relationships with qualified candidates to move them from one firm to another. Also, prospective employees are disgruntled with the long hours they put in, and how they were bonused and treated during the season leaves them open to recruiting calls."

Chavez noted a trend toward sign-on bonuses for lower echelons. "Traditionally, these bonuses were given to managers and senior managers, but this year we're seeing a trend to associate-level employees, which reflects the competitive nature of the accounting field," she said. "Generation Y definitely demands a different work lifestyle. The more successful CPA firms are doing a lot more college recruiting. They're providing housing for interns, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the busy season."

WHAT THE FIRMS SAY

Lane Bassham, marketing and recruiting director at Atlanta-based HLB Gross Collins PC, said her firm does just that: "We hire interns for the busy season, and in most cases are prepared to offer them a permanent position. They usually accept, but we offer it for a September start date. That way they get one more summer off, and time to study for their CPA Exam."

"September and October are our heavy recruiting months on college campuses for the January start date," she said. "We treat interns like first-year hires, which is why 99 percent of the time they end up in a full-time position with us the next fall."

Bassham noted that average turnover in the profession, at 20 percent, is second only to the fast-food industry. "Our turnover is less than 7 percent," she revealed. "I don't see how we could function if we approached the industry average."

Mark Robinson, founding partner of New England regional firm KAF Financial Group, agreed. "Our staffing strategy is to keep everybody that we have," he said. "We try to make our firm a great place to work. A lot of firms have bought into work/life balance now, but we've been doing it for a number of years and we're still committed to it. We lost one person on our professional staff this past year out of about 30, and they didn't go to another firm, they left the profession."

Robinson instituted the Project Balance program three years ago. "We only work four Saturdays during the season, and we're committed to work only three nights a week. We found that people are just as productive that way."

The firm does not hire temporary workers, but is flexible with staff that can't commit to full-time hours. "Because of their family situation they may only be able to work 30 hours a week, but they're terrific employees, and we don't consider them temporary. That's helped us - five or 10 years ago, we probably wouldn't have been so flexible."

He does not, however, see the supply of qualified candidates getting any stronger. "The three-to-eight-year professional just isn't there," he said.

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