For all the effort firms put into the recruiting process, it is unfortunately only one part of the process. Once a firm has its recruits lined up, the focus then shifts to retaining them, keeping them professionally satisfied and (hopefully) securing a long-term talent bench for the firm.
But today’s work environment is constantly changing, and firm leaders need to embrace this change in order to keep new professionals from seeking greener pastures.
While many firms have stepped up their game in terms of building a more attractive working environment to foster young talent, a significant number of millennials still consider job-hopping to be an option early on in their careers.
According to Deloitte’s “2017 Millennial Survey,” which polled approximately 8,000 full-time employed, college-educated millennials across 30 nations, 38 percent of respondents reported that they expect to leave their current employer within the next two years, with only 31 percent of young people anticipating staying on board beyond five years. Additionally, Accounting Today’s own 2018 “Year Ahead” survey found that the No. 1 concern among large firms was “recruiting/retaining good employees,” significantly more than any client, regulatory or technology-related issue. What is driving these trends?
Firms have a fair share of options to keep young talent, but experts in the field stress that the most successful factors revolve around ensuring that millennials have a proper career path and feel included in the firm’s inner-workings. “Younger professionals are looking for work with a purpose, and they need to feel connected to seasoned leaders, clients and projects,” said Sandra Wiley, president of Boomer Consulting. “They are leaving when they are not getting the opportunities that they need to make them feel like they are an important part of the future of the firm.”
“They [leave when they] aren’t inspired by the career options/pathways offered by the firm,” said Jennifer Wilson, co-founder and partner at consulting firm ConvergenceCoaching. “They don’t feel related to or cared about by firm leaders [or] they don’t feel they’re going to be developed in the areas they most want to grow.”
Flexible work arrangements are also increasingly seen as a must. Deloitte’s “2017 Millennial Survey” reports that approximately two-thirds of millennial respondents claimed to have flexible work scenarios allowed by their employer, with another 64 percent reporting that they have a flexible work location.
"One of the biggest issues impacting retention among younger generations at accounting firms is the long hours and how this can adversely impact work-life balance,” said Laura Schroeder, vice president of staffing agency Accounting Principals. “It can be tough to juggle both work and personal commitments given the demands of the job, especially during tax season, and some young people decide early on that it’s not for them.”
“Outside of busy season, the concerns we hear pertain to cutthroat atmospheres, unpredictable schedules, and too much travel,” said Brian Haugh, president of recruiting firm Chicago Search Group. “The sacrifice to become a partner, which used to be the end goal, is no longer worth it to young people. Work/life balance is more important to young employees now, and they will leave [even] a respected Big Four firm to find it.”
“The issue goes beyond the traditional way we think about work/life integration,” said Julie Wood, chief people officer at Top 10 Firm Crowe Horwath. “[Young] people want to work differently from those who came before them. We do not see them as wanting to work less, but wanting to have more say in their work and where their work gets done. They are also looking for a sense of purpose and ability to make an impact through their work.”
Knowing millennials are seeking more meaningful work and the flexibility in which to do it, what can firms offer them in return?
“To build a successful retention program, firms must consider that younger generations want to have a seat at the table,” said Schroeder. “Their eagerness to have a voice and influence within the company should not be overlooked.”
“The new [retention] factors involve growing their career faster, and working with clients face-to-face much sooner than they have historically,” said Wiley. “New education programs that are teaching higher-level skills in the area of advisory and consultative conversations are becoming more and more important not just to our overall practice, but specifically for the young professional.”
Firm leadership is another vital component. “It starts with firms remembering the adage, ‘People don’t quit their firm; they quit their boss,’” said Wilson. “So, [the] first factor for retention [is] relationship. If there are leaders in the firm who are anti-relationship, then firm leaders must address the behavior of these ‘anti-retention’ leaders and ensure that no team member is exposed to them any longer.”
“Firms will need to reconsider the traditional apprenticeship model and be creative when developing career paths for people,” said Wood. “We need to allow them to be able to move around, reinvent themselves and innovate with the same organization so they do not leave to gain that experience.”
Once firms implement their new retention strategies, they also need to actively record their progress and the new strategies’ effects on employees. In addition to the hard numbers, firms would also be wise to analyze the reasons employees consider leaving.
“Nearly all the candidates we work with come out of large public accounting firms, and we see two mass exoduses during the year,” noted Haugh. “The first is in the summer, soon after busy season, when … these candidates cannot fathom the thought of another busy season and want out immediately. The second exodus is late summer/fall, the effect of two separate reasons: one, the thought of the looming busy season causes candidates to rethink their situation, and two, because they did not get the increase, bonus or promotion they were expecting and/or promised. Firms should be more serious about assessing the happiness and satisfaction of their employees and figure out why such big groups are fleeing at specific times.”
“The majority of firms are tracking the percentage of employees that leave each year, [but] what they are not doing is analyzing the ‘why’ with an open heart and mind,” said Wiley. “Much of the time, firms make excuses, and identify reasons why people don’t fit their firm, and almost say, ‘We are glad they are gone.’ If someone from the outside looks at their turnover, they might see trends in culture changes that need to happen, leaders that need to change their style, or skills of people that are leaving, [and] that will be exceptionally valuable in the future.”
Along with an annual employee engagement survey, Wilson advocates for separating turnover statistics into three categories: involuntary turnover (a poor fit), desirable voluntary turnover (those who quit, but it’s for the best), and lastly, undesirable voluntary turnover. “This is the killer category,” Wilson said. “These people quit, and they are the exact type of people we most want to keep. This is the one statistic we should carefully monitor and want to drive downward.”
“[Firms] should implement listening strategies to sense how people are doing throughout the year,” said Wood. “Annual engagement surveys are valuable, but too infrequent in today’s dynamic environment where things can and do change quickly.”
While no one can surely predict what factors will shape retention over the next decade and beyond, firms can get a head start by listening to what tomorrow’s workforce desires most.
“To retain young people moving forward, firms should look beyond competitive pay and place an emphasis on benefits such as flexible scheduling and socially conscious efforts,” said Schroeder. “It’s also crucial to offer clear opportunities for growth, and this doesn’t have to simply involve promotions. Providing opportunities for younger talent to have increased visibility in the firm and build meaningful connections with senior leadership will also play a role in retaining them.”
“Firms who resist the desired cultural and business model changes and/or fail to build relationships with their people will see continued turnover of their best and brightest future leaders,” urged Wilson. “Ultimately, those firms will find themselves without a sustainable successor group.”
“In candidate-driven markets, employees have the upper hand,” said Haugh. “Firms will have to make employees happy to keep them around. Make young employees part of the decision-making process and build them into leaders so that they want to stay with the company that treated them with respect and groomed them into great employees.”
“Providing a positive culture and being values-driven is fundamentally critical to retaining staff,” said Wood. “A culture of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit is critical, especially as we look ahead to the next generation joining our firms — allowing them to challenge old ways of doing things, leveraging technology to drive efficiency and effectiveness in work, and providing avenues for new ideas to be brought forward and considered.”
“[Young people] want to help in the transformation that is happening in their firm,” added Wiley. “If they are a part of the solution, they are all in. If they are being left out, they may decide to get out.”
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