The continuing business boom has generated a demand for accountants in every sphere that will make seasonal staffing during tax time more difficult than ever, say industry observers."If you're looking for tax people, they're not easy to get, and whoever you do get will be a lot more expensive," said Mike Hurley, vice president of tax for Tampa, Fla.-based Kforce Inc. "Either employees have a good deal where they're at, or they're burned out. Those that have good tax people are making sure they can hold on to them, while others are just getting out of the game. It's hard to find experienced tax people."

"Demand has not backed off - it's as strong as last year," said Jim Wong, co-president of Chicago-based staffing firm Garelli & Wong. "It's very much a candidate-driven market. There are opportunities for candidates that we just don't have."

"What we're seeing is hiring companies changing their requirements to fit the reality for what the marketplace is saying," he said. "Also, they're willing to consider candidates who do not fit every one of their requirements. Companies are becoming more educated and realistic about who they can hire, but there's still a shortage of candidates."

Kris Norris, senior director and business unit leader of Troy, Mich.-based Kelly Financial Resources, agreed. "There is such a talent shortage everywhere," she said. "It was in short supply last year, and this year the demand is greater and there are fewer people in the supply chain."

The requirements for people knowledgeable in Sarbanes-Oxley, FAS 109 and FIN 48 have dried up the potential talent pool for tax compliance staffers, according to Norris. "Last year, many tax professionals moved over to SOX, and they're still there," she explained. "It also made fewer people go into tax - there's a shortage of auditors, but an even greater shortage of tax people. Some of our client firms are trying to get students interested in tax and accounting as early as high school."  

Cyndi McDermott, senior vice president of international staffing firm Ajilon, also predicts an increasingly tight market for tax season professionals. "Demand continues to increase because of the internal control processes that companies put in place because of SOX, and supply has continued to decrease," she said. "Individuals that have a tax background can expand and work on different projects because of SOX. They know they're in such high demand that their going rate can double during tax season, so companies find it's not cost-efficient to hire someone just for tax season. If you can hire someone with that skill set to your permanent staff and stretch and expand that role, then hire temporary staff for other accounting functions - it's more cost-effective."

Get 'em and keep 'em - now

Matthew Meigs, a spokesperson for Robert Half International subsidiary Accountemps, advised that organizations need to start now to put in place the infrastructure and human resources required to manage a heavier volume of work and the pressure of looming deadlines.

"By taking the time to address tax-related staffing issues now, organizations can shield employees from burnout and ensure the company retains its valuable staff for many tax seasons to come," he said.

"Support staff by bearing in mind the importance of work/life balance issues during this time," he recommended. "In a recent Robert Half International survey, 30 percent of chief financial officers polled said that flexible scheduling is the benefit that workers value most."

Jeanne Smith, tax partner at Weaver and Tidwell, a regional Texas firm, resolves the traditional tax season staffing issue by hiring interns, associates and seasonal staff. "We hire interns from universities near our offices, as well as seasonals," she said. "This year we'll be dropping down a grade or two, and recruit sophomores as well as upperclassmen. We try to be flexible with their school schedule - one might work every day at 2 p.m., [while] another might be able to come in Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

"We also have programs where they get class credit for being an intern, based on how many weeks, or the experience they get," she said. "We give the professor a list of the things they will be doing, and track it during the season and hand it back to the professor. The student gets up to three credit hours."

In addition to providing staff during tax season, the program results in permanent hires, according to Smith. "We put them through the same training as our associates, because the ultimate goal, besides getting through tax season, is training and watching people who may be our future associates. If they do a good job, we like to extend an offer or ask them back to work in the fall."

Neither Smith nor Kelly Financial Resources' Norris viewed outsourcing as an answer. "We are reluctant to farm it out because of the ramifications if it doesn't work. We don't see it as a viable long-term solution," said Norris.

"We don't see it as the wave of the future," said Smith. "As an alternative, we're using technology, including scanning software which sorts and produces a PDF file. This allows us to hire people who can work off-site that would never have to come into the office."

Norris said that Kelly also finds intern programs useful in recruiting both permanent and tax-season staff. "We sponsor intern programs and give scholarships because we want to be consultative partners with our clients," she said. "We're also heavily involved with the National Association of Black Accountants."

Retiring Baby Boomers make up a part of the recruiting pool that Kelly uses, according to Norris. "A lot of them don't mind seasonal, 20-to-30 hours a week, short-term contract engagements," she said.

Yet more competition

Competition for tax season staff comes not only from other firms, but from state revenue agencies as well, according to Ginette Comstock, district manager in the Springfield, Ill., office of Manpower. In addition to recruiting preparers for both independent and franchise preparation firms, her office recruits seasonal help for the Illinois Department of Revenue.

"We've worked with the Illinois DOR since 2002," she explained. "We provide about 350 people to augment their permanent staff from February through May. In addition, we provide about 90 year-round contract employees for the DOR." Seasonal positions include mail sorting, data entry, filing and mail delivery. "A lot of retirees love this kind of work," she said.

Many tax preparation firms follow the lead of H&R Block by offering tax courses to potential preparers, and selecting the best students to work during tax season.

Salim Omar, a Matawan, N.J.-based CPA, recruits 10 to 12 staff through his courses. "We teach an advanced course in December to potential preparers, and a more basic course in January to find administrative people," he said.

Chuck McCabe, chief executive of Richmond, Va.-based Peoples Income Tax, has developed a course that he makes available to independent tax business owners. He developed the course in order to find preparers to staff his own firm's 14 locations. "We have over 100 preparers during tax season, and about 85 percent of them are seasonal," he said.

Part of the problem is holding on to tax people before they "burn out," according to Hurley of Kforce. "FIN 48 and SOX and Securities and Exchange Commission oversight all seem to be coming together and taking away that curtain that tax people were comfortable working behind," he said. "When a lot of tax people started their careers, they were left to work and no one challenged where they got the numbers. Now they're feeling more pressure both internally and externally, so many are getting out of the game or finding something simpler."

"The states are much more aggressive these days, so you either have to staff up or get smarter at what you're doing," he added. "It's harder to attract experienced people."

Wong agreed: "Companies that have been successful in hiring in a tight marketplace have been more realistic about what they want in a technical background. Now they're more likely to be looking for the best available candidate, not necessarily one with particular technical experience."

"They're not worried that a candidate may not have retail accounting experience," he said. "They can teach the industry - they just want a good accountant. It's like a football team drafting the best athlete, rather than the best position player."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access