The continuing business boom, rising client demand and the movement of tax professionals toward other accounting niches has generated varied responses to staffing needs, as firms turn to remote technology, outsourcing, part-time former employees and retirees and college students to fill the personnel void.Meanwhile, the overall demand for accountants has dried up the available supply of tax professionals, according to industry observers.

"We're more oriented toward permanent hires than temporary hires, because the tax and accounting market is so tight," said Allan Hartley, president of New Jersey-based AccountAbilities Inc., a provider of financial staffing services to CPA firms and other businesses. "It's at virtually full employment."

"Tax and finance will remain heavily in demand, as they have been for the last two or three years," said Doug Lowery, area managing director for Chicago-based financial staffing recruiter Garelli Wong & Associates. "The real story is that there's still a lack of supply of good candidates. There's a supply and a demand pendulum, and currently the supply is low but the demand is high. Enrollments in accounting programs are back up, but still not to the level that we need."

"The Big Four and public accounting firms will continue to struggle to find people and salaries will continue to increase," he added. "People who have been in the industry for six to nine years are at a premium."

As a consequence, it may already be too late for some firms to find extra staff they need for tax season, according to Lowery. "Firms need to be constantly recruiting and marketing and networking. They need to be on campus and get students when they're sophomores or juniors."

Glenn Dubiel, vice president of professional services for staffing provider Spherion, agreed. "If you have one hire to make, it's not too late, but if you have several, you've probably missed the boat," he said. "The market is very competitive in the sense of finding degreed accountants for tax work."

Dubiel noted that accounting firms are reaching deeper to find qualified candidates. "They would formerly only accept from a select tier of students, but now they've opened up. There's been a mindset change due to the number of people needed and the number deciding to make accounting their profession. If we see a one- or two-year degreed staff accountant, we can absolutely find that person a job immediately," he said.

"Like last year, the market is still very tight," said Kim Hayek, regional manager for Kelly Financial Services. "Things aren't loosening up in either tax or audit. If you find a good candidate, you need to move immediately." Many firms lose qualified candidates because they don't make a decision quickly, according to Hayek. "We're seeing candidates fall off after the interview because the offer wasn't made soon enough," she said. "You can't wait for four more resumes. You have to be prepared to make an offer immediately."

"Tax people are moving over to take other opportunities," Hayek noted. "Be aware that folks in your tax department are getting called by headhunters on a daily basis."

Kelly's intern program, Future Financial Professionals, works with clients in bringing in college students and giving them hands-on experience. "It's been extremely successful in hiring accounting interns to clients," she said. "At the end of the season, we have them write essays on a particular accounting topic. The judges are professors and potential partners with CPA firms. The top three receive scholarships." The program helps clients get good candidates lined up, as well as providing the students in the marketplace.

"Start now, and have a good idea of what you're looking for," she advised. "In the past, you could say you want all 10 points covered in a resume. That's not the case anymore. You have to decide whether you will settle for seven or eight points, and where your flexibility lies. If you don't have flexibility, you're not going to get the candidate."

One of the reasons for the fewer people available to do tax work is because of the number now involved in Sarbanes-Oxley work, according to Andrew Ernst, regional vice president for Ajilon Finance. "It's generally difficult to find accounting people, but this is especially true for tax people," he said.

"We're looking at stay-at-home parents who want temporary seasonal work," he said. "Companies have to be more flexible than they were five or 10 years ago. If they're not, they will be understaffed."

Ernst noted that firms now need to look for the best candidate, rather than one with a specific skill set. "We have to educate our clients that this is what's going on. You can't have everything you want anymore."

Ron Blair, managing director of the Glendale, Calif., office of financial staffing concern Century Group, observed that there are fewer available professionals with tax experience. "The talent pool is stretched thin," he explained. "A lot has to do with the fact that audit is the hot ticket these last few years, with SOX and financial accounting drawing people away from tax."

"We see two trends," he continued. "One is that companies are increasingly interested in retaining more senior employees through these peak periods by allowing them to work on a seasonal basis. The other is using former employees, especially women with young children at home but who have great skills and experience. It allows them a chance to work on a part-time basis and be well compensated because their skills are in demand."

Rick Wilcox, managing director at professional services firm Jefferson Wells' Houston and Austin offices, sees the same trends. "People who at one time in their career were on the fast track but got off to have a family, and aging Boomers, are prime examples of the talent we seek," he said. "Most of them don't want to get back on the fast track, so the model we have gives them three choices: to be salaried, to work 30 hours per week with benefits, and to work as a contractor."

The Baby Boomers are most interested in the second category, according to Wilcox. "They love the idea of working less than 40 hours, getting benefits and still going home at night," he said.

FIRM SOLUTIONS

Rob Carmines, of Newport News, Va.-based Carmines Robbins & Co., has used remote technology for a number of years to help with tax-season staffing. "We have several people that can work from home and come in periodically," he said. "One is an enrolled agent with an elderly relative. She would not be able to continue working with us without that technology. And we have another employee that works as a bookkeeper at the private school her kids attend. She supplements her income by working for us evenings and weekends, most of the time remotely from home."

Braintree, Mass.-based KAF Financial Group dealt with its staffing problem by facing head on the work/life balance issue, according to founding partner Mark Robinson. "We suffered a fair amount of professional staff turnover in recent years, particularly among the younger people coming into the profession," he said. "Last year we developed what we call 'Project Balance.' We closed the office at 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday, with no exceptions. The other step was to only require two Saturdays of work before March 15, and two more before April 15. The office is officially closed on four Saturdays during tax season."

To accomplish this, the firm educated its clients about the need to spread out the workload, said Robinson. "We also became a project-based firm," he said. "We stopped thinking about billable hours and started thinking in terms of getting the work done. We became more focused on working as a team to deliver projects, not on getting 75 billable hours per week."

The results were dramatic, according to Robinson. "This coming tax season we'll have every single person that we had last year. In previous years, we paid a significant amount in headhunter fees to find qualified staff. Now it's next to zero."

Productivity actually increased, he observed. "We got more work done, and more returns out the door, than in the previous year. And nobody suffered from burnout."

"We're attracting talented, quality, professional people, and this program has made the difference," he said. "People are now inquiring about working here based on the reputation of the program."

The firm also outsources some returns as a means of getting its tax practice under control, said Robinson. One of his partners, Mark Albrecht, founded tax outsourcing company Xpitax to provide outsourcing for CPAs to better manage the tax-preparation process.

"Our audit staff used to have three to five returns put on their desk every night for preparation by the morning," he said. "This would be one of the reasons we had staff turnover. Outsourcing of individual returns is about the quality of life for the professionals that work here."

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