The end of the war for talent?

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It is the best of times to be an accountant — but it is the absolute worst of times to try to hire an accountant.

General unemployment in the United States is below 5 percent, and unemployment in accounting is around half that. At the same time, demand for people with the aptitudes and skills that make good accountants is rising faster than the supply, giving potential members of the profession more options than they’ve ever had. The result has seen salaries rising, accounting firms of all sizes struggling to fill open positions, firm leaders routinely reporting recruiting and retention among their top concerns, and the profession as a whole engaged in a decade-long “war for talent.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the war may soon start to cool down and, if not return to the status quo antebellum, at least achieve a sort of armed neutrality. The factors behind this are just as complex as the ones that gave rise to the staffing struggles in the first place:

  • Automating and outsourcing. Technology and expanded capabilities for sending work abroad are beginning to blunt some of the need for inexperienced staff, as much of the grunt work done by accountants just out of college is handled elsewhere. This is creating the “diamond-shaped firms” of the future, which have much smaller entry-level cohorts. (They will need to fill much larger cohorts of experienced staff, but we’ll deal with that later.)
  • Leveraging technology more broadly. Automation is leading to entry-level efficiencies, but when combined with artificial intelligence, the move to the cloud, better integration of systems and data sources, and a host of service-specific software solutions (from data analytics capabilities to brand-new tools for auditing), it will take fewer accountants to do ever-more, and ever-more complex and valuable, work.
  • Embracing remote work. As more and more firms are willing to hire, accommodate and manage remote workers, they are vastly expanding their pool of potential job candidates, and creating a much more efficient job market for the profession.
  • Becoming workplaces of choice. As battle-hardened veterans of the war for talent, accounting firms have learned what it takes to recruit and retain top talent. By adopting a host of best practices, from mentoring and dress-for-your-day policies to empowering accountants earlier and earlier in their careers, the profession is steadily closing the gap with some of its main competitors for employees, including finance and the tech world.
  • Recruiting non-accountants. Not every job at an accounting firm needs to be performed by an accountant; not every leadership role needs to be filled by a partner. More and more firms are opening up to the possibilities inherent in hiring non-CPA experts for a wide range of positions, and thus accessing whole new realms of talent.

To be sure, these trends won’t return the profession to a bygone age where a flood of eager young graduates filled every position, and firms could happily whittle them down to a partner class. Recruiting and retention will remain critical functions, and the war for talent will go on (though hopefully not in its all-too-frequent Freudian formation of “the war on talent”), but we can at least hope that, going forward, it will be more cold than hot.

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