If you think the U.S. is the only country grappling with a shortage of accounting professionals, think again.A recent survey released by staffing concern Robert Half International revealed that the drought of human capital in accounting and finance isn’t improving — both here and abroad.

The study, titled the Global Financial Employment Monitor, surveyed more than 5,000 human resources and finance managers in 17 countries and found that more than 56 percent reported difficulty finding skilled job candidates, while 43 percent expressed concern about losing top performers to other job opportunities.

“What we’re finding is that the demand is quite high for our services on all levels,” said Paul McDonald, executive director of Robert Half’s management resources division in Los Angeles. “[Companies] are trying to hire permanently and on a contract basis and are trying to hire consulting services providers in order to help them meet the demand. They’re doing everything they can, working all these fronts simultaneously.”

McDonald noted that staffing needs begin with those employees with between three and five years’ experience in the profession, and then keep rising to the chief executive level.

While senior positions such as chief financial officer and director of accounting are the toughest to fill, the survey also reported candidate shortages for operational support, financial analysis, general accounting and controller positions.

Asia showed the most extreme struggle for staff, with 83 percent of respondents in Japan claiming challenges — a possible result of that country’s implementation of J-SOX, its corporate governance reform. Hong Kong was next, as 82 percent of that country’s respondents noted difficulty in finding expert talent.

Neil Lebovits, president of Ajilon Finance and Legal Worldwide, a specialized staffing and recruiting services firm with its North America headquarters in Saddle Brook, N.J., said that he too has seen how corporate governance standards are tightening abroad and increasing the demand for talent.

“The U.S. is not fighting alone in the war for accounting talent,” he said via e-mail. “The talent crunch for qualified finance professionals is truly global.” He pointed to shifting markets and increased business overseas as a reason why the demand is booming. “Outsourcing has boosted Asian economies, and technology has made business more global. As these trends have taken form and continue to grow, more accountants are needed to handle the uptick in work.”

HIRING TRENDS

The Robert Half poll found that on average, global employers are spending roughly five weeks finding and hiring professionals for staff positions. Unsurprisingly, management roles remained vacant for a longer period of time. The U.S. was grouped with Australia, Canada and New Zealand as countries that were quicker than average to fill management positions, at six weeks.

“Six weeks is normal,” said Tali Nizic, president and CEO of Controllers on Call, a Toronto-based niche staffing organization specializing in the placement of middle-to-executive- level accounting, finance and human resources personnel.

Nizic said that companies are often taken aback when they look to hire and are told that what they are offering isn’t acceptable. “What we’re finding is that candidates today definitely have the upper hand when it comes to remuneration,” she explained. “You can look at it as a shortage of qualified personnel out there, or you can look at it as the business community hasn’t woken up yet to say, ‘Hey, what you were paying five years ago isn’t what we pay today. We need to change the way we look at remuneration.”

TOP-LEVEL TALENT

The survey also addressed those attributes that are most desirable in senior-level executives. Sixty-four percent of the respondents reported expertise in compliance as the first of the top three most important skills to bring to the table. Compliance expertise was ranked ahead of a legal background or public company experience.

Also noteworthy was the importance of information technology proficiency among top executives: 40 percent of employers in the Netherlands, for instance, desired an understanding of enterprise resource planning systems.

ATTRACT AND RETAIN

McDonald said that the companies that RHI works with realize that the stringent requirements of today’s regulatory environment demand high payment — and are willing to pay.

“They understand that if they don’t pay competitive wages, if they don’t pay bonuses, if they don’t review benefits and other types of compensation on a regular basis, if they don’t offer continuing education and job enrichment, that they are going to find they are not going to retain those people very long, if they are lucky to land them into the position,” he said.

“Accounting firms are also being forced to look outside of the box for talent,” said Ajilon’s Lebovits, “increasingly seeking individuals from other fields who are educated and possess a transferable skill set that could easily be applied to the accounting profession.”

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