Is the staffing crisis that’s supposedly plaguing firms these days real or are firms just not taking the right steps to hire and retain the right people? After moderating a panel about staffing issues at Intuit’s Accounting Professionals User Conference in San Diego last month, I started to believe the latter. The panel primarily consisted of CPAs from small firms who have succeeded in on-boarding and keeping qualified candidates. The purpose was to highlight some of their best practices in hopes that some members of the audience could follow in their footsteps. Intuit surveyed attendees to this conference in advance, asking them what their biggest staffing issue was. Not surprisingly, the No. 1 answer, by 55 percent of respondents, was a lack of qualified candidates, followed by the inability to compete with salaries from larger firms (26.5 percent) and a lack of temporary/contract works (17.4 percent). A few key ideas emerged from the panel that deserve highlighting: hiring the appropriate people to begin with, being flexible, providing benefits (not necessarily monetary) and being innovative with places to find outside help. Many of these seem like no-brainers, but sometimes the obvious things are what get the most overlooked. Panelists who advertised on sites like Monster.com received a lot more resumes, but they found better results going through channels such as trade Web sites and newspapers, local associations, networking sites and referrals through others in the industry. Oftentimes, prospective employees would come in claiming to know QuickBooks, but when asked to walk employers through particular scenarios, it became clear those prospects had simply taken a one-day course to seem more knowledgeable than they actually were. Don’t take people on their word. One panelist issues timed tests and has found the average score to be a 12 out of 35. When one interviewee scored a 32, he hired that person immediately. Imagine how much time he could have wasted fixing these other people’s errors or having to retrain them had he not designed that exam. Personality matters, too, and sometimes even more so than technical skills. Especially in small firms, if someone does not fit in with the rest of the staff’s culture, the clash is obvious and often uncomfortable and could lead to lost productivity. One panelist goes as far as to issue personality tests from a third party to assess what type of manager that person would be based on a series of words they select to describe themselves and how others would describe them. Work-life balance means different things to different people. Some panelists allow their staff to work from home on occasion but require them to fill out detailed client reports by a certain time the next morning so the work and time they committed is accounted for. It’s also OK to try something, see it doesn’t work, and try something different instead. One panelist switched to four 10-hour workdays with Fridays off, but his employees ended up hating it because all they seemed to do was work and sleep. So he switched to a schedule where the staff works 8 to 5:30 Mondays through Thursdays and leaves the office at noon on Fridays, which they enjoy. He also closes the office at noon on April 15, Christmas Eve and the day after Thanksgiving and takes the staff to lunch, and he gives them their birthdays off with pay. Another panelist took her staff to see “Sex and the City” and to a spa on a separate occasion. The money that it costs to do those types of things may not seem like a lot if put into a bonus check with taxes deducted, but it makes the staff feel appreciated and also serves as a bonding opportunity. One of the most inspiring moments took place prior to the panel, when George Gerstenfeld, the director of marketing for Intuit’s Accounting Professionals Division, introduced the Inuit Accountant Work Exchange, in which accountants with too much tax and accounting work to handle can connect with people who are looking for additional projects. Gerstenfeld asked the audience who among them was ready to dish out some of their work to others, and hands went up throughout the room. Then he asked how many attendees were hungry for work and looking to grow their practice. More hands went up. “You should be talking to each other,” he said. They should be, but they aren’t. According to the pre-conference survey, only 9.7 percent of attendees had utilized services from other accounting firms in the past two years. The work exchange is currently a free service (http:// workexchange.intuit.com), though I suspect that may change. It’s too early to determine whether it will be successful, but it’s a way of networking and getting referrals through other accountants, which 34.2 percent of those surveyed said was an effective way to attract great hires. Exchanging workloads could be done on a more intimate level by socializing with other accountants in the same town (or across the nation, if concerns about competition exist). Maybe it’s time to stop whining about the staffing crisis and start talking about realistic ways to solve it.
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