by L. Gary Boomer

I have previously written about the coming retirement of the Baby Boom generation and the pending staffing crisis in the accounting profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Baby Boomers comprise 60 percent of the prime workforce today.

A year ago, it appeared that accounting might run into a shortage of information technology talent around the year 2005 or 2006. Today, it looks like the shortage will occur in the accounting industry first and has already started in selective parts of the country. This is particularly true with auditing and accounting skills.

California firms are reporting shortages of experienced accountants and auditors. This can be directly related to the demand for accountants created by the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform law and the shortage of accounting graduates in the United States. Universities have reported increased enrollments in accounting, but the increases will not be significant enough to offset the number of Baby Boomers scheduled for retirement over the next 10 years. Your firm is unusual if you don’t have any Baby Boomers.

Firms can take a proactive stance in developing and executing strategies that will differentiate them from competitors in both public accounting and industry. Some of those strategies include:

  • Operating from a strategic plan.
  • Developing a training/learning culture.
  • Providing employees with a career advancement plan.
  • Hiring bright people even if they don’t have accounting degrees. Firms can teach technical skills.
  • Improving systems and processes.
  • Utilizing job descriptions and hiring based upon unique ability (this requires testing).
  • Improving the work experience and firm culture.

These strategies require leadership and spending non-chargeable hours working on the firm. According to our most recent survey of firms representing approximately $4 billion of revenue in the accounting industry, firms are just under 50 percent chargeable. Spending some of those non-chargeable hours on these strategies may be the best thing you can do for your firm. Working on the firm is often more important than working in the firm.Let’s take a brief look at each of these strategies and why they are important to firms in their quest for talent.
Strategic plan
It is difficult to attract quality people if the firm doesn’t have a clear and communicated vision. Owners must be on the same page. Too many firms are comprised of owners sharing overhead and operating with multiple visions. Quality people do not like to work in this environment.

A simple, one-page plan that states the firm’s vision, mission, values and strategic objectives will go a long way toward creating a culture in which everyone is working toward common goals. It is important for all personnel to understand the strategic plan and to set their own personal goals and objectives based on the overall firm plan. This strategy will help employees feel connected to the firm by relating their goals to the firm goals.

Training/learning culture
Most accounting firms train their staff, even if at minimal levels. Training and learning are a two-way street where personal development is given a high priority and everyone grows.

Employees are concerned about maintaining and increasing their skills. Hiring a firm training/learning coordinator, providing facilities and continually providing learning opportunities will be a big differentiator among firms.

With regard to technology training, partners and administrative personnel tend to gain the most benefits.

Career advancement
Committed, motivated employees want to improve and advance. Firms that provide opportunities for growth and advancement will also differentiate themselves and be able to attract and retain quality employees. Firms that are not growing tend to rapidly depreciate their intellectual capital. Growth requires planning and attracts talent.

Hire bright people
The fact that the number of accounting graduates is low should not keep firms from hiring bright people. Many bright people did not get a degree in accounting. Look at other industries and employers. They hire the best and brightest and provide training and growth opportunities.

A training/learning culture and career advancement opportunities must exist in order to attract the brightest people. Firms must also be willing to pay above-average wages. Just remember that average is where the worst of the best meets the best of the worst. Average is not good enough for most people and certainly not for the best in the market.

Improve systems
Many of the systems and processes used in firms today have not been reviewed or re-engineered for decades. Technology has been employed, but the systems themselves have not been streamlined to take advantage of the technology.

Unique processes that have meaning and improve the client and employee experience will do wonders for attracting bright people and growing the firm. “We have always done it that way” has never been a good reason to resist change.

Job descriptions and unique abilities
Everyone has unique abilities; the things they enjoy and are exceptional at. In most firms, employees are not tested and matched with a job description. While firms may have the right people on the bus, they often have them in the wrong seats. People are frustrated and generally not very productive when they work outside of their unique ability. The Kolbe Index assists in matching requirements to unique abilities. How productive could your firm be if everyone really liked their job?

Improve the work experience
“Quality of life” is not just a buzzword floating around these days. It is a reality when you are looking at what our new work force expects from us. You are not able to just accept the seasonality of the work we have come to expect. Do something about it. Employees don’t want to work 70-hour weeks from January to April. Firms that are creative in staffing will become more attractive places to work than their peers who simply accept it. Utilizing interns, hiring part-timers and outsourcing are just a few of the strategies that may improve the work experience in your firm.

Accounting is not on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list as one of the top 10 fastest growing occupations. Most of those jobs are in technology and health care. Differentiation is always important in a competitive environment. Therefore, be creative, build relationships and provide leadership.

These are the things that create value.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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