Regional firms must find new ways to recruit talent
“Bigger is better.” The American cultural preference that all things big must be best certainly carries through to the accounting industry. This resonates with many job-seekers, who assume careers and job opportunities in the Big Four accounting firms must, of course, provide the best career opportunities.
So the “Bigness Bias” presents a challenge for regional firms competing in a scarce market for top talent – how do we as a regional player get on the radar, not just for new college recruits but also experienced professionals who might be looking for a new position? How do we find these people, and confront their stereotypes about pay levels, career growth opportunities and quality of the client work experience?
Our firm has built a successful recruitment program over the past few years that has dramatically improved our flow of qualified candidates. It didn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen without some creative approaches. And it doesn’t happen without consistent, uninterrupted effort.
Before we describe some of the approaches that have proven successful at our firm, let me share how we’re structured and what we were trying to achieve. Bober Markey Fedorovich is a Top 20 independent CPA and business advisory firm, founded in 1959, with two offices in Northeast Ohio. Our recruitment effort is led by me in my role as director of human resources, along with one of our HR staff members who functions as our recruitment specialist. Her role is to be a constant advocate and present our story to candidates, to help us find candidates either alongside or ideally in advance of the Big Four or recruiters. Candidate recruiting is an ongoing core focus for our HR team, which goes far beyond the traditional HR staff tasks relating to benefits and compliance matters.
Several years ago, we were paying close to six figures to recruiters as our primary talent channel, a figure that we’ve now nearly eliminated as we’ve built our own pipeline thanks to a variety of programs. Rest assured, we’re still spending those same resources, yet we’re doing it in ways that have raised our profile in the community while producing qualified candidates.
What accountants want
As our marketing colleagues would advise us, it was critical to our success to ensure that we understood our audience and what they want at both a personal and professional level. Millennials do in fact want different things from their careers than our partners may think. In truth, we often found those same themes were important to include when we’re recruiting for managers and senior managers who might have five to 10 years of experience in the market already.
So at the start, we positioned ourselves against the national mega-firms with several key themes:
- Work-life balance is always at the top of their concerns. You’ll still work hard here and we’re not looking for “coasters,” but regional firms typically aren’t measuring your value by whether you log 2,800-3,000 hours annually for the rest of your career.
- Better variety. While it’s common to work on the same account or project for weeks or months at a time at large firms, a regional firm typically gives people far more variety in projects and exposure to more industries. Many assignments from multiple companies lead to a more interesting and diverse professional experience.
- Giving back. Our firm has a legacy of community involvement that is highly attractive to many of the candidates we meet. We publish annually a list of 70+ nonprofits that our employees support, and it’s often one of the early topics of discussions in our interviews. Civic engagement is a core value for many people in their 20s and 30s, so our community involvement aligns with those we’re trying to attract.
- Pay scales that surprise. When we run our college recruiting programs, I’ve asked participants what they think a partner can make at a regional firm. They typically underestimate regional salaries by a factor of three or more!
Armed with those four key themes, we’re ready to take our story to the market and change some opinions about regional firm career opportunities.
The loudest voice doesn’t always win
We’ll never have recruiting budgets larger than our mega-firm competitors, so we’ve built a program that we think works better for us as a regional player. Because merely listing job openings on our Web site no longer cuts it.
Perhaps our most creative approach has been our new Summer Leadership Program, a two-day immersion program aimed at sophomore and junior accounting majors. The Northeast Ohio market is so saturated with accounting firms that we realized we needed to talk up the benefits of regional firms long before students reached their senior years. They often form conclusions – and assumptions – about where they plan to spend their accounting careers, and we wanted to ensure that they were considering career paths at a regional as well as a mega-firm.
With 15 students in the program, we can have a real discussion with them (and by extension their accounting major friends) about what a career in regional firm public accounting is really like. Many consider public accounting in general as a “churn-and-burn” experience. It’s the ideal time to discuss perceptions about pay, work variety, work-life balance, and even corporate stability. Some students feel regional firms offer less stability than corporate or Big Four accounting careers, so the program allows us to address those concerns head-on.
Experienced professionals present their own set of challenges in recruiting. In this arena, our social media platforms have been critical for us, but we think that’s because of the subtlety of our efforts, rather than any head-on approach. We certainly list job openings on LinkedIn, but we’re identifying candidates and reaching out to them with direct messages on the platform. We can see when they visit our social media channels or my own LinkedIn profile, so it’s a perfect time to quietly ask them if they’re interested in talking about a career change.
Our approach is less social media and more conversation media, driven by one-on-one messages on the platform that have been critical to finding candidates who fit our culture and values. It’s a gentler approach that emphasizes relationship-building over time. We understand it may not be the right time today, and we underscore that you won’t offend us if you say it’s not the right time to consider other career opportunities.
Our Facebook page takes the same values-message approach, rather than what many firms do. We’re not posting tax advisories and other matters relating to the accounting profession. Instead, we’ve branded it as our “Bober Markey Fedorovich Life and Careers” page, with information about our nonprofit activities and social programs, even including photos of our children during Halloween. Candidates can quickly get a taste of the firm’s activities and see a sense of the personality and culture. We’re not a large firm, but we have four staff members who work on our Facebook content. It’s not a top-down upper management-directed approach, but rather a peer-to-peer presence that describes what it’s like to work here.
For most of our candidates, our civic engagement is a true advantage in recruiting. We’ve gone far beyond the rote United Way campaign or canned food drives common in other firms, to where the nonprofit priority is embedded in our culture. Interns have even asked during interviews if they’d be allowed to participate, though they’re not permanent staff members.
This sense of contributing to something more than ourselves is common today, far beyond the Millennial stereotype. We’ve seen that 10-to-15-year professionals find the same value in social philanthropy and the impact it has on the work-life experience, so we’ve made it a core theme for our recruiting.
Just as word-of-mouth drives many businesses, we use it to drive our recruiting as well among members of our own staff. The firm began a formal recruitment incentive program in 2010, in which we pay a referral for any candidate we eventually hire. The incentive is significant, worth up to 5-10 percent of annual salary depending on the referrer, and we also pay a bonus for administrative referrals (although at a lesser amount, of course). Sometimes recruiting quality individuals to join us at the firm is not top-of-mind, and our program helps remind us all that we’re the best recruiters we can have.
The program continues to gain traction and has a remarkably high success rate. People only refer those they respect and know would fit our culture, which is a tremendous advantage for us. They also seem to have “skin in the game,” so they tend to go out of their way to help our new employee make a smooth transition into the firm.
Our campus recruitment programs have been expanded from two campuses to seven. It is a tremendous investment of time, but the results encourage us to continue those programs with the college career centers. We’ve formalized the recruitment campus process, with a core recruitment team that has been trained in competency-based interviewing skills. Our program involves our campus recruiter visiting the same candidates from beginning to end, and several elements of the interviewing process have been abandoned such as the assessments or the all-day interviews that made candidates feel de-personalized. Because we’ve already had multiple touch points with the same interviewers, these older tactics are no longer necessary for us, since we feel we already know our candidates very well.
As a regional firm, we’ve picked our methods carefully so we can ensure they have enough impact to be effective. We have to be more active at recruiting than other sectors of the accounting profession, and must remain ever-present and visible, even though we may have no open positions for them on any given day. We’ll still spend thousands annually on job ads when we have an opening, but relying solely on that as a tactic is too reactive for a regional player. It’s almost as if you’re at a cold start with a job posting, rather than dealing with a warm pipeline of potential candidates.
Even though as a two-person HR team, we’ve shown early success with our efforts, our next steps will be to engage the entire firm in word-of-mouth recruiting. It’s critical to build our brand on a variety of levels, and if you’ve never heard of us, you’re far more likely to gravitate to the Big Four than a regional firm.
Recruitment is a tough game
Whether you’re a regional firm or a mega-firm, public or private, accounting talent is hard to find. No one’s looking for just anyone; we all need the candidates who fit our skills, profiles and culture. In fact, this isn’t a unique problem just for the accounting field. I have friends in technology who face the same hiring challenges, and I found similar difficulties in my prior position recruiting for a law firm.
There’s no shortcut in building talent. We’ve found that while we have many attributes that are appealing, we have to work harder and more effectively than our colleagues at the Big Four or the corporate side. We’re fortunate that we have the technology and tools such as social media that perhaps level the playing field a bit, but nothing comes without a plan, the right message, and the execution to make it all come together.