The race for talent: The acquisition and retention landscape across the profession

Santiago Bedoya-Pardo explores the complexities behind how global accounting firms are seeking to acquire new talent amidst a global shortage, and most importantly, how they are seeking to retain said talent. 

Since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, several industries throughout the world have faced a series of issues in the field of human capital. While these trends have been most pervasive in sectors such as manufacturing and engineering, the professional services sector has also come to be affected by this crisis. Accounting firms are constantly on the lookout for new talent to fill their ranks with individuals equipped with the appropriate skillsets, yet in a field characterised by constant competition and a relative lack of supply in terms of such candidates, the strategies being employed by firms are constantly evolving.  

This reality is further evidenced by research published by the Professional & Business Services Council. 'According to the results of their joint report with the Financial Services Skills Commission, an estimated 32% of accounting firms in the UK are currently afflicted by shortages in finance and business services skills. However, it was not the pandemic alone that led to this. According to the research, several factors have contributed to it, leading to an environment changing at a pace faster than firms can keep up with. Such factors have come to include the rise of digitalisation, global connectivity, and artificial intelligence (AI), all of which have accelerated exponentially, forcing organisations to develop nuanced and dynamic talent acquisition and retention models.  

The research published by the Professional & Business Services Council and the Financial Services Skills Commission is further supported by research by tax compliance solution software provider, Avalara. According to the company, 84% of surveyed CFOs in the US and the UK “face a significant talent shortage” within their accounting and finance teams. According to the findings, the problem would seem to be more severe in the UK, with 92% of CFOs noting that they actively struggle to recruit their needed finance talent compared to three-quarters (76%) of CFOs surveyed in the US.

Commenting on this, Avalara CFO, Ross Tennenbaum, said: “Finance leaders must balance their company’s business dynamics while navigating unpredictable waters, given the pressures of high inflation, growing talent gaps, and concerns over an impending recession. 

“The rise of artificial intelligence will help finance leaders around the world find new ways to drive savings and help make their current teams more energised by streamlining and automating repetitive accounting and financial tasks to help manage the accountant talent shortage gap that the majority of CFOs are facing.” 

With this in mind, The Accountant reached out to a number of accounting firms operating both in the UK and globally, seeking to better understand what strategies are being deployed by their HR departments in order not only to attract talent, but also keep it.  

In the search for fresh talent, one of the key objectives firms have is the strategic identification and targeting of potential candidates; candidates that will be equipped with the appropriate skills to fulfil their roles in the profession. Approaches to this vary greatly – RSM UK people partner, Dan Thompson, said:

We have a specialist in-house recruitment team that is aligned by service line. The team partners closely with the business to understand its needs and specialist areas. This gives the recruiters a deep understanding of what ‘good’ looks like in the particular required skillsets rather than being generalists.

Dan Thompson

RSM UK people partner

In contrast, Moore Kingston Smith recruitment manager, Faye Spruce, sought to highlight the key role played by networks. Spruce said:

We seek to engage with the accounting and wider professional services communities, through our vast industry network and connections, strong partnerships with specialist recruitment agencies, and advertising on job boards.

Being part of the Moore Global network affords secondment opportunities between member firms, and encouraging employee recommendations with a generous referral scheme enables us to tap into our people’s networks.

Faye Spruce

Moore Kingston Smith recruitment manager

Grant Thornton UK people director, Richard Waite, added:

At Grant Thornton we have a number of ways that we approach the market. My team recruits for everything from school leavers, and graduates all the way through to new partners and directors. And the way that we attract talent differs depending on the level of candidate that we're looking for.

We use a number of different methods, from head-hunter led market mapping to candidate direct sourcing. We do marketing and advertising, social media campaigns, as well as outreach and events. Referrals are also an important aspect of how we attract talent. We know that great people know great people, and this drives top candidates towards us. And our alumni community is also an important source of talent.

Richard Waite

Grant Thornton UK people director

However, the identification of candidates is not by itself sufficient to guarantee organisations a steady supply of apt joiners. As pointed out by the Professional & Business Services Council’s report, organisations need to keep themselves up to date with an ever-evolving technological landscape. The implementation of new platforms and software is now more important than ever before.

This is a fact acknowledged by Spruce, who said: “At Moore Kingston Smith, we’ve engaged a new applicant tracking system (ATS) which will augment our ability to source and assess skills, with capabilities to recommend a shortlist of candidates with suitable skills based on their CV, list more engaging job posts on our careers site, and review feedback to ensure we’re assessing on technical ability and skills, and hiring the most suitable person for each role.”

Other technologies, such as AI, have also been adopted by several firms. Commenting on RSM UK’s use of AI, Thompson noted: “Our primary tool is an AI powered CRM system that allows us to engage specific skillsets with tailored messaging and jobs. It also helps us to build talent pools and use matching criteria to quickly identify potential talent that has engaged with us previously. We also use LinkedIn recruiter to map the external market and uncover potential new candidates, along with some supplementary access to job boards.”

BDO head of people, Rob Worrall, further said:

When it comes to our early career programmes specifically, we know it’s crucial to engage with candidates early in the process. We work with partners such as Connectr via a cloud-based engagement platform. This technology offers users a number of benefits, including learning modules that provide greater insights into careers within the professional services sector and that encourage the development of stronger employability skills. The platform also provides candidates the opportunity to engage with people from within BDO who can offer career tips and advice.

Our careers website also hosts a ‘match me’ tool which helps identify which programme the candidate might be best suited to. The website has a suite of interactive content which really brings our firm and people to life.

We also work with a specialist assessment provider to design and create our assessment materials, from the initial online testing right through to our face-to-face assessment centres.

As we look to the future of recruitment and ensure we keep on top of growing trends, we are working with an additional supplier to support us with building a bespoke onboarding platform, enabling us to provide an engaging and tailored experience for all candidates between job offer and starting with BDO.

Rob Worrall

BDO head of people

While the advent of these new technologies may have streamlined the talent acquisition process, a key piece of information necessary for understanding how an organisation approaches the process is what metrics and key performance indicators they use when evaluating the effectiveness of their recruitment strategies and, furthermore, how they leverage data analytics as part of the process.

Once again, it became evident that every organisation has a different approach to this. Spruce commented: “Through our new applicant tracking system (ATS) the KPIs will focus on time-to-offer and Equity Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) statistics, as well as where our candidates are sourced from to evaluate our various recruitment channels. We’ll also review offer acceptance and decline rates to understand the most successful approach throughout the application to offer stages.

“Identifying where candidates exit the process will facilitate us to evaluate our approach through the lens of fairness and adjust if necessary. Reviewing time-to-offer will ensure we’re providing a quick process meaning a better experience for applicants, while supporting resourcing for upcoming projects and new business wins.”

On the same matter, Waite said: “We’ve got a number of KPIs that change regularly, depending on what priorities we're working on at any one time. However, some of the consistent metrics that we look at are around the diversity of the hires that we are making as an organisation; it’s a priority for our firm. We’ve made some great strides over the last 5 to 10 years in terms of diversifying the intake into the organisation and helping build and a more inclusive culture within the firm.

“Another important metric is around quality of hire. We're currently doing some work to review how we best measure and monitor that, knowing that quality evolves and might look different in the future to how it has in the past.”

The point of diversity is another key element of the talent acquisition and retention process in 2024, a fact acknowledged by the ACCA in a survey of financial professionals. According to the study, 73% of respondents said a strong diversity and inclusion culture is a key factor in deciding to work at an organisation. Taking this into account, The Accountant sought to explore how firms are approaching this core element.

BDO’s Worrall said: “We have developed a variety of routes to our job roles in order to boost access to the accountancy profession.

“From an early career perspective, we run our Explore BDO and Black Heritage Virtual Insight programmes each year.

“Explore BDO is designed for students in years 11-13 who attend a state school and fit into BDO’s social mobility criteria (based on The Social Mobility Commission’s definition). This is a fantastic opportunity for students from all parts of the UK to learn more about our industry and BDO specifically as well as developing their professional skills. Those who take part are also given the opportunity to be fast-tracked onto our apprenticeship programme once they complete their A-Levels or equivalent qualification.

“We also offer a virtual insight programme designed specifically for students from a black heritage who are between their second and third year of university. These students are then given the opportunity to be fast-tracked onto our graduate programme once they complete their studies.

“We’re keen that these programmes have a real impact, so we measure the conversion of these people from Explore BDO and the Black Heritage programme onto our apprentice and graduate trainee schemes. A number of our trainees have joined BDO via these routes, becoming advocates of the programmes and giving us evidence that targeted programmes like these can make a difference.”

On the matter, Waite said: “We've set ourselves ambitious targets across the various characteristics of diversity that we focus on at Grant Thornton, making sure that we are attracting, recruiting, and onboarding diverse talent in proportionate volumes. We've also set ourselves challenging targets. To help create a more diverse overall workforce, we know that when we're hiring between 1,500 to 1,600 new candidates into the organisation every year, recruitment plays a huge role in what percentage of those new hires will contribute to our diversity targets.

“At Grant Thornton, we’re putting in a lot of effort around achieving our target of becoming a more diverse workplace. We are also focusing on several outreach projects, trying to both contact and coach candidates from these diverse backgrounds. Additionally, by implementing data analysis, we make sure that our hiring process is free from adverse impacts for candidates, ensuring that candidates from underrepresented backgrounds have as much of an opportunity within our processes as those from more represented backgrounds.”

As global economies strive to rebound in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the demand for skilled professionals in these fields intensifies, posing unprecedented challenges for recruitment and retention.

Publicly available research reveals alarming statistics: a significant talent shortage plaguing firms, compounded by the rapid evolution of digital technologies and artificial intelligence. In response, organisations are pioneering diverse strategies to bolster their talent pipelines, ranging from specialised recruitment teams to strategic network partnerships and cutting-edge technology integration.

As the profession grapples with these challenges, one thing remains abundantly clear: navigating the post-pandemic talent landscape demands innovation, adaptability, and a steadfast commitment to fostering diversity and an inclusive culture. Only by embracing these imperatives can organisations hope to thrive in an ever-evolving marketplace.

Challenges for women in the workplace

Despite recent research showing that women are increasingly ambitious and committed to their careers, it’s worrying that 1 in 5 (40%) female accountants said they’re uncomfortable telling their colleagues and managers about their achievements at work.  

Known as the Tallest Poppy Syndrome, women find that self-confidence at work can be detrimental to their progression and fear being perceived as ‘too ambitious’. Our new data revealed that 80% of women said they often feel like they have to work harder than others in the workplace to prove their worth – yet they still feel uncomfortable celebrating the successes of their hard work.    

If women are not recognised for their achievements, their emotional wellbeing is likely impacted, with 3 in 5 (80%) saying they often seek approval or validation from others for their work or decisions.    

The data also reveals almost half (47%) of female accountants are uncomfortable telling their manager about areas they feel less confident in, including areas where they would like more training. This can lead to women experiencing difficulties in their professional skills. For example, 1 in 5 (19%) regularly struggle to speak up or share their ideas in meetings and three-quarters (76%) find themselves re-writing emails to clients because they are worried it might receive a negative reaction.    

If women are doubting their abilities and lacking the confidence to advocate for themselves, they will not be able to access the necessary support and training which could hinder future career progression.