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Four ways the accountancy sector can attract and retain talent

By Steve Harry*

As a profession firmly rooted in the knowledge economy, the accountancy sector depends on recruiting and retaining good people. But competition for the best staff is fierce. Not only does recent research from Robert Walters show firms are hiring 23% more people than a year ago, but they now require people with a broader range of business and consultancy skills.

In some ways the profession is doing well when it comes to attracting talent, particularly at graduate level, but more needs to be done to retain employees in the long-term. Robert Walters recently identified a particular demand for accountants from the newly qualified stage to those with between 4-5 years' experience, as many firms invest heavily in training new recruits only to lose them to competitors once they gain their accounting qualifications.

Falling behind in this war for talent may mean firms are less equipped to offer the breadth of expertise necessary to succeed today, and staff turnover in the accountancy sector is also expensive costing an average of £39,230 for an employee who earns over £25,000.

So what can firms do to address the issue? We've worked with the CIPD and a number of employers including Big Four firms such as EY to identify four ways that the accountancy sector can attract, retain and motivate its people.

Build resilience
Accountancy may have a reputation for long hours and high stress levels, but accountants today expect much more from firms when it comes to wellbeing at work. Our research shows 1 in 4 people working in the sector say they would consider leaving their job if they didn't feel cared for by their employer and a further 27% said not feeling well looked after would make them less likely to stay with a firm long-term . To address this, firms need to build resilience and prevent burn-out by making sure that staff feel supported, whether that's by taking firm action to tackle issues like stress and work/life balance, or by making sure employees know they can have an open and honest discussion with managers.

Leadership and line management
It's important to understand the importance of effective leadership at all levels. Firms cannot survive in the long-term without effective leadership and this is particularly important when it comes to motivating employees. We've found that as many as 72% of people working in the accountancy sector say inspiring senior leadership is important to them .

As the link between staff and senior management, line managers also have a vital role to play. They are instrumental in engaging and motivating employees by demonstrating that development and progression is taken seriously, and are also on the front line when it comes to tackling issues like stress and illness should they develop. Line managers should be given the training they need to perform this role effectively

Working practices
The globalisation of business and advances in communications technologies have blurred the lines between work and leisure, making good working practices more difficult to maintain. It may be tempting for firms with international clients to expect employees to be constantly available, however this is likely to contribute to employee stress and burnout, compounding pressures on resource further down the line.

Flexible working can help with this and many firms are already thinking about how to use this to best effect. Last year, for example, a number of big accountancy firms launched initiatives to increase flexible working practices across businesses in the UK, and one launched a new agile working programme earlier this year in an effort to change the firm's culture, demonstrating clearly that better working practices are becoming a priority across the board.

Employee benefits
Employers should consider how they are incentivising staff beyond basic salary, especially smaller firms that may not be able to compete with the pay packets on offer at larger competitors. A flexible and comprehensive benefits package can be a vital tool in recruitment and retention, and firms should review their current offering to ensure it meets the needs and expectations of the workforce today. It's important to strike the right balance between hard and soft benefits, whilst also making sure benefits packages includes vital financial protection such as Income Protection which provides a valuable back-up plan should an employee be unable to work due to illness for six months or more.

Going forward, a firm that looks after staff will increasingly be an employer of choice - driving recruitment, retention and productivity - and in turn, boosting growth for the business. With recruitment of accountants expected to rise steeply in the coming years, firms need to take this on board and make sure they can compete for the best talent, both now and in the future.

*Steve Harry is chief financial officer of Unum, a financial protection insurer

References:
'The UK Jobs Index; Quarter 2 2014', Robert Walters, August 2014
'Cost of Brain Drain: the Financial Impact of Staff Turnover', Oxford Economics (commissioned by Unum), 2014
'Wellbeing Lag: The impact of workplace wellbeing on staff loyalty', ICM (commissioned by Unum), 2014

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The 'war on talent' in the accountancy sector





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