Most accounting firm partners have unrealistic expectations about hiring qualified CPAs. It’s not as simple as posting a job and getting applicants. The process takes much longer and costs more than most realize. If you want to recruit successfully, it’s important to put in the work and set realistic expectations.

Although there are more college students majoring in accounting than ever before, the number of people sitting for the CPA exam has declined to 2006 levels and is trending downward. This leaves us with a candidate market shaped like an hourglass—lots of baby boomers and leaders at the top, a bunch of college students at the bottom, and a skinny middle market of lateral hires, those 2-7 years out from college who are now seniors and managers. As if that weren’t enough, many accountants with experience leave for private industry jobs, which tend to offer a 20-30% increase in pay.

Change is Inevitable

Although we are in the midst of an increasingly tight labor market, firms of all sizes are making great college and experienced hires. How? These firms recognize that recruiting strategies of the past no longer work. They understand that you have to create a great place to work, build a strong employer brand by articulating what makes it a great place to work, and then distribute that message across a wide channel in the ways young CPAs consume information.

Change can feel overwhelming, but any successful person or business recognizes that it’s a necessary part of growth. If your firm is ready to embrace recruitment in 2017, here’s an 4-step outline to get you started:

  1. Upgrade your firm to attract and retain top talent.
  • Pay top dollar for lateral talent: Specifically, compared to other public accounting firms. (Don’t bother comparing your salaries to those in private industry. Those jobs tend to pay 20-30% higher for equivalent experience.)  
  • Be patient (and tell your partners to be patient): It takes months to land a lateral hire so get started early and have patience. Even better, recruit online year-round. You never know when a high performer will be looking for a new job. Build a pipeline of great talent by being proactive.
  • Respond quickly: This is non negotiable. Applicants have options. Many of them. Respond within hours of receiving their application to get a leg up on your competition and to have the best chance for scheduling an interview.
  • Offer flexibility, a clear career path and follow through: High performers expect to be trusted to get the job done. They want the flexibility to work outside of the office and to take care of personal errands without asking permission. They want a clear understanding of what they must accomplish in order to get promoted. And it’s important to remember the perks you sold them during recruitment. If the pitch doesn’t match the product, they will leave.  
  • Onboard well: Integrate new hires into the social fabric of your existing team and set expectations early. This is crucial to retention.
  • Understand the audience: 2-7 years of experience means you’re recruiting Millennials who value your mission, values, community service and culture.
  1. Develop your employer brand to use in all recruitment communications.

It’s important to articulate what makes your firm unique. There are five questions you need to answer in order to attract the accountants you want to work with. These questions are based on survey responses of high performers, who were asked what they wanted to learn about a potential employer. Jot down the thoughts that come to mind as you read these questions:

  1. Why work at a firm of our size?
  2. What does our firm stand for?
  3. What is our culture?
  4. Why should anyone trust their career to our firm?
  5. What will the future look like if we’re effective?  
  1. Spread the word online, on campus, and everywhere.

First off, candidates must be able find you. Once they do, it’s your employer brand that will convert them from browsers to applicants.

  • Keep all candidate communications consistent. Align your website, every job posting and even your interview talking points around the 5 questions above.
  • Who is your target audience? Millennials. How do they consume information? Webinars, social media, video, blogs. Distribute your authentic message through the channels that they use. Get started with social media and build an audience there. If you don’t have an in-house marketing team, you can outsource all of this. It’s important to understand that your target audience prefers to learn about prospective employers through great content.  
  • Don’t go to campuses solely to participate in Meet The Firms nights. Engage a professor and volunteer to teach a case study once per semester. This will create a pipeline of students from that school.
  • Participate in virtual career fairs like Meet the Firms Week.
  • Use job boards and online recruitment tools that tell your story to large audiences, like Accountingfly or LinkedIn.
  1. Reduce recruitment workflow with a simple and effective process.  

You’ve figured out how to attract great applicants. Now you need a process that allows you to respond to those candidates quickly, make fast decisions, and build a talent pool for future hiring needs. Perhaps you prefer to use your inbox and an Excel spreadsheet? That’s fine too. Just be sure to implement a process where all candidates go into the same document or database so you can save them for the future.  

The most important takeaway here is to reset your expectations. We’re in the middle of a talent crisis and recruiting is very difficult. But it is possible. Start early, recruit all year, and invest in building a great employer brand if you want to to attract high performers.  

About the Author

Jeff Phillips, CEO AccountingFly