By: Jerry Townsend, Midwest Regional Managing Director, UHY LLP
Around the world, professional services firms are feeling the effects of a prolonged talent crisis. Some are struggling to recruit the staff they need. Others are only doing so with the offer of sky-high salaries.
The ‘white collar’ talent crisis started during the Covid pandemic and has persisted even after economies have returned to something approaching normal.
During the pandemic many professionals in their 50s and 60s chose early retirement, amid health worries and a more general reappraisal of life goals. Some younger employees opted for part time or freelance work as priorities changed. Since economies opened, these challenges have been compounded by competition between professional services firms, and the lure of in-house positions in expanding businesses.
“UHY in the U.S. has certainly felt the effects of the current recruitment crisis,” says Jerry Townsend, Midwest regional managing director. “Recent trends like the tight labor market, ‘quiet quitting’, the ‘great resignation’, and remote work have caused us to constantly adapt and change our techniques and the way we source the professional market.”
That situation is mirrored across the UHY network. This ongoing challenge is changing firms’ approach to recruitment and retention. More fundamentally, it may cement a longer-term trend towards organizational change in professional services organizations, as firms look to appeal to a wider talent pool with the promise of more flexible and self-directed career paths.
Responding to the challenge
How is the professional services sector responding and attracting the staff it needs? In several ways.
In the U.S., accountancy firms are also struggling with a reduced supply of qualified graduates. “The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants reports that the accountant workforce in the U.S. has dropped 17% since 2022,” says Jerry. “We are also feeling the effect of a declining number of students majoring in accounting, as well as fewer accounting majors sitting for the CPA exam.”
“In fact, UHY has adapted and is now much more open to hiring finance majors, as well as those who want to work in accounting and professional services but may not desire CPA licensure.”
Beyond graduate level
Across the world, accountancy firms are having to be much more flexible in their recruitment programs and accept that not everyone wants to take on graduate levels of debt or spend several post-graduate years studying for professional qualifications.
One way to fill gaps further up the ladder is to train the talent you already have for new areas of work and new responsibilities.
“We are working on a number of innovative ways to fill those gaps,” says Jerry, “and one strategy we have employed is upskilling. We are investing in our current employees and providing opportunities to gain new, specialized skills. This has resulted in a win-win as it is less costly than other recruiting and retention efforts and unlocks hidden benefits and potential within our current colleagues.”
Making work better
The upshot of all this is an influx of recruits into accountancy who are more likely to be talented generalists rather than committed specialists. They may not want to follow a traditional path to partner status. Far fewer will see any job as a job for life than might have been the case a decade or so ago.
At the same time, many firms are combining technology with a new focus on human resources. At UHY LLP, they call this their “People First” strategy.
“We have adopted a people first strategy and are working collaboratively with our team members to advance at UHY in unique and unexpected ways,” says Jerry. “Our leadership is committed to fostering a culture of recognition, diversity and gratitude.”
Lots of companies have wellbeing programs and diversity targets, but UHY LLP’s approach is also about molding work to the preferences and talents of its workforce. It is about offering employees more control over the work they do and the direction their careers take.
“UHY’s team members are enjoying more engaging work in new service lines and are able to specialize in various dynamic industries,” Jerry adds. “Thanks to technology and remote work, we are able to collaborate and serve clients without geographic boundaries.”
A flatter corporate structure
All of these trends are having an impact on corporate structures across the professional services sector. Automation, in-house upskilling and new recruitment practices are flattening traditional hierarchical career structures.
Fewer employees are involved in traditional compliance work. More are serving clients as trusted business advisors. The demarcations between levels of work are disappearing.
Around the world, professional services might have to embrace the idea of multi-functional roles in a flatter hierarchy, and it may be to their advantage if they do. In a time of unprecedented change, more inclusive corporate structures could help create leaner, fitter, more agile operations that can better meet client needs in the post-pandemic world.