Date posted: 12/10/2022 8 min read

Show me the money!

If you’re looking for an accounting job right now, you can practically write your own contract – with a generous pay cheque to match. But what should firms be doing to ensure they keep top staff?

In Brief

  • If you’re a finance professional considering a job move, now is a great time. On the other hand, it’s a terrible time to be recruiting and retaining talent.
  • Some firms are offering sign-on bonuses and accelerated promotions to sweeten the deal. Others are offering to retrain candidates from tax to audit, or vice versa.
  • While money is a key driver in a candidate’s decision to switch firms, work-life balance is a major motivator for many. For some, no amount of money is worth working 13-hour days, or a long commute.

Abigail Murison

In 2018 Stem Rural Accountants in Te Puke, New Zealand introduced a six-hour workday – with all staff clocking off at 3pm. Despite the early finish, they still got paid for seven and-a-half hours a day.

Stem implemented the new work perk after partner Trudi Ballantyne FCA read The Five Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness by Stephan Aarstol. “The basic principle is that if you give people seven-and-a-half hours to do their work, they will fill that time with work, regardless of whether they could have done it faster,” explains director Nick Cole CA. “It’s an artificial constraint.”

Fuelling confidence in the partners that the shorter working day would pay off, was the fact that staff had completed their GST jobs in December in three weeks instead of four when the firm closed for Christmas. “We knew it could be done; it was up to us,” says Cole.

Over three months the firm identified ways to streamline work processes and eliminate others altogether. To keep their eye on the prize, Cole says they asked themselves what their clients really wanted. Daily post collection was out; accounting and workflow software was in.

“We’ve converted just about every client to Xero, so staff only have to learn one accounting software product,” says Cole. “Automating workflow with Karbon has also saved heaps of time.”

In addition, nearly half of the client base is on flat-rate fees, simplifying fees for the partners. The six-hour workday has proven to be a winner.

“We have the lowest staff turnover we’ve ever had,” says Cole. “With recruiting, when we do advertise we get more applicants and a better quality of candidate. Before, people weren’t willing to drive the 30 minutes to Te Puke. Now, they are.

“We also get people who have heard or read about us and want to come and work here. We don’t always have a space, so I’m building a little database.”

Recruiting and retaining talent

If you’re a finance professional considering a job move, now is a great time. On the other hand, it’s a terrible time to be recruiting and retaining talent.

The data confirms what most already know about the jobs market. The unemployment rate is sitting at 3.3% in New Zealand and 3.4% in Australia. Twenty per cent of businesses offering financial and insurance services are currently reporting vacancies, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the situation is similar across the ditch – where already record-high job vacancies are expected to grow in 2023.

“People are screaming out for finance professionals and accountants,” says Megan Alexander CA, managing director of New Zealand recruitment agency, Robert Half. “Accounts payable, financial controllers, business analysts, financial management, accountants, business partners… it’s right through the spectrum of both the clerical and the qualified space.”

Show me the money

According to Alexander, salary has become a very important concern, with the New Zealand cost of living rising at 7.3%. “Some people are receiving 30% pay increases, especially in the management accountant and business partner middle market in the NZ$75,000 to $130,000 salary range,” she says.

“Then, there is a massive case of FOMO [fear of missing out] happening. Employees have become very aware that it’s an employee’s job market. Anyone who is not getting an increase is being shoulder-tapped.”

Sydney-based former auditor and specialist accounting recruiter, Michael Edelstein, runs Recruitment Expert, a business that focuses on public practice placements. “There is so much demand right now it’s ridiculous,” he says.

“I can generally get five-to-10 interviews for any decent candidate and at least three offers. Prospective employers are also competing with counteroffers because every firm knows it’s better to keep the staff they’ve trained – who know their systems and clients – than to wait for months to get someone else.”

Some firms are offering sign-on bonuses and accelerated promotions to sweeten the deal. Others are offering to retrain candidates from tax to audit, or vice versa. And if you’re a company still thinking you can give increases of two or three per cent?

“Your people are looking elsewhere straight away,” he confirms.

Hybrid work a must

While money is a key driver in a candidate’s decision to switch firms, work-life balance is a major motivator for many. For some, no amount of money is worth working 13-hour days, or a long commute.

Alexander says a lot of privately owned medium-sized businesses are still grappling with working from home – and worry about the impact on workplace culture. Many would prefer to have the team in the office five days a week. This gives big multinationals or those that offer hybrid working an edge because they are happy to continue with hybrid arrangements.

“The problem is on the candidate’s side: 70% of people want a hybrid model,” she says. “They’re not asking for five days a week working from home; typically, they want a three two or a four-one split. Companies that don’t have a work-from-home policy are really struggling to get talent.”

“Companies that don’t have a work-from-home policy are struggling to get talent”
Megan Alexander CA, Robert Half

Firms getting hybrid working right are seeing the benefits, says Edelstein. “A lot of employers are missing out on potential talent by being inflexible,” he says. “It’s time to rethink your structures, processes, training and expectations – this is both an opportunity and a challenge.

He adds: “There are loads of benefits to offering hybrid and flexible working. Staff are saving time and money, so they have more time to dedicate to work and their families or relationships, and you get happier, grateful, loyal staff. Plus, it means smaller, cheaper office space and a bigger talent pool.”

Promote within

Of course, with a change in perspective, firms might find the perfect candidate right under their noses. “Employers want someone that can do exactly what they’re looking for and candidates are asking for a challenge and learning opportunities,” says Edelstein. “There is a clear mismatch that partners are missing – if you hire someone to do exactly what they have done before, then why would they stay, except for the money?

“Instead, recognise that you have the perfect engagement and retention strategy and employee value proposition. Focus on reskilling and upskilling your existing employees.”

Alexander says she’s already seeing promoting within. “Firms need to make sure they are earmarking their talent for further development,” she says, although warns against piling hours on existing staff.

“In a candidate-short, resource-constrained economy you’ve got an issue because there’s not enough people to do the work. So, your existing people start having to work more hours. Organisations have to manage the workloads well,” she cautions.

Work perks

While companies can hire contractors to help, they don’t have a never-ending pot of money. “Salaries have just increased 30% and then you’ve got contractors to pay, and something’s got to give,” says Alexander. “Businesses increase their prices, fuelling inflation further. It’s just a merry-go-round.”

She adds: “Smart organisations are trying to give employees valuable benefits that don’t cost the world – such as birthday leave, mental health days or finishing early on Fridays.”

Barr, Burgess and Stewart (BB&S) in New Zealand prides itself on its flat structure with no middle line of management. It allows staff full flexibility to work from wherever they want to, when they want to “as long as the clients get serviced at the time that they need to be serviced,” explains managing director Christine McNamara CA.

“We have to trust our people to work out a way to do that themselves, rather than dictating to them.”

McNamara also encourages new staff to get out and meet clients from day one. “I don’t follow that traditional accounting firm structure where you’ve got to work for a certain time before you’re allowed to talk to somebody,” she says.

“This appeals to the newer generation who want to get out there in the market and don’t want to be sitting behind the desk.”

Then of course there’s the six-hour workday, which for Stem Rural Accountants has proven to be a winner. Time off is a huge incentive to get the work done efficiently and well, says Cole.

“It does involve stopping and taking stock, but it’s really worthwhile. We’ve got an hour-and -a-half of our lives back each day. No one wants to go back,” he says.

How to attract talent

Specialist accounting recruiter Michael Edelstein says successful accounting firms share three key traits:

1. They are always hiring

They know someone will leave at some point and they would rather have extra capacity than overload existing staff

2. They are great salespeople

Partners do the interviews themselves and connect with candidates. Human resources aren’t in the strongest position to know about the role and the clients, and able to really sell the opportunity

3. They move quickly

They are available to do interviews at short notice and outside of business hours if they need to and can go from interview to offer within hours. They don’t skip steps; they just do them faster.

When candidates have their pick of jobs, first impressions really matter. “Get your website in order, so it doesn’t look like the firm is run by a partner that still uses the abacus,” advises Edelstein. “Get some stellar Google reviews and videos of the team having fun. Stand out.”