Special report: Attracting and retaining talent
With staff shortages at an all-time high, CA magazine speaks to experts across the recruitment world – specialists in professional services, immigration, disability and returning mothers, as well as from academia – to see how firms can plug the talent gap.
How to stand out from the crowd
Wilkinson & Associates has been specialising in the recruitment of finance professionals since 2003. Andrea Green CA, Director, joined the firm in 2006 and is expertly placed to assess the current state of the market.
Due to ongoing skills shortages, the war for talent has continued post-Covid. Employers are competing in a candidate-led market. This has pushed salaries up, particularly those of recently qualified CAs. There have been some surprises with regard to what these candidates have been offered – in some cases, the salaries are almost at senior-manager levels.
There are fewer contractors in the market. Generally, people are not choosing to become contractors as much as they used to. Availability now tends to be due to redundancy or relocation. Demand exceeds supply. So, when clients come to us looking for contractors, we have to explain that they’re probably not going to get a very long shortlist.
So far, there have been fewer redundancies and insolvencies than we anticipated following the pandemic – that’s one of the reasons why there are fewer people available in both the contract and permanent jobs markets.
To attract candidates in the current market, companies must promote the benefits of working for their organisation – its culture, values, flexibility and opportunities for career progression. They have to show commitment to investing in their people. Gen Z, in particular, is attracted to purpose-driven companies, in how companies’ values align with theirs. Interviews are much more two-way nowadays – employers need to sell themselves to candidates, just as much as candidates need to impress employers.
One of the first things we tell clients is to take a look at their recruitment processes. Many are still too long. It is not uncommon for some to take up to six months, during which time candidates are moving through recruitment processes with other companies too.
Counter-offers are at an all-time high at the moment, but these are probably not in anyone’s best interests. Once an employee has indicated that they’re planning to leave, it’s not ideal for them to stay on – those who do accept a counter-offer to remain often leave the company within six months anyway. So it’s better that employees don’t get to the stage of looking to leave in the first place.
Salary remains the main factor for employees moving on and many employers are focusing on this more closely. They are doing their best to retain their people so they can avoid expensive staff-replacement processes, and they are addressing this through regular salary reviews, training and wellbeing initiatives.
How to recruit from abroad
Mark Templeton, Head of Immigration at Anderson Strathern, explains how firms can address the shortage of accountants and auditors by obtaining a sponsor licence from the Home Office.
The ability of firms to attract the best talent has faced three significant challenges in recent years: leaving the EU and the end of free movement, the pandemic and “the great resignation”. Little wonder the accountancy sector is suffering a major skills shortage. Many accountancy firms have already obtained a licence to sponsor foreign nationals on skilled-worker visas, but others have yet to embrace doing so as an essential resource for their recruitment strategy.
Sponsoring skilled-worker visas is not always, or even mainly, about candidates abroad. Accountancy firms often receive sponsorship requests from candidates already in the UK on student or graduate visas. As these visas are time-limited, these individuals are keen to be sponsored on a skilled-worker visa to continue living and working in the UK when their current visa expires. Offering sponsorship to those people enables businesses to maximise the number of candidates available for selection. And, in a candidate-driven market, businesses offering sponsorship have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.
The offer of sponsorship will likely carry much more weight for this candidate than receiving the highest possible salary offer. A high salary does not lead to living in the UK permanently – sponsorship does.
The costs of sponsorship can be high, but so too are the benefits. After five years of holding a skilled-worker visa, the holder, if still being sponsored for the foreseeable future, can apply to settle permanently in the UK. Employers offering sponsorship therefore have excellent prospects of higher staff retention. When weighing up the initial costs, businesses should keep this in mind. And staff retention brings consistency to service delivery and reduces the cost of constant recruitment churn.
Sticking with costs, if an organisation sponsors a student visa holder to “switch” to the skilled-worker visa, the sponsor does not need to pay their immigration skills charge (ISC). The ISC is currently £364 per year for a small sponsor, £1,000 per year for a large one, so that’s a significant saving.
Candidates with student visas also qualify as “new entrants” and can be paid a lower salary than normally applies for up to four years. The same applies to graduate visa holders for up to two years. There are significant numbers of student and graduate visa holders – if you’re in the market to recruit trainee accountants or auditors, ignoring the sponsor-licence option risks shrinking your talent pool.
Many of the same benefits apply in respect of attracting candidates who are outside the UK. An offer of sponsorship via the skilled-worker visa is an offer to provide a visa route to settle permanently in the UK after five years. There are few visa routes in the UK immigration system that provide a right to settle permanently in this time period.
There’s no doubt sponsorship comes with additional burdens on businesses, both in terms of costs and compliance. But, in a period of significant skills shortages, it has major benefits. What may initially appear daunting will, in my opinion, become essential, even routine, for any business that wishes to remain competitive in audit and accounting. You can count on that.
Why student internships are recruitment gold
Craig McLaughlin CA and Matthew Gorrie CA, both senior academics in accounting at the University of Strathclyde, outline their research into internships and how they can be beneficial for the employer.
Many people assume that recruitment begins during a student’s final year at university. By that point, however, students have already been exposed to many different firms, and through their accounting classes and internships they have begun to think about their future career. These influences can play a key role in deciding what path is chosen – so does more need to be done at university level?
Strathclyde Business School recently discussed internships, or the lack of, with students to understand the impact that such opportunities had on recruitment. Students were very vocal that they wanted to go to firms that cared about them as an individual and tried to connect with them throughout their degree. They also often felt firms with internship programmes were keen to develop the profession as well as the individual – this made the students more inclined to accept an offer of internship or work from those firms.
Students suggest it would be good if firms could be more involved in their development in their earlier years. Surprisingly, it was the experience, not the pay, that came through as being the most essential element – students often felt loyalty to firms where colleagues stayed in touch following an internship. “Team members emailed me [after the internship] and because they know you, because they like and care about you, it makes you want to accept an offer to go back,” said one.
Finding the right match and having a trial run, will undoubtedly help the recruitment process. The employer has got to know the student and the student has got to know the employer. In addition, the recruitment costs will be lower, as once the student has accepted the offer following the internship, they are usually excited to be joining, and may even become an “asset” – promoting the firm to others in their final year. Most importantly, when they join the company full-time, they have some existing knowledge and are likely to pick up the role more quickly – saving on training costs. They also have a better idea of the realities of the job and are more likely to stay, boosting staff retention figures.
Overall, engaging with people at this early point in their career offers immense potential rewards and can be viewed as a highly positive long-term recruitment strategy. A good early impression is rarely forgotten.
How to recruit disabled workers
Chris Jay, Bascule Disability Training’s founder and MD, born with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user for 20 years, on the opportunities awaiting disability-friendly employers.
Creating more job opportunities for people with disabilities can have an impact on the skills gap. Impersonal and inflexible systems have made it incredibly difficult for many people with disabilities to get even remotely close to securing jobs in certain careers. Changing that would make a difference.
I recently heard of a company that takes a very inclusive approach to its recruitment. It interviewed a candidate who felt comfortable disclosing her agoraphobia in the interview for the first time. She was given the job and the employer was able to make adjustments to support her needs. Without that openness to disability, that person would probably not have attended the interview in the first place.
There are many ways to build resilience and confidence in applicants with disabilities. People will apply because they have seen your commitment to inclusivity. Plaster the fact you are an inclusive employer everywhere – on your website, recruitment platforms, application forms and social media. Create accessible application formats: have large-print, dyslexia-friendly options and plain text versions. I once saw a pdf application for a job that said: “If you have a visual impairment, click here.” Nice try, but not easy for a person with a visual impairment to engage with that inaccessible pdf application!
Make the process as accessible as possible. Make it clear support can be offered in the interview phase, especially around instructions and time allowances for tests. Encourage willing existing staff with disabilities to take part in case studies, and put them on the website for all to see.
Compass Accountants wanted to develop its disability awareness, both internally and when servicing clientele. Bascule provided training, from directors to client-facing reception staff, creating a bespoke package of short workshops, break-out discussions and collaborative group work specifically for the Compass team, covering issues including disability definition, disclosure and reasonable adjustment.
We remove barriers to employment by debunking myths. For example, some employers have unnecessary concerns over releasing someone from a role should they prove unsuitable. If you have made reasonable adjustments and supported their needs and someone still performs poorly or commits gross misconduct, of course they can be released! By providing top-down training to staff in all teams we ensure misconceptions like this do not influence the interview selection process. Awareness will educate people and give them empathy. It will build understanding around disability policies and reasonable adjustments. And it will create a more inclusive team.
How to get mothers back into the workforce
PR Mums works with women trying to find a pathway back to work. As Talent Director Ferzana Bham explains, the issues facing working mothers in the PR sector are common across the professional services.
There is a stigma attached to a mother returning to work – that she’s always going to need time off to do the school runs or to cater for her children. What employers often don’t realise is that, if given a bit of flexibility – guess what! – mums are great at multitasking.
Instead we often feel we have to go above and beyond to prove ourselves. So we will work the extra hours that allow us to do our other job, which is being a parent. Nine times out of 10, once the kids have been picked up from school the mother will get back home and log on again. You can make a case that you’ll get just as much out of a working mum as somebody at their desk nine-to-five once you factor in coffee breaks, lunch and chatting with colleagues.
However, there can be a problem with retention in PR, as well as in professions such as accountancy and law, where staff are at the beck and call of clients. But losing a good person, especially in a senior role, because you’re not offering that flexibility, means having to recruit a replacement, train them up, and get them somewhere approaching the level of the person that you just lost.
One area where many companies could do so much better is when a mother returns from maternity leave. Of the women we’ve spoken to, 80% had a really bad experience returning to work, often because of ageism or lack of support. Very few experienced a good return to work after parental leave. Shockingly, over 50% were made redundant while on maternity leave.
While so much importance is placed on onboarding a new person into a business, there is often no clear structure around offboarding a mother, and then re-boarding them, even though they could be on maternity leave for up to a year. We advise that there should be a phased approach in returning to work – that benefits both sides. Many of the women we have spoken to have said that their “keeping in touch” dates weren’t really utilised in the best way.
Although we’ve focused our model specifically on the world of PR work, once we’ve perfected it for this sector we would like to take it into other industries and other professions that face the same issues.
To find employment opportunities, visit icas.com/ca-jobs.