Mid-tier accountants can beat biggest firms in talent market, experts say

Many mid-sized accounting practices have the capacity to lure key talent away from the UK’s biggest firms, according to Rakesh Shaunak, managing partner and group chairman at MHA.

Shaunak argues that fast-growing firms in particular can achieve this through combining opportunity with a friendlier environment.

“Candidates will be looking at a few firms and seeing which meet their ambitions and cultural matters,” he says.

“We show people how they can achieve their ambitions and ensure they have a personal development plan.”

Despite talent market constraints, MHA has increased staff uptake by 21% in the past year. M&A activity, such as the firm’s recent acquisition of wealth manager Cave & Sons, has played a role, but Saunak also hails initiatives such as the increase in graduate intake.

“Building the workforce remains very important, and at all levels,” he says, explaining that the firm now takes on a cohort of graduates three times a year, rather than just once.

Jon Rees, managing director of Cardiff-based Carston Chartered Accountants, paints a similar picture of the personal and professional development on offer at a mid-market firm.

“We’re not so big where people feel anonymous, but we can offer a lot more than a small firm, where if someone is ambitious, they can feel they have nowhere to go, he says.

In particular, Rees argues that recruitment has been bolstered by changing perceptions about accountancy’s ”dry” image.

“We’ve worked hard on the brand and having an inclusive and collaborative culture. Only about 50% of what we do is pure accountancy, the rest is different services – 15 in total.”

He also outlines the firm’s “strong relationship with local colleges and universities”, arguing that this allows it to develop young talent from “a broad range of backgrounds”.

But Stuart Lawrence, director of Hampshire-based Compass Accountants, argues the case for the industry’s smallest firms.

“We’re traditional and still do a lot of face to face work as well as offering variety. We’ve won business from larger practices that have sought to push clients down the remote route. Clients told us they did not like being ‘bought’ and preferred our independence,” he says.

“The majority of our staff are female, and many have returned after having children. They like coming to a friendly place to work, job security, being paid market rates and proper training towards ACCA qualifications.”

Compass has grown by around 8% over recent months and continues to rise. It has also recently taken on four new members of staff, bringing the total workforce to 18.

‘Squeeze on talent’

According to Gemma Gathercole, strategic engagement lead at the ACCA, the UK is experiencing a “significant squeeze on talent that’s affecting firms of all sizes”.

“Some are having to turn away business or new clients because they do not have enough people. Many say they are struggling to fill vacancies, particularly in tax and audit.”

Activity on the ACCA’s jobs board is 19% up on the previous year, Gathercole adds.

However, she goes on to argue that the recession is not a barrier.

Good candidates can negotiate strong terms, including hybrid arrangements, and school and college leavers are favoured, she says.

“Some see them as more loyal than graduates, even if the pandemic has resulted in education gaps. Still, if the right young person is found, they can be a real asset – we’ve even seen contract buyouts to encourage a switch to another firm.”

Meanwhile, Julie Corkish, head of practice at ICAEW, says there are particular shortages with, “experienced audit, risk and compliance specialists”.

“Retention is also proving difficult, with practice employees being head-hunted by agencies, moving to different size firms or into industry,” she says.

She adds that larger firms were, on occasion, “recruiting from overseas and leaning on their international networks to second staff into UK roles”, while some roles have been, “unfilled for 12 months or more”.

“This, coupled with demand for work, means our member firms are experiencing very challenging times.”

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