Battle for talent hots up

There’s a war on, just in case you missed it – a war for talent, that is. Not that you’d know it from the bullish statements emanating from the Big Four firms. All report that finding candidates to fill their intake quotas has been nothing short of a doddle – 2005, it would appear, is shaping up to be a bumper year.

The results of the latest Accountancy Age/Robert Half Finance & Accounting Salary Survey add clout to suggestions that recruitment is high on the business agenda. But they also make it clear that, while the Big Four firms may, in their eyes at least, be winning the war for talent, for others the battle has only just begun.

According to the survey of 2,160 readers of Accountancy Age, 42% of respondents admit their company is finding it difficult to recruit people with the right skills. That figure rises to 47% among finance directors – presumably those closest to the headache in industry.

The fact that 50% of partners in firms admit they are struggling to find the people they so desperately need is interesting, particularly when juxtaposed against the Big Four’s pronouncements. In audit, meanwhile, three quarters of respondents bemoan skills shortages in their company.

It might be over-egging it to say that skills gaps in accountancy mean a crisis for UK business, and audit in particular, but it’s probably not too far from the mark. Just two months ago more than a third of the 650 respondents to another survey, conducted in association with Allied Irish Bank, said they believed a skills shortage was the biggest barrier to business performance.

The figure represented a 10% rise on the previous year, prompting a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills to admit the shortage of skills was among the biggest challenges facing business due to ‘generations of neglect’.

The introduction of international financial reporting standards on 1 January has, recruiters say, only compounded the accountancy skills problem. But claims that organisations face a tough challenge making sure they have enough informed people to make a smooth switch to IFRS have not been borne out by our salary survey.

The dearth of IFRS skills is less of a business headache for respondents than the quest for candidates with more general business management skills or even IT experience. Of those companies that admitted they struggled to recruit staff with the right skills, only 7% of respondents cited IFRS as a problem area, although this figure rises to 11% of respondents in companies with a turnover of £351m plus.

Nonetheless, it pales into insignificance compared to the 23% that flagged up business management skills as being in shortest supply, and 12% that cited IT.

Nonetheless, recruiting people with IFRS experience is difficult. ‘There isn’t a large pool of experienced IFRS talent because it’s still very fresh,’ says Chris McCann, manager at recruitment firm Michael Page. ‘Anyone who does have that experience can command a premium in the job market.’

On a positive note, companies (and to a lesser extent accountancy firms) do seem to have heeded concerns about the long-term implications of heavy-handed cutbacks in recruitment during a downturn. The cyclical nature of the economy is a given.

But while access to a flexible workforce during any fallow period is highly desirable, and a certain amount of ‘right-sizing’ is inevitable, recruiters have not held back from criticising the profession in the past for taking its eye off the ball and neglecting its most valuable asset – its people.

A third of respondents admitted that their organisation had cut back on recruitment in the last two years, a figure that rises to 47% among those working in tax. Interestingly, part-qualified and qualified staff were more likely than graduates to have been affected by recruitment cutbacks.

But as the economy shows strong signs of a rebound, and accountancy skills and experience are once again at a premium, the survey shows that organisations are thinking increasingly laterally about the ways to get candidates on side. The power of the pound has, needless to say, not lost any appeal.

Candidates still expect to be paid the going rate, and the good news for them is that that rate just got better. Average salaries across the profession are now £44,850 compared with around £42,000 this time last year.

According to 9% of respondents, their organisation has resorted to big salary hikes to attract recruits. But this varies according to geography – 0% of respondents in Glasgow, Bournemouth or, surprisingly, the City had resorted to big salary hikes to source new staff.

A further 9% of respondents cited flexible benefits as a key issue. But study support (15%) and flexible working (11%) came out as the most popular approaches, whereas paid sabbaticals failed to register at all among respondents as a tool in the recruitment battle.

Could it be that employers are actually listening to what their staff want – or rather don’t want? They certainly don’t seem fussed about sabbaticals. Instead, pensions and flexible hours top the staff-benefits wish-list.

From the employers’ perspective, experience tops the list of most sought-after attributes among candidates, followed closely by technical ability. But cultural fit came in as the third most important prerequisite – ranking higher than professional qualifications and an impressive CV.

Interestingly, the survey also found that you’re more likely to get a job if you look the part than if you went to university.

And yet all the skills gap rhetoric has not resulted in a stampede of accountants to the nearest recruiter. Admittedly, slightly more accountants are job-seeking than those with their feet firmly under their desks, but of those, 62% admit their quest for the job of their dreams is, at this stage at least, little more than a passive job search.

Perhaps they’re simply waiting for a headhunter from the Big Four to make them an offer they cannot refuse.

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