By, Michael Platt, President, AccountingWEB, Inc.
For the last decade, the one commonality among all firms that I have consulted with has been the rallying cry "we just can't find good staff." Those firms with a campus recruiting program designed to fill this void often focus on answering the question "who can we get?" rather than "what do we want?" Many local and regional firms believe that their efforts are best spent aiming at second tier students, assuming there are no other alternatives and that the top recruits will naturally opt for national firms.
If this is how your firm has approached campus recruiting in the past, I've got two words for you: "Think again."
Campus recruiting can be a challenging, exciting, stressful, fun and rewarding experience. Firms of all sizes can - and do - benefit from campus recruiting efforts which can often result in the Grand Prize - quality professional staff - and many additional prizes, if approached properly.
A campus-recruiting program is not a one-week-a-year activity, and should not be entered into as such. Similar to a professionally developed advertising/marketing campaign, the elements of a recruiting program include (1) a well thought-out approach; (2) an understanding of your firm's goals and future growth needs; (3) a commitment to being visible over an extended period of time; (4) a targeted, pre-defined audience; (5) a clear understanding of specific measurable objectives; and (6) an offering that will match the needs and desires of staff prospects.
Let's explore some of the questions you will need to answer in each of these elements.
- A well thought out approach - Who will do the recruiting? How many people from your firm will be involved? What is your budget? Which colleges will you pursue? What activities can you do before, during and after the initial interview process? What staffing positions are you trying to fill? How many? Who are your immediate competitors? What type of campus exposure does your competitors have?
- An understanding of your firm's goals and future growth needs - Are you only looking for new staff? What about interns? What about gaining professors awareness? What about gaining alumni awareness and possible business? What are the short-term and long-term goals and needs of the firm?
- A commitment to being visible over an extended period of time - Is this a one-shot deal or a relationship that you are trying to establish with colleges in your target area? Can you commit to ongoing activities throughout the year, i.e. job fairs, recruiting assistance, meet the recruiters activities? Can you commit to a multi-year approach? Are you prepared to accept the consequences and diminished returns of once-a-year activities?
- A targeted, pre-defined audience - Are you looking for seniors? Juniors? Sophomores? Interns? What about high school students? Are you seeking only accounting graduates? Are professors/educators part of your audience? What about alumni? Which colleges will you focus on?
- A clear understanding of specific measurable objectives - How many students have you shared your message with? How many positions have you filled? How many professors are recommending your firm? How much business have you obtained from alumni? How often is the school inviting you to speak? How many firm-written articles have been published in the school paper? How many students are inquiring about your firm?
- An offering that will match the needs and desires of staff prospects - What do beginning staff/students want? What motivates them? What concerns do they have about your firm? What concerns/preconceived impressions do they have about the profession? How closely will your firm align with their needs?
Understanding your firm's goals is key to the success of any campus-recruiting program. You need to identify what you want to accomplish - everything else flows from there.
Most firms start with the premise that they are trying to fill entry-level staff positions and are looking for the best and brightest prospects to attract. So, with that as a primary goal, how do you "properly" approach a campus-recruiting program? How can you "get into potential candidates heads" to identify what they are thinking, what they are looking for, and how you can best position your firm in front of them? You know what your motivations were when you graduated and started your accounting career, but times have changed somewhat and today's accounting graduates may be approaching things differently.
In a nationwide survey of 550 Beta Alpha Psi (the national accounting fraternity) students, conducted earlier this year by AccountingWEB, we sought to take a snapshot of the mindset of today's accounting students. The survey was developed (1) to identify trends; (2) to assess influences on students; (3) to gauge which factors motivate students to consider firms to work for; (4) to measure the importance of various employee benefits on their final decision; and (5) to uncover ideas to bring students and potential employers closer together. Additionally, the survey was a platform for these students to tell their prospective employers about what they like and don't like about their firms, how the firms can create a better interviewing environment, and what students really want to know about their prospective employer.
What did AccountingWEB uncover?
The survey shows that accounting students are still very optimistic about the accounting profession as a whole, and shows that traditional values, integrity and honesty are paramount in their decisions of which firms to work for. Most significantly, "reputation" and "culture" have overtaken salary and benefits as the main factors influencing college graduates' career decisions.
The survey also found that college students have plenty to say about what motivates them, what influences them, and what potential employers need to do to better attract their attention before the campus-interviewing process begins.
A word of caution. The accounting student population, like any other population, is not a homogeneous group. They don't all think and act alike, and wide variations are found in opinions and what's important to them depending on gender, demographic location, career goals, etc. Like the person standing with one foot in boiling water and one foot in ice water, who, on average, is comfortable, student responses to this survey should be seen as aggregate trends. Each individual student needs to be assessed based on what is important to him or her.
Many significant conclusions were drawn from the survey. Among the findings:
Public accounting is still the path of choice - More than 70% of respondents were "very inclined" to pursue a career in public accounting, versus 41% in private industry and 11% in government. Students are fearful about the affects recent accounting scandals will have on their reputation if they desire to work for a CPA firm, so reassuring words from your firm about how it is addressing accounting reform will go a long way towards easing the minds of students.
Confidence in finding a job after graduation is mixed - The security of the job market has been negatively impacted by the economy and accounting scandals, and has taken a toll on the confidence level of students - over 40% indicated that finding a job would be "somewhat difficult" or "very difficult" after graduation.
Long term commitment to an employer rules, but decreases as experience increases - 60% of respondents hope to find a position and grow with a firm for the long term, and nearly 3 out of 4 expect an equal commitment from their employer, but the numbers drop as work experience increases. If you are looking for long-term commitment, make that point known to your potential recruits.
Firms of all sizes have opportunities to hire students - Interestingly; there are as many Beta Alpha Psi students who are inclined to work in a fifty person firm as there are inclined to work in a 1,000 person firm. While national firms still attract the largest percentage of students, that number only equates to 30% of all students, and opportunities therefore exist for all firms.
Flexible schedules lead the list of desired benefits - Family leave and maternity leave follow closely behind flexible schedules as the leading benefit of interest to students. It is important to identify the benefits package that you have available and ask the individual student what is important to them.
Half of the students want partnership status - That means that the other half don't. It is important for you to know which half you are speaking to, because promises of ownership, responsibility, equity and authority is not what 50% of your audience is looking for.
Catching their attention in college isn't all that difficult - Participate. Socialize. Invite students to your firm. Speak on campus. Tell them what life is really like in a CPA firm today. Be honest. Do all this - and start early - and you will establish relationships that will pay off for your firm.
Students have some burning questions - but might not be asking them - There are questions that students want answers to that they may feel uncomfortable asking. Recruiters need to uncover these questions in order to establish the utmost rapport with students. Students want primarily to know about the culture of your firm - how hard will they work, do you really care about your employees, how large is the staff turnover, etc.
Recruiters have a long way to go before they achieve a comfort level in students' eyes - Students were most vocal in offering ideas to potential employers on how to make the recruiting process more "user friendly." Smile, be at ease, make them feel at ease, don't get too hung up on formalities, and give them feedback after the interview were among the many responses catalogued in the survey report.
Overall, students are looking for honesty, a true picture of what life will be like working at your firm, and a commitment from you that staff are appreciated and are taken care of in your firm.
The rewards of a campus-recruiting program are plentiful and can be a valuable part of your firm's strategic plan. Knowing what you want to accomplish is critical, and is the first step in creating a successful ongoing program. Understanding the mindset of students is also critical. With proper planning, understanding, and execution, your firm can successfully reap the rewards.
Michael Platt is the President and CEO of AccountingWEB, Inc. He can be reached at [email protected].
Order the complete report of AccountingWEB's "Student Perspectives on the Accounting Profession" survey today for just $99.00.
In addition to those mentioned above, the final report discusses salary expectations, which factors influence student decisions on career paths and which do not, partnership desires, perceptions of Big Five versus regional and local firms, geographic perception differences, expectations of hours worked, importance of various benefit packages, elements of a CPA firm that students find appealing and those that they don't, and overall perspectives of many elements of an accounting career and of the accounting profession in general in this post-Enron era. The complete 67-page survey report, which includes over twenty significant findings, question-by-question results and student recommendations to potential employers, is available for immediate download for just $99.00.
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