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How CPA Firms Can Retain Their Top Young Talent

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Aug 19th 2015
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As CEO of the Massachusetts Society of CPAs, Amy Pitter works with some of the commonwealth's top CPA firms, which are targeting how to close a critical, widening gap between young talent and seasoned veterans. A hurdle accounting firms regularly grapple with is how they can retain their top talent.

Pitter shared with AccountingWEB some of what she's learned from these conversations.

AccountingWEB: What are the top reasons young talent walk away from accounting?

Amy Pitter: It's really not money, but the reasons are disguised as money. The person will say he or she is leaving for more money, but this masks more complicated reasons. Most people do not leave for a raise, but because they don't understand the career path at the firm. That's because, often, there's not enough transparency.

Staffers want to feel valued. They may feel that neither their work nor their time is being taken seriously, so when another offer comes in, they take it.

Work-life balance is very important to millennials. Obviously, accounting firms have busy seasons leading up to tax season. Introducing flex time – which many firms are seeing the light about – accepts that people may want to work at nontraditional times. For one person, maybe 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. three days a week, while another might want to start super-early and leave in time for a child's soccer game. Today's technology, of course, makes work-life integration a real consideration at firms.

I was a consultant and able to work from home, usually from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but I was able to take time out when my daughter came home from school to talk to her and drive her to the next activity. Millennials are looking for this kind of creativity from the firm. Of course, it presents some challenges, but it's ultimately doable.

There's an idea that allows some staff to work a flat 40 hours a week all year long, thus flattening out the cycles. It shows that you can expose your people to lots of different arrangements.

AWEB: How can employers stem the tide?

Pitter: Encourage communication. Tell the staff what the career progression at your firm is. Shed some light around the compensation structure. Set up events that encourage team-building and that promote connectivity. Consider outings, taking staffers out to dinner, or offering American Express gift cards so they can take their partner out to dinner.

Encourage the staff with an open-door policy. At a firm in Boston, one of the managing partners asked younger staff what they needed from the firm to make their lives better. He gave them a month to get their thoughts together, telling them he would present their ideas to the senior partners. The well-thought-out proposals offered were really impressive. Now, the managing partner is implementing these suggestions. He's following through. All in all, it was a complete, well-planned program.

Give staff knowledge about the progression from individual work to becoming supervisors and managers. When we are promoted, our responsibilities change. It's really important to make this transition. Staff need such personal development skills as how to make presentations, how to supervise other workers, and how to lead.

Build loyalty. Show people that they're valued. And don't let it end when a staffer leaves. Encourage people who do go, say, into corporate finance to keep their CPA license – not to let their accounting credentials lapse – to keep their options open.

Be willing to go to the mat for the profession by stressing the role of accountants these days: less “bean counters” and more business advisors. Show staffers that there's more to working at an accounting firm than accounting and taxes. There's cybersecurity, technology, and other attractive sides of the profession.

AWEB: What advice would you give to young CPAs about getting what they want from their firms?

Pitter: No one's a mind-reader. If you wish your firm had flex time, ask for it. Be willing to ask the difficult questions; to have the difficult conversations. Let managers know if you're not satisfied.

A corollary to that is don't leave for the wrong reasons. Ask yourself: What am I reacting to? Think ahead. You're now in your 20s or early 30s – make sure you're considering the full career picture. Find a mentor in the firm who can help you think things through. That person may be one of the managing partners.

Being part of an accounting society helps me to get a good overview to help firms develop their people. We encourage young accountants and lawyers to come to sip-and-socialize soirees, which helps them learn to network. It's important to develop social skills that will matter throughout one's career. Our New England Practice Management Conference in November gives tips on recruiting and retaining employees. We are in a unique position to see what's happening in firms throughout our state.

Make sure that employees know the path to partnership. Share stories that show that the potential is unlimited – that there are more positions available right up to partner.

Don't pigeonhole first-year staffers into specific industries, allowing them only to do first-year type of work. Let them have some window into what other kinds of work are available at the firm.

Help millennials see where the meaning is. It's not seen as hand-holding. Senior partners understand that there are changes among younger staffers, and they should consider that the growth of their firms depends of the growth of their staffers. And from what I see and hear, they are thinking long and hard about this. The name of the game is to keep folks happy by being transparent. It means don't flounder; set up programs now.

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