What should companies and accounting firms do to tackle hiring difficulties?

Peter Outridge, Becky So and Webster Ng

Experts chime in on the latest topics in accountancy and business

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Peter Outridge, Becky So and Webster Ng


Peter Outridge, Partner, Head of People and Change Advisory, KPMG China

Insights from KPMG’s global Future of HR 2020 survey, completed by over 1,300 human resources (HR) executives, has revealed four emerging capability areas of leading organizations committed to creating an attractive and compelling purpose-led place to work. They show a discrete pattern in regard to their areas of priority as they create a path for others to follow. These “pathfinding” organizations, as we have called them, realize it’s a “worker’s market” with greater competition for talent than ever before. They are committed to establishing their competitive position in this new landscape with a compelling employee value proposition (EVP) that will attract, shape and retain the required workforce. These organizations are committed to the role HR plays in enabling a competitive advantage:

Shaping the workforce of the future: Acknowledging that existing workforce structures are being disrupted by new technology and business models, and seizing the opportunity to reshape the workforce and gain the full benefits of humans and machines working together.

Shaping a purpose-led culture: Understanding that HR plays a vital role in shaping and maintaining a culture aligned with their business strategy.

Designing the employee experience: Providing meaningful, rewarding work for employees, who want on-demand customer service, and instant access to information. To meet those expectations, employee experience is on everyone’s agenda, especially for pathfinding HR organizations.

Cracking the data code through workforce insights: Embracing the power of data science to generate actionable insights that create value for the whole organization, and are investing accordingly.

An organization’s EVP refers to the value employees receive in return for their contribution in the workplace; learning and development opportunities; reward and recognition; career paths; shared purpose and values; and an inclusive culture, among other qualities that organizations can use as the framework to develop an EVP that is tailored to an organization’s market aspiration and positioning. Once developed, organizations should continue to assess the attractiveness and relevance of their proposition, and ensure that their external profile ensures that prospective employees are aware of all that is on offer. The EVP should be rooted in the values and purpose of the organization, and the ability to cultivate the right purpose-led company culture.

The big opportunity for employers is to create unique and targeted EVPs; what can they offer employees that is compelling and makes them stand out against competitors? To succeed, the key is to be increasingly nimble and flexible, experimenting with and testing new ways of working.

“‘Pathfinding’ organizations, as we have called them, realize it’s a ‘worker’s market’ with greater competition for talent than ever before.”

Becky So, Director, Human Resources, A European Investment Bank, and HKICPA member

Hiring the right candidates who can sustain and grow with your company is critical to business success. Here are the some recruiting challenges we hear about most often:

Talent shortages are a growing challenge for employers all over the world. If companies are trying to recruit someone with niche skills in a specialized market, it could be a hard search. Some companies may have to broaden the search outside their immediate geographic area. They should try to utilize a staff referral programme to recruit based on word-of-mouth referrals.

Attracting candidates with both the right skillset and the mindset that aligns with the company is another difficulty. There’s a difference between candidates who are interested in a job and candidates who are attracted to your job and company. Companies should focus on attracting and retaining someone who has a genuine interest in their company, mission, values, and buys into their corporate strategy and organizational culture. This will lead to a more positive work atmosphere, happier staff, and overall better business performance. In addition, companies are regularly confronted with the challenge of finding the right candidates who meet the needs of changing and emerging roles. Companies should put an emphasis on “hire for attitude and train for skills,” rather than focusing on hiring someone who can fit all criteria. With the right attitude and behaviour, there is higher probability for the candidate to demonstrate the agility and flexibility required in today’s constantly changing environment. They could even consider an internal hire that does not need to be a perfect fit for a role to be afforded an opportunity for growth or skills development.

Accessing a high-calibre diverse talent pool is also a common challenge. Companies could consider introducing a “returnship” programme, which aims to help experienced professionals who have taken career breaks to re-enter the workforce starting with a short-term contract. Such a programme usually lasts three to six months, typically offers compensation that commensurate with the individual’s level of experience, and provides training and mentorship, helping the person to reacquaint himself or herself with the culture of the current work environment, and improve skills that may have become rusty. Based on the person’s suitability, a permanent role could be offered at the end of the programme. Employers may find returnship candidates who have ample of relevant experience and niche skills – things that they currently lack.

“Companies should put an emphasis on ‘hire for attitude and train for skills.’”

Webster Ng, Founder, Webster Ng & Co.

As a member of the Institute’s Accountancy Manpower Research Advisory Panel, I was engaged in a project that focused on providing advice or solutions in relation to the impact of certain trends on accountancy manpower, in particular on small- and medium-sized practices and small- and medium-sized entities (SMPs and SMEs). Given Hong Kong’s declining birth rate and the increase of young people taking up postgraduate studies at university, the profession faces the rigorous challenge of recruiting sufficient manpower. Based on the feedback from firms of different sizes, it was clear that some large or mid-sized firms or organizations had insufficient manpower, both professional CPAs and back office staff, while manpower shortages were also experienced by SMPs and SMEs. I believe there are three reasons behind this.

Firstly, young members have more career choices than ever nowadays compared with previous generations of accountants. With new technologies, they are less attracted to the idea of joining the profession, and can set up their own start-up, or work in other areas of accounting or wider business. They have more opportunities to move away from being a 9-to-midnight auditor. This all adds to the survival problem for existing firms, which have also faced enhanced regulations or increasing public expectations in recent years. Firms should consider expanding the range of services they offer their clients to attract candidates interested in more than assurance.

Relatedly, the perception of the profession. The image of profession is the same as it was many years ago – boring work, no off-duty time, tough working conditions, etc. This was expressed to me by secondary school students when I presented at an accounting seminar. Most people still described us as accounting industry not accounting profession. I therefore believe strongly that we should enhance our professional image in order to improve the talent recruitment and retention rate, to show that accounting is a profession of many exciting opportunities.

Finally, competition grows for skilled, quality talent. As regulations get more complicated and basic tasks are more easily handled by technology or artificial intelligence, we need to have high-quality manpower who can focus on enriching the business and effectively offer value added to clients. This will also attract today’s digital-native generation to the profession, by showing them that the profession is ready for the fast-changing digital world.

The Institute can help to enhance the professional image to the general public through its Accounting Plus branding and the new Qualification Programme. These changes, overall, would result in a better accounting “profession” – not “industry.”

“Most people still described us as accounting industry not accounting profession.”

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