By Jennifer Warawa, EVP at Sage
Talent scarcity and the skills gap have become very real concerns in the UK. We are currently in a period of high employment, and at the same time, uncertainty surrounding Brexit has caused a reduction in immigrant labour, reducing the talent pool further. For accountancy, the skills gap issue is even more acute because it is already an industry with a very limited talent pool. When asked to describe an accountant, it is likely that many of us would describe a very similar person. For a variety of reasons, accountancy as a profession attracts a very specific group – often male, university educated, usually from a Russell Group university. Hiring from such a small pool means that the squeeze on talent is even tighter in this sector.
Recent Sage research shows that 90% of accountants worldwide believe there has been a cultural shift in accountancy. While traditional bookkeeping skills remain important, there is a movement from a transactional industry to one focused on consultancy and partnerships. As the profession itself is shifting, the traditional training and hiring processes need to adapt to encompass the different skills required to fulfil these roles.
To tackle talent scarcity, much of the focus in accountancy so far has been on upskilling existing employees or finding innovative ways to attract talent from abroad. Although these are valid ways to combat the skills gap, accountants can go further.
The benefits of a diversified workforce
By broadening the pool of potential employees to include a wider skillset and then investing more in training these employees, businesses can mitigate the impact of talent scarcity by discovering talents that standard hiring practices might not uncover. Rather than looking for homogenous talent, HR professionals hiring accountants can go further by shifting their focus to redefine the types of candidates that they consider to be desirable, as well as how they train them.
Sage’s new Practice of Now research has found that a third of businesses are actively looking to diversify their workforce. With the current shortage of the skills that are needed to build a modern, digital firm, accountants must build a workforce that goes beyond the traditional accounting heartlands—one that makes use of individuals with a broader range of skills, and from a broader range of backgrounds.
By broadening their definition of what makes a good employee, businesses can equip themselves with a wider array of skills and viewpoints. This is useful from a strategic standpoint as it enables the company to provide a more complete picture of client needs. From an operational perspective, it also gives access to valuable, non-traditional skills like data science and coding. Additionally, a diverse range of backgrounds and skillsets brings with it a wider base of experiences and viewpoints, enabling firms to engage on a consultative level with a more varied client base – which in turn provides the opportunity to boost the bottom line.
Prioritising diversity: practical steps
It’s all well and good deciding that your business is ready to employ a more diverse workforce, but how do you ensure you action this new strategy and avoid falling into old stereotypes and practices? Here are some practical ways to get started.
More and more companies are seeing the value of offering employees flexible working practices and implementing flexi-time or home working. By offering more flexible working practices, accountancy can accommodate the needs of a more varied talent pool such as working mums or carers.
Additionally, by investing heavily in training and upskilling, you can unlock hidden skills in existing employees that they might not have realised they had . This investment will also enable employers to train different candidates so that everyone is adding as much value as possible across the business. For example, having open training sessions could reveal numeracy or presenting skills in employees in roles that aren’t currently capitalising on these talents. What’s more, providing additional training for those who have raw talent but may not have been through the traditional training channels, can help bridge the gap between their background and potential.
Another area to consider re-evaluating is your recruitment process. One interesting method being used by Sage customer Bremont, a UK-based luxury watch manufacturer, is the concept of open application days. The company opens its doors to anyone who wants to try their hand at watchmaking, from high-school dropouts to long-time craftspeople. They are then given technical challenges, during which Bremont gets the chance to detect whether the candidates have the basic manual aptitude required for the job, rather than screening candidates based on their CVs. It then takes on those with potential and invests in training them over the next two years. Hiring in this way also enables companies to consider candidates without prejudice or preconception and therefore broaden the talent pool considerably, ending up with a highly-trained and loyal workforce.
Whichever strategies work for your practice, the main challenge will be the shift in perspective and working practices that are required to accommodate an evolving workforce. HR will need to work with line-of-business teams to help them understand the value that a broader hiring programme can bring the business and how any traditional resourcing challenges can be overcome, for example, in an always-on customer services function.
With a new and more diverse workforce, understanding and knowing your employees is even more complex and important. Data analytics or ‘people science’ will be an essential element of a successful diversification strategy. By using analytics to better understand your employees, facilitate tailored individual KPIs and perform continuous performance management, companies can get new hires bedded in as quickly as possible and ensure that people management processes are as effective as possible.
A more diverse hiring strategy increases the chance that businesses will hire the right person for the right role and give them access to a wider range of ideas and viewpoints. Diversifying hiring practices should be a strategic imperative for the good of the business – the possibilities are huge.