Recruiting for Small Firms

September 01, 2010
How do small firms compete in the world of recruiting?

By Damien B.M. English
As a small—or smaller—firm, the competition for top talent can seem overwhelming when pitted against the resources of larger firms. To help, we asked small CPA firms to share both their challenges and strategies to remain a competitive, desirable employer in the eyes of the talent pool.

More Than a Name
Where the big firm has name recognition, the small firm can offer personal attention.

“The client feels at home when they come into the office because they usually know most if not all the staff members,” says Eileen Pastenieks, CPA, managing partner with Pastenieks, Bucheli & Falasco LLP, in Modesto and chair of the CalCPA Management of an Accounting Practice Committee. “My business card has the tagline ‘Big enough to specialize—small enough to personalize.’”

This also means that the staff at a smaller firm has more face-to-face time with the client and the opportunity to work a file more completely than at a larger firm. A staff accountant at a small firm will work the tax return from beginning to end while a larger firm may assign parts of the return to various staff, such as entering depreciation or inputting the source documents. This will also give a staff member the chance to interact with clients sooner, and more often, from day one on the job. From a networking perspective, this can be an invaluable selling point.

More Opportunity for Growth
Exposure to all facets of client service might be something a recruit prefers, as opposed to the niche expertise, such as litigation support or investment advisory services, offered at a larger firm. Moreover, if the owner is a baby boomer, the opportunity for buying out the owner’s practice may entice a person to work at a smaller firm rather than a larger firm.

Work-life Balance
At a smaller firm the hours may at times get a little excessive but there’s more flexibility and control than in the bigger firm setting. Large firms have financial targets that are driven by the number of hours each office works.

Due to the sheer numbers of a larger firm, the relevance of one staffer can be of much less significance than with a small firm. If a small firm decides to hire, it’s usually a pretty large decision.

Training, Near and Far
Many large firms can offer employees in-house training, which saves time and money on traveling to and from CPE events. Small or rural firms don’t get offered this option as much with smaller audiences. Therefore, smaller firms must spend dollars on the CPE and associated travel expenses.
Technology is a way to combat this problem, and webcasting will save your employees traveling time and save you traveling expense money. CalCPA offers a wide variety of CPE webcasts, as well as guidance on how to set up the free software and login.

Recruiting Partnerships
It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Besides CalCPA, there are a number of organizations that can help you in the battle for new talent.
  • Is there a college or university near you? Look out for campus job fairs and make sure your firm is represented.
  • Contact the school’s accounting society and see if you can participate in or help plan some events. Or contact professors to see if you can offer some guest speaking services. Ramona Farrell, managing partner with Ueltzen & Company LLP in Sacramento, is a regular speaker for Sacramento State University’s Beta Alpha Psi Society, for the audit and business classes and has spoken on careers in accounting at the junior college level.
  • During the busy season, hit up the same above resources and try to hire interns, which could lead to a job offering after graduation if you have one available.
  • Consider giving a firm scholarship with certain parameters (e.g., must be an accounting major, have leadership skills, etc.)
  • Don’t forget clubs such as Rotary or Kiwanis, networking groups or local leadership programs put on by the city. These can all provide you with recruiting opportunities if you get involved.
Benefits, Flexibility and Salary
It can be tough to decide what to offer in this category, but it’s something potential hires will want to know off the bat. According to the small firm CPAs we contacted, recruits are asking about salary, opportunity for advancement, health benefits, the variety of work they will be doing (litigation, fraud, etc.) and flexibility in hours.

As far as salary is concerned, you can check if your offering is competitive—or find out the going salaries in a given area/area of expertise—via Robert Half. This site offers regional trends as well as a salary calculator. The National Association of Colleges and Employers is also a good place to check on salary info, which is released quarterly. Also, Going Concern posts job and salary information from time to time.

Some examples of benefits other small firms are offering:
  • Health benefits, dental, vision, retirement (simple IRA, 401k), vacation, sick time, PTO bank, a new client referral program with commission, half-day Fridays, jeans on Fridays, profit sharing, incentive programs, life insurance and long term disability.
  • Some more outside-the-box offerings: massage once a month or a health membership at a local gym.
Most CPAs we talked to offer accrued vacation and sick time right away. Some offered flexible start times, and most offered flexible days during non-peak season.

Good Things Come in Small Firms
Remember, there are plenty of things a small firm can offer that the larger firms can’t. The items below may not apply to all firms across the board, but are good selling points to new recruits:
  • Small firms typically require very little travel, and usually have a “family comes first” attitude.
  • As a small firm, you offer staffers the chance to learn the “nuts and bolts” training that comes with running a small firm. Your recruits can have the chance to learn the business from top to bottom.
  • Large firms typically have a tiered structure, which does not always offer up the collaborative environment that occurs in a smaller firm.
  • Recruits entering smaller firms also have the opportunity to diversify their expertise, as there is not the money or manpower for specialization. New staffers can be exposed to a variety of business types and work they can do.
  • Rural firms can offer high visibility in the surrounding community and everyone in the firm can give back to the community through charity events, fundraisers and the like.
From the Mouths of Stars
Here are a few quotes from some young emerging stars regarding what they are looking for in a job or employer.
“I want a firm that is loyal to their employees: they appreciate them and have integrity and, as an employer, I’d want the same from my staff. I think more emerging professionals are looking to do something they like to do, not just because it’s just a good career or steady field—they want to enjoy what they do while doing it. They also want to be appreciated and acknowledged for their work—and they should be!”
Natalie Quan, Berger/Lewis Accountancy Corporation

“I have desires, dreams and goals like all those who were impacted by youth. If you want to hire me, I want to make sure you take all those into account and the job description spells out every one of them. Employers want to have a great employee, so why use me for something I was not made for? It’s great to work for people who understand that. My employer ingrained this into a mission statement: “As a team, we seek to always bring out the best in our colleagues.”
Nikolya Serdyuk, Baker, Peterson & Franklin, CPA, LLP

“A job and employer must offer the ability for continued growth and promotion, along with the usual items (good pay and benefits, vacation time and the ability to use it). I think that emerging professionals are willing to work hard, but we want to be rewarded for our hard work and effort. Emerging professionals are looking for current rewards, rather than a promise of a reward in the future.”
Eric Vander Veen, Croce & Company Accountancy Corporation
Damien B.M. English is CalCPA’s managing editor.
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