Great Resignation repositions accountants

Accounting

The so-called Great Resignation is presenting an opportunity for accountants to seek out more satisfying places to work where they can realize their career goals or just be able to balance their work and personal lives better.

After millions of workers opted to stay with their jobs in 2020 amid all the uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19 and massive layoffs early in the year, many of them decided to seek out greener pastures in 2021. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that last August, the total quit rate increased 0.2 percentage point to 2.9%, the highest since such data was first collected in December 2000. The number of people quitting their jobs last August rose by 242,000 to 4.3 million. With the labor market being so tight and employees in high demand in any number of industries, the accounting profession is one where many staffers have been eyeing better opportunities.

“People are calling it the Great Resignation, but I think it’s really a repositioning,” said Russ Porter, CFO and senior vice president of strategy, technology and analytics at the Institute of Management Accountants. “For a lot of people who have gone through the pandemic, my view is they’ve taken the chance to reevaluate what their objectives and personal goals are and go chase those a little bit. The effect of this is largely contained within the U.S. and the U.K. For a lot of people, the pandemic was really negative for them financially, but for others, it was a chance to save a lot of money. Now I think a lot of those folks are taking this opportunity to explore things that might make them more fulfilled in their careers.”

So far, the amount of job movement in the accounting and finance profession doesn’t seem to be as high as some other sectors like education and health care. “There’s a lot of stability still within accounting and finance,” said Porter. “That said, things affect different professions at different points in their cycles, and once they get past year end, we may see a lot of folks in our profession going and looking for what might be next as their second career or their next act.”

The tax profession is also likely to see more departures given the stresses predicted for this tax season. Even those who don’t work on preparing income tax returns may be ready to move on if they work with “indirect” taxes like sales and excise taxes.

“The Great Resignation is impacting the world of tax a great deal, and these are areas that are incredibly nuanced from the standpoint of expertise,” said Ray Grove, vice president of indirect tax at Thomson Reuters. “Finding people who have deep expertise in indirect taxes is not very common. You’ve got folks that have been doing it for a long time that are looking to retire. [Companies are] saying, ‘Wait a second, how do we replace this person? What do we do?’ That’s partly where technology comes into play because you’ve got these policy changes and you’ve got people challenges. Technology can solve part of that problem, but this could become a much bigger concern for organizations going into 2022.”

Many accountants are leveraging remote technology to work safely away from their usual offices during the pandemic, but that same technology also enables them to work remotely for almost any other firm or to look for another job while at their home computer.

“I think that’s going to turn out to be one of the bigger, longer-term impacts of the new way that we are working,” said Porter. “Remote work opens up a much wider aperture of connections between employers and employees about where they work and how they work. No longer do I need to work within 50 miles of where I live. I can work for a company that’s halfway across the United States because the work can be done remotely using good communication tools and teaming. Suddenly, employers have a much wider field of potential candidates, and employees have a much wider field of potential employers.”

The battle for accounting talent won’t just be waged on the local level then, but all across the country. “The competition for talent is going to be greater,” said Porter. “But the competition within accounting is going to be greater as well. It’s going to be really important for people who are looking for those jobs [to know] they’re now competing on a much broader scale than they used to be competing. And I think that’s one of the areas where [degrees] like MBAs and certifications are going to make a difference in terms of the hiring process.”

To convince accounting employees to stay at a company or to switch jobs from another firm, employers will need to offer higher salaries and benefits. They will also have to make sure that morale is high and avoid overworking their staff, especially when the dividing line between work hours and personal hours blurs while working from home.

“As management accountants who affect the culture and the way that our business is approaching all aspects, including our human resources and relationships, it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to make sure that we are keeping our teams healthy, satisfied and therefore productive,” said Porter. “It’s not just about salaries. One of the big things that’s coming out is No Meetings Fridays. Sometimes that means you’re just compressing the work into a smaller time frame. It’s really about making sure that we’re meeting the needs of our teams and our team members in all aspects. Yes, there’s the financial aspect, but the sense of mission, the sense of belonging, the sense of teamwork and camaraderie are becoming just as important as the financial aspects of what people are looking for in their careers. And graduates coming out of college are all going to be looking for some of those aspects, especially, from what I’ve been hearing lately, the mission aspect. That’s becoming more and more important to our younger graduates.”

Employers will need to treat their accounting employees well to hold onto much needed staff at a time when offers are constantly coming their way, managing workers in a way that doesn’t just count them as numbers.

“A lot of it is the same leadership characteristics that I would have said we’ve always been dealing with,” said Porter. “It’s looking at our team members as whole people, and making sure that we’re looking at satisfying not just their financial needs and treating them as workers, but treating them as whole people, understanding their needs, how they operate as individuals, and addressing their needs as such. There was a phrase about 20 years ago called ‘mass customization’ where no longer would people want to be viewed as just one of a thousand types. They want to be viewed as individuals. And that’s the way we should be talking to our teams, thinking about our teams and responding to the needs of our team members as individuals. As leaders, we all want workers coming in the front door, and what we get are people, and we should always be respectful of that fact.”

Some major firms like Grant Thornton, KPMG and PwC are competing for talent by offering extra enticements and benefits like extra paid sick leave and parental leave or even helping with paying off student loans (see story).

“For some, especially when you’ve got a younger worker cohort, student loans might be really important,” said Porter. “For people who are in the sandwich generation who are taking care of both kids and parents, their needs are going to be a little bit different and some greater flexibility on sick leave would be appropriate. That’s one of those areas where I think accounting and finance people can help our companies is understanding what are the relative costs and benefits of some of those programs, working as we often do with other parts of the company — in this case HR and it might be also operations — to make sure that we’re tailoring the benefit enhancements to what our teams really need. Sometimes it does come across quantitatively: greater sick leave, or greater financial benefits in terms of health benefits. A big one I’m seeing is mental health. A lot more companies are rolling out mental health benefits to their employees, given what we’ve seen in the pandemic over the last two years. This is one of the areas where it’s a lot about costs and benefits, understanding what’s really going to make a difference for our teams. Accounting and finance people can help make those decisions to make sure we’re not just taking a ‘peanut butter approach’ with all of our people based upon what the company next door is doing.”

Given all the uncertainties with the economy and the pandemic, the Great Resignation trend could well be reversed by next year.

“Everything happens in equilibrium,” said Porter. “One of my philosophies is that pendulums swing back and forth. What we’re seeing now with the Great Resignation is in part a response to what we saw in 2020, which was people moving around a lot less. And I think in 2022, we might see that pendulum swing back again, that a lot of folks who went out and tried new things might be coming back into the workforce and creating a very different labor market. Our unemployment rates are very, very low, and we’re almost at full employment right now. Part of that is people are leaving the workforce to go do their own thing, and as those folks come back in, we might see a little easing in the labor market in 2022.”

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