Perspectives from the Profession – Ideas for Smaller Firms to Remain Competitive and Address the Concerns of the Next Generation

By Lynn Ledbetter, Executive Director, Edwards & Associates

Public accounting, traditionally a stable and often rewarding profession, faces a significant challenge: attracting and retaining young talent. This is not a new issue, but one that seems to be getting worse rather than better over time. Smaller, independent firms are impacted profoundly, particularly when forced to compete with larger firms, some of which have blank checks now due to outside private equity and other funding. Even the IRS is paying premium salaries and signing bonuses while offering reliable eight-hour days, further complicating the competitive landscape.

In my own discussions with young people, I’m finding that many are hesitant to enter (or stay in) the field, due to several key issues that we are trying to address. So, what can smaller firms do to remain competitive and attract the next generation of leaders they need to serve client needs? Here are a few ideas that we’ve implemented that are moving the needle.

Enhance Wages and Expand Compensation

Wages in public accounting are often perceived as modest, especially when compared to other professions. While public accountants do earn a respectable income, the compensation may not always reflect the demanding nature of the work. To combat this, our firm has implemented several measures to make working here more appealing, not just within the accounting sphere but across a broader professional landscape. We complement our salary offers by offering tuition reimbursement, CPA study course assistance, and bonuses for achieving CPA certification, with the goal of minimizing some of the financial barriers to entry into this profession.

Work Hours and Work-Life Balance

Another significant deterrent is the demanding work hours, particularly during the busy season, which can nearly wipe out personal and family time. Recognizing the importance of work-life balance, especially for Gen Z employees, we have limited weekly hours to 48 during busy season and to 40 for the rest of the year. We’ve also introduced policies like extra time off at the year-end and a generous PTO policy to allow our staff the time they need to recharge, reflecting our commitment to their well-being. I acknowledge that further improvements are necessary, and we are talking to our team to learn what they want most in terms of ongoing adjustments.

Innovative Personal Development Opportunities

Understanding that job satisfaction extends beyond financial compensation, we’ve initiated a personal development reimbursement program. Building on the idea that we as individuals are much more that what we do for a job, this unique benefit supports employees in pursuing interests outside their professional lives. So far, team members have taken pottery classes, guitar lessons and courses in herbal medicine. This approach not only enhances our team’s overall happiness but also enriches their creative and problem-solving skills, which can be applied to client work and internal problem solving.

Client Interaction and Operational Efficiency

A persistent pain point in our profession is the lethargy some clients show in providing necessary information, complicating our work and creating undue stress. This issue has been exacerbated since the onset of COVID, with many clients becoming even less responsive. While I understand that everyone is busy and pulled in many directions, we need to demonstrate to our team that their time is important and worthy of respect too. When onboarding new clients, we clearly spell out what we will deliver, but equally important, we aim to define what is expected of each client in terms of documentation, input and timing. Mutual respect is important for any relationship to last, and this goes for professional ones as much as personal ones. We continue to actively seek solutions to streamline client interactions and reduce the bottlenecks that harm our work-life balance and operational efficiency.

The Road Ahead

The challenges facing public accounting are significant, but they are not insurmountable. By adopting thoughtful, employee-focused strategies, firms can create an attractive and supportive workplace. Such environments not only draw talent but make it easier to retain young professionals as they navigate the complexities of public accounting. As we continue to refine our approaches and policies, the goal remains clear: to ensure that public accounting is as rewarding and fulfilling as it is critical to the business landscape.


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