The outlook for accountants and financial planners is strong. Download the NAB 2024 Accounting & Financial Planning Report to discover the key trends and opportunities, or watch the webinar recording below.
The coming months will be full of opportunity but also challenges for the growing professional services sector. With staffing a critical factor, we identify the trends you should navigate to become an employer of choice in 2023.
Professional services is one of the fastest growing sectors of Australia’s economy, with employment growing 6.1 per cent through 2021. Yet alongside this growth has come a shortage of suitable candidates. In part compacted by a lack of new talent arriving from overseas, this shortage of candidates has become one of the biggest barriers to firms being able to capitalise on demand for their services and maximise growth opportunities.
To support you becoming an employer of choice, we’ve identified five trends that can help attract and retain the best people in the year ahead.
As a result of widespread skills shortages, firms continue to navigate higher salary expectations.
“We’re finding people’s skill sets don’t match their asking price,” says Ben Matthews, Partner and National Head of Professional Services at Grant Thornton Australia. “People are chasing dollars at the moment, which can lead to turnover issues.”
Jason Elias, CEO of Elias Recruitment, has also seen growing salaries – and plenty of counter-offers. An example of this, he explains, was one candidate who was offered $20,000 above his current salary by a prospective employer, only for his current firm to counter that with a further $60,000.
While firms can’t stop this happening, Elias says they can “minimise the risk” by having a solid offering in other areas and by noting purely monetary motivation in a candidate as a potential red flag.
Elias does add that he has started to see the tide turning. “As storm clouds gather, firms are starting to be a bit more cautious about offering big money,” he says. “They’re thinking about whether that lawyer is really delivering value for $200k, or they’re really a $120k lawyer.”
When it comes to rewards, Deborah Stonley, Director of People and Culture at Maddocks, says that reward is more than pay, so as well as paying competitive salaries, the firm has focused on broader benefits or a “total rewards” approach.
“That can include areas like leadership and development programs, flexible work and parental leave,” she explains.
Meanwhile, Matthews says the recent release of the ATO’s final guidelines around allocation of profits, aimed specifically at professional services firms, may also have implications for senior remuneration structures, particularly for non-equity partners. Such partners might find their profit-sharing arrangements have to change because of the new rules, with implications for senior staff retention.
“This in generating a fair bit of uncertainty,” he says, “and it’s causing people to rethink their structures and remuneration policies.”
Elias notes that flexibility has become a top priority for candidates – but this goes further than purely lifestyle benefits. “Even if they don’t mind coming into the office five days, they don’t like to be told that they have to – they want to have the choice,” he says.
Maddocks has seen the same among its staff. Stonley says the firm’s staff engagement survey shows a focus on valuing not only flexible or hybrid working, but also autonomy.
“One of the biggest shifts is staff wanting autonomy, because that’s what they had throughout the pandemic,” she says.
In the midst of hybrid and flexible working, firms must pay careful attention to maintaining culture, which is more important than ever in a competitive employment market.
“Culture forms the fabric of a firm,” Matthews says. “You can train someone if they’re deficient in a particular skill, but the difficult part is making sure you’re attracting the right sort of people.”
So how do you keep culture front and centre?
Stonely points to Maddocks’ wellbeing programs and a focus on reinstating in-person connection; for example, team lunches, seminars and staff get-togethers. A key measure for Maddocks, she says, is their staff “advocating” for the firm – because it not only means “people are proud to work here” but they then encourage others to come and work with them.
Cooper Grace Ward, Managing Partner at Charles Sweeney, agrees that a culture is essential, and says Charles Sweeney has a number of “building blocks” to maintain culture.
These include strongly defined values that help people understand the behaviour everyone expects of them and working groups that continuously look for areas of improvement for staff engagement. Also, partners and managers are responsible for regular catch-ups with all team members around areas like career development and contributing ideas.
Meanwhile, traditional career paths are starting to change – at least for some.
“There was a time when becoming a managing partner at a top tier firm was the holy grail of a legal career,” Elias says. “Now, some people want to be an in-house counsel at a large company.”
At Maddocks, senior associates have access to a program to prepare them for partnership, in particular business-related responsibilities such as leadership. “This is a good time to assess whether you want partnership or a different path such as an in-house or commercial role with a company,” Stonely says.
And while the predominant career path is still very much towards partnership for those who stay in private practice, there are also emerging areas such as operations and knowledge management to move into.
“Think about a student these days who might be studying, say, law and computer science. That’s going to open up whole new areas,” Stonely says.
Sweeny agrees that career paths have been evolving for years, but this trend has been accelerated by the pandemic.
“We feel the best way to support this is by taking the time to explore the individual needs and aspirations of each team member,” he says. From there, it’s about “finding ways that we can create some alignment between their personal goals and what is being offered at a team and firm-wide level”.
The year ahead looks certain to present great opportunities for professional services firms. If they get on top of the key trends discussed here – and retain or recruit the best staff – they will be well positioned to take advantage.
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