Skills shortage. It's a term that gets bandied around a lot in our industry, and it is something of primary interest to us, as demand for staff will be highest where there are fewer suitable candidates in the market. So what is it? In simple terms, it means that, 'There are insufficient suitably qualified candidates to fill marketplace demands for employment at any price.' (Wikipedia) There are occupations in Australia listed as being particularly vulnerable to a skills shortage, which are listed online via the Australia Government Department of Employment. Accountants and accounting skills are NOT listed as falling under the skills shortage occupation list. Interestingly though, surveyed businesses still claim it is hard to find the right accountant and some are prepared to leave a position vacant rather than fill it when there are technically suitable applicants available. Why? Well, it turns out that skills are not necessarily the be all and end all in the accounting and finance market.
By this, I mean technical accounting skills. The 'shortage' in this industry is in a person's supplementary skills, industry experience and communication and interpersonal skills. According to the aforementioned research undertaken by the Department of Employment, many businesses are not willing to compromise on their requirements, which often include:
- Desired systems experience
- Number of years of experience
- Communication skills
It's a conundrum for candidates for sure. If you have never used SAP and the employers will only employ people who have used it, how do you get the experience? Can they really overlook you because you have four and not five years experience? And why are communication skills so important when accountants work predominantly with numbers?
Desired systems experience
The systems skills conundrum is hard. If you have only ever worked in small to medium sized businesses on a relatively small accounting platform and not an ERP, you are going to struggle getting into a big company using a complex ERP system. And there is no point saying that you will take a 'step back' to a lower paid position to gain this experience, because companies have been burned by people doing this – taking a lower level role, getting the experience they lack, and then leaving to take a more senior role. It is expensive to employ a permanent staff member – I mean really expensive – and if a company has invested training and support for you to gain that experience and then you leave, the employer is left out of pocket and somewhat disillusioned.
You could reflect on the experience you do have and focus on building your niche skills in that area. For example, develop very strong experience in an all round accounting role in small to medium sized businesses and focus only on those types of vacancies as they become available. Or (and this is risky) consider contracting. Sometimes – and I need to emphasise 'sometimes' – employers are willing to be flexible on systems skills for a contract role where the focus is on achieving a specific result, for example completion of a month end reconciliation.
Number of years of experience
It's bad form to advertise required years of experience, and it has always made me uncomfortable when I see people doing it. Realistically, is it right to exclude Candidate A just because he is six months short of the advertised number of years? And let's be honest, some people can have fifteen years experience and be pretty ordinary at their job, while someone with four years may be a superstar. It's a terrible way to assess a person's ability to do the job, but despite how I feel about it, there are employers who are fairly rigid on the level of experience. How do you overcome this? Well, if the employer is adamant that they have a specific number of years of experience in mind, then there is nothing you can do.
They probably won't even tell you that this is why you didn't get the job. Your only hope is to have a very well worded resume that focuses on the experience you do have and what your achievements have been. That way, if the employer does not find someone with the magic number of years experience, your details will look attractive.
Here is where accounting has changed over the years. Accountants are no longer locked in the backroom in their cardigans and expected to spend hours crunching numbers on unusual accounting machines. With the advent of computerised accounting systems, accountants were invited out of the dungeon (so to speak) and then expected to add insight into broader business issues.
This infusion into the broader business has required accountants to be able to communicate and have credibility with the sales team, the operations team, the warehouse manager, the supply chain team and so on. Issues with communication skills are not just about your accent and your vocabulary. They're very much about your ability to get buy-in from a broad range of people in the business. When you are applying for a role, it is a very good idea to highlight in your resume your experience dealing with non financial management and staff. If English is your second language, remember to speak slowly and clearly at the interview. Don't let excitement or enthusiasm overwhelm you – when people are overly excited, they tend to speak faster and become less clear. (If you are a Kiwi, like yours truly, you have no hope. The Aussies refuse to use the word 'jandal' no matter how many times we throw it into the conversation, and if they are being particularly cheeky, they will find ways to make you say the word 'six' or 'trip' or even 'seven'. My boss laughs every time he hears a Kiwi say 'seven' for some reason.) Overall, I guess this is a reminder that, no matter how good you are at doing what you do, you are not going to be 'right' for every job you apply for. Employers are rigid with their requirements for a role, and if you are not ticking off every box, then you might be passed over.
But do not despair: not every employer has an impossible list of requirements. If you take the time to read the job ads and call the recruiter to discuss what skills and experience are required for the role, you will waste less time applying for unsuitable jobs and have more time to apply for those where you have a high chance of being successful.