Have you noticed the number of open, high-level finance roles in higher education right now? Recently, I spoke with a recruiter charged with filling one of these high-level positions at a university. This recruiter echoed my clients’ thoughts about how hard it’s been to fill those roles. Why? Because there are simply not enough people with the right level of finance and industry experience.
Of course, NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers) has been predicting this talent decline for years due to the anticipated retirement of baby boomers, but there was not much movement until recently. What is different is that the shortage is happening at both ends of the spectrum (entry and exit) causing a “squeeze”.
This makes sense if we think about the recent history of accounting majors. The number of students in this major has been in decline since new majors like data analytics and entrepreneurship became available. This was further impacted by population shifts resulting in decreases in the number of college-aged Americans. We are already seeing fewer new CPAs (Certified Professional Accountants). The result is a long-term shortage of accounting professionals. I even hear stories of accounting graduates earning starting salaries of over $80k with no experience.
What can we do to counteract this shortage?
The good news is there is something we can do now. Technology gives us the ability to perform those high-volume low value tasks once performed by people, generally faster and with greater accuracy. Of course, even the computer needs training, but they generally learn routine tasks much quicker than we do. In the past, I looked hard at automation tools and calculated whether they would actually save us money. Some didn’t. But now the conversation has shifted. These days, we don’t have the people available to do all the work. We need to redeploy our teams and ensure they are doing the high value work that computers can’t do. With a talent shortage, we cannot afford not to consider automation.
Intentional Career Progression
This brings me to the second thing we can do and frankly should have always been doing. We need to be intentional about the career progression plans for our teams. Too often, we hire someone to fill a position and they are really good at it, so we keep them there. Think of an accounts payable coordinator who rises to manager but ultimately is still in accounts payable. They become so good at one area, we give them regular raises and often end up with a high salary AP Manager who was capable of so much more. Instead, what if we tried to limit roles to 2 years? For instance, what if your bursar (student accounts) retires? We could fill the empty bursar role, with a manager from accounts payable, and promote the accounts payable coordinator to AP Manager. That way, we just need to hire an entry level AP person instead of an experienced student accounts manager.
We can all think of people we have worked with who excel at any role. These people often go unnoticed because they don’t need a lot of help and they hit the ground running. Identifying these professionals is crucial. These utility players can work in nearly every role in the department. What does that do for you? Moving your team members around to learn and excel in different positions strengthens your team. That means if a team member becomes ill or leaves, you’re covered. It also helps each person develop empathy and a deeper understanding of all the roles in your department. This is like hiring someone who has worked at other schools, they can look at your unique situation through the lens of different experiences. Learning new tasks also develops confidence. Your team will have a broader perspective and make decisions at a higher level. They’ll feel more valuable and valued, which will help with retention.
Generalist vs. specialist
In accounting, we have too many specialists. When we create teams to serve our finance department in the future, this will continue to hurt us. When someone focuses deeply on accounts payable or billing, they generally learn everything and can maximize the job within the first 1 to 2 years. If they aren’t challenged to learn new tasks, they’ll get into a routine and focus less on continuous improvement because they don’t see other opportunities within their role. Let’s face it, once we get something the way we want it, we don’t typically make changes. In this data driven world, it is critical to keep learning what is possible.
Yes, cycling everyone in your department through various roles every two or three years causes a learning curve, but it also creates great opportunities for succession planning and continuous improvement.