Beware of a short-sighted vision of business

Beware of a short-sighted vision of business

Steve McCutcheon says employers in Scotland’s financial services sector need to be careful not to set tight parameters when searching for the best people.

The stream of commuters gliding along the M8 each weekday before 7.30am heading from Glasgow to Edinburgh – and vice versa – tells you something about the health of Scotland’s economy. The rush hour is full of people heading to work in well-paid city-centre jobs.

You can bet your bottom dollar that a fair percentage of these drivers are employed in either Scotland’s financial services sector or in the professions. Despite the recession, Scotland still has an incredible pool of talent when it comes to our financial services and professional services industries.

We haven’t lost our abilities when it comes to banking, fund management, insurance and back office support for these sectors. And it’s something we really need to understand and celebrate, because there are still big jobs out there with six-figure salaries requiring strong candidates.

I know, because my company PRG has placed many of them in the last six months. The naysayers who predicted the collapse of big ticket salaries in the central belt maybe didn’t fully account for the laws of supply and demand.

Indeed, there are now upward salary pressures in some areas, for example for highly specialised technical accountants and for expertise in certain areas of corporate law and banking. If you’re an expert in liquidity, Basel III and you’re a great communicator with outstanding inter-personal skills, then you can virtually name your price.

Post-crunch, Scotland’s financial services job market has taken time to recover its composure. There is still nervousness and it’s still not easy, but it is easing up. Three years ago, demand was mainly for those who could fix problems quickly and who were experts in cost controls. Now there’s more of a requirement for broader, valued-adding expertise and there’s a growing requirement in finance departments for well-trained, technically specialised accountants.

At the same time, there is the truism that the Big Four lose about a third of their newly qualified staff every year. That’s the way it works and this helps fertilise the accounting skills needed elsewhere in industry with people who have knowledge of the Big Four’s methods of operations. A bright, qualifying accountant really needs to gain some dirty-fingernail experience out in the commercial world.

Once they have this, the Big Four firms value this exposure, which is why many end up back in consultancy years later.

But there’s also an interesting dynamic that needs addressed. The recruitment process for some clients sticks rigidly to what they think are the necessary attributes from any potential candidate. For example, they expect candidates to have work experience with a Big Four accounting firm (PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young). They want a Scottish qualified CA, who has passed all their exams first time – sorry, no re-sits – and they often also want financial services auditing experience.

All this wrapped up in an intelligent, capable person with those inter-personal skills mentioned above. But there is a recruitment – and business – issue here. A good professional recruitment adviser should know what their client actually needs, rather than what they think they want. Sure, a company might want a Big Four trained candidate but do they really need one? And stipulating a CA excludes many English-trained accountants and even those who are ACCA or CIMA qualified.

This narrows the parameters and, while there might be sound reasons for doing so, the fact is that often there are not. The professional recruitment consultant needs to be assertive and be prepared to educate the customer. Recruiters need to challenge inappropriately narrow selection criteria, because a failure to challenge risks excludes worthy candidates who might have vital experience work. So, if there are reasons for such a narrow search field, then this should be fully discussed.

Replicate this inherent conservatism across Scottish businesses and you get an indication of the danger of this prescriptive approach.The risk is that Scottish talent with different strengths might be overlooked – and that’s a negative for Scottish business. There’s another matter that employers should bear in mind. There is no shortage of opportunity if you work in finance or professional services and have specialised skills.

This means a candidate’s expectation of a future employer has also increased too. It’s very seldom I hear people looking for a new job speak only about salary. Now they demand a range of other benefits. The candidate’s process of evaluating competing employers is now based on whether it’s a good place to work, whether the work is varied and interesting in its scope and what the worklife balance is like.

As well, of course, as financial remuneration. So companies can’t be complacent and must ensure that, in this improving climate, they are not shutting the door on the kind of key talent that they need to grow and prosper. Rules should never replace reason. Steve McCutcheon is chief executive officer of PRG, an independent Scottish recruitment company specialising in senior accountancy and legal positions. Launched in 2002, it is now Scotland’s largest independent recruiter for the professions.