Back in the 1940s and ’50s, “Kelly Girls” entered the labor market as secretaries and file clerks for companies that needed temporary office help. At about the same time, Robert Half, founder of today’s global staffing firm Robert Half, had a different idea: to focus on specialized staffing for accounting and finance professionals. Later the company expanded to include temporary staffing in other fields, from legal to technology.
I spoke with Lauren Coker, a senior regional vice president for Robert Half, to learn about the evolution of temporary staffing with regard to positions like data entry clerks, purchasing managers, tax accountants, internal auditors and bookkeepers. Here’s a condensed version of our interview.
Benefits of temporary staffing
Accountemps has matched accounting and finance professionals with companies for more than 65 years. To what do you attribute this success?
Lauren Coker: There are so many benefits for both employers and the people who are involved in temporary or project work.
For employers, temporary staffing allows them to bring in skilled accounting and finance professionals for peak workloads or to cover when core employees are out of the office. It is a much more cost-effective solution than hiring additional staff on a full-time basis, because businesses pay only for extra staff when they truly need the help. Additionally, some employers choose to bring people in on a temporary basis to make sure it is a good fit for both sides prior to moving forward with a full-time hire.
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For those who work as temps, it is a great resource for building their resumes and gaining new skills by being exposed to different industries, software and areas of accounting. There are a lot of temp work myths around that do not reflect today’s realities. This is work that can help candidates become more marketable for other positions.
Additionally, it is a great networking opportunity that could lead to a full-time job offer. It allows flexibility while conducting a job search or taking university courses, with the opportunity to earn money while looking for the right fit for the long term. Employers often look favorably on candidates who have kept their skills sharp while job searching and are motivated to improve their knowledge by doing temporary work during gaps in their employment history.
Evolving duties, skills and roles
Has the work of temporary accounting professionals changed over the years?
Lauren: Yes. There’s an expectation today that accounting professionals are technically savvy. Companies use a variety of software programs, and the more exposure workers have to different systems, the better. Also, employers are often looking for candidates who are willing to learn new hard and soft skills and take on new responsibilities.
The field of accounting has continued to grow, which has allowed for more specialization in certain skill sets, and the demand for people with this specific knowledge keeps increasing. For example, we often see requests for a general ledger staff accountant or an accounts payable staff accountant versus a staff accountant. We are also seeing requests for temporary employees to focus just on accounts payable or payroll versus being knowledgeable in all aspects.
The larger the company, typically the more specific the area of focus. Smaller companies still focus on hiring people who have very diverse experience in accounting and are able to jump in and handle a variety of tasks.
In recent years, the competition for top talent in the accounting/finance arena has intensified. In order for companies to attract and retain the best people, they need to pay competitively, offer good benefits, and also be open to doing other things to make jobs more attractive.
Diversity, demand and success
How would you describe the diversity of projects temporary workers handle in jobs today?
Lauren: Companies bring in staff to help with work related to mergers, acquisitions, medical leaves, reconciliation work, pre- and post-audit work, and system conversions. Sometimes they want someone to fill in when they are trying to find a permanent employee, or they have cyclical accounting projects, such as month-end, year-end, tax season, budget season and new regulations that require compliance work. There’s really a full spectrum of skill sets needed for all the roles, from AP and AR, to billing/medical billing, payroll, credit/collections, bookkeeping, staff accountants, senior accountants, financial analysts, and so on.
Do you have a success story to share from a company?
Lauren: We worked with a company that had gone through a merger and needed more staffing. Temporary professionals were able to assist in a variety of roles — from senior accountants and financial analysts to accounts payable and accounts receivable. They helped keep the company’s work flow going and handle the increased workload while the fulltime staff was pulled into training related to new accounting software and restructuring.
How about a success story for an accounting temp?
Lauren: A payroll specialist was laid off by her employer two months ago because of staff cutbacks. She was concerned, because she desperately needed a job. We were able to place her with another company that offered her a better commute and a pay increase. She did an amazing job, and the company recently extended her a fulltime offer. She is so happy!
Staffing checklist for companies
How do managers or employers know if temporary staffing is right for their businesses?
Lauren: Temporary staffing is something that can help most companies at different times throughout the year. Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if this could be beneficial to you, your human resources department or company:
- Do you experience peak workloads in accounting at different times during the year?
- How would you or how have you handled situations where accounting staff members request a leave of absence?
- How do you handle cyclical accounting projects such as budget season, tax season, month-end, year-end or audit related work?
- Do you notice your staff putting in extra hours from time to time, possibly leading to increased overtime costs and staff burnout?
- Have you experienced growth in your business that has increased the accounting workload?
- How long does it typically take you to hire a full-time person to add to your team or to backfill a current opening? On average, we see job openings lasting six to eight weeks (or more) in order to secure the right candidate. A temporary can ensure the work keeps getting done so you can focus your energy on securing the best full-time solution.
- Have you had challenges in the past with getting the right fit for the job? Is that something you care about? Many companies apply the "temp to perm" option so both the company and the employee can “test drive” things to make sure it is a good match before a position becomes full time.
As business and industry has changed, with technology, growth and specialization, so has the world of temporary staffing for accounting and finance. If you’re a manager or employer, it can help you run your business smoothly and enhance productivity. If you’re a job seeker, it can help you find work and enhance your skills.
More than a quarter of U.S. firms use temporary or project professionals to assist with their accounting and finance function. Here's an infographic from our Benchmarking report that shows what specific functions they fill.
Lauren Coker is senior regional vice president for Robert Half in the North and South Carolina region. She has worked nearly two decades in specialized recruiting. She joined Robert Half in 1999 as a staffing manager and quickly became a division director, followed by the roles of branch manager and regional manager.