Welcome to the latest post in Robert Half’s Thought Leader Q&A series, which features insights from those who have made our company a great place to work and a premier provider of talent solutions.
In this article, we feature Gene Kim, Director of Permanent Placement Services. Gene joined Robert Half 20 years ago as a recruiting manager in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now he leads the East Bay Finance and Accounting Permanent Placement group, which fields up to 20 high-performing recruiters.
Having walked in their recruiting shoes, he considers himself a “player-coach,” giving his team the benefit of his years of field experience while inspiring them to achieve their greater goals.
You joined Robert Half very early in your career. What has kept you here for 20 years?
I think for most of us, our job fulfills different requirements at different points in our lives. It’s like a version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At first, you’re trying to earn money just to survive and pay your bills. In 2002,I had been working for a nonprofit but needed a better-paying job to get me through the recession. I had an accounting and finance background, so I joined Robert Half’s Oakland office as a recruiting manager.
Turns out, I liked the company and the work, so I proceeded to the next level of the hierarchy of needs — security. I was able to do well enough to take care of myself and my family. Then, as I continued to grow in my career, my job became more about impact and esteem. I was able to take on a leadership and “coach” role. I am very fortunate to work with a great team, including some who’ve been with me for over 10 years!
The final stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy’s linear growth model is self-actualization, when an individual is able to focus on personal growth and fulfilling their potential, which is where I feel I am now. I represent Robert Half as a volunteer mentor, as well as a mentor for new managers in the company. I’m one of the founding members of APEX, our Pan-Asian Employee Network Group.
One of my proudest accomplishments is that I've been able to continue to make my job different and pursue my calling, all while staying in the same location. Robert Half has supported my journey all the way.
Your team specializes in placing accounting and finance professionals in permanent roles. What does the future look like for these professionals?
We’re seeing that accounting teams are getting smaller as automation is replacing many transactional functions in accounting departments. Today, accountants need to be more analysts than processors — meaning they do fewer tasks like entering data for payroll, filling in timecards or processing invoices. Now, we need accounting professionals who can work with whole systems and analyze and fix problems to improve speed and accuracy. These will be higher-level positions overall.
But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from pursuing accounting as a career because of how it’s changing — just to think about it differently. It’s a bigger, more creatively analytical job. And the career outlook is very good. It's unbelievable how much new finance and accounting graduates are earning right out of school. Just check out Robert Half’s Salary Guide. These jobs might not match engineering pay, but they’re moving into second or third place behind those roles.
Is it as difficult finding this talent as it seems to be for other industries?
Yes, for a few different reasons. The accounting profession is becoming much more automated, so if I am hiring for, say, an accounts payable role, I’m not just looking for someone who can do the “what” of accounts payable — paying invoices, PO matching, cutting checks, etc. Now that person needs to understand whole automated and cloud accounting systems — like NetSuite and other Cloud ERP systems — and know how to use them to improve processes. So, we look for candidates who have the ability and desire to embrace technologies and learn new systems.
What are Robert Half recruiters doing differently to uncover finance and accounting talent in this marketplace?
We are more well-rounded in how we evaluate candidates, I think. We take a holistic, hands-on approach, looking beyond keywords on a black-and-white resume while looking into a candidate’s history and soft skills.
In the not-too-distant past, employers hiring for finance and accounting roles liked to apply pretty rigid and somewhat elitist requirements regardless of skills and experience — like a mandatory bachelor’s degree in the subject from a top-100 school, But I know from experience there’s an abundance of good candidates who don’t display those academic credentials. They’ve come into the field with nonfinance degrees, learning on the job. Or they’ve worked hard to earn an associate degree and pursued nondegree certificates in accounting or finance.
In this economy, we can’t afford to cross someone off the list without exploring the person beyond the resume. We look at these candidates as whole contributors, evaluating soft skills like communication, problem-solving and curiosity, as these skills will help accelerate them more quickly into the role, then into future roles. We are coaching our clients to do the same — keep an open mind, cast a wide net, and hire for potential.
Our clients are almost always open to this idea when we suggest it. In fact, I’m seeing cases where a client will choose someone with just two or three years of experience over someone with seven because they believe they’ll get an employee who’s at the height of their desire for learning, growth and promotion — Maslow’s again!
You mentioned your involvement with employee network groups, or ENGs. Can you explain how it’s been valuable to you?
We founded APEX (Asian Professionals for Excellence) at a time when ENGs were fairly new to Robert Half, and we saw a great opportunity. ENGs enable organizations to recognize historically underrepresented communities like Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and bring together colleagues with shared interests for meetings and events.
ENGs can be safe, encouraging spaces where employees can find support, advocacy and allyship. At first, this was a way for me to grow my professional network and my recruiting business, but it’s evolved into a way to give back to the AAPI community.
Along with APEX, I’m also really involved with the Northern California chapter of Ascend, the largest Pan-Asian business professional membership organization in North America. I serve as a mentor and leader of corporate relations, partnering with companies to bring content and connections to our members.
What barriers might AAPI employees face in the workplace?
I think AAPI individuals in general struggle with the “model minority” myth. AAPI Americans in general tend to be more educated and affluent than other minority groups, and there is a sense that, despite the bias they face, they don’t struggle with inclusion. That can end up backfiring on the AAPI community, and they may get excluded from leadership roles and other opportunities.
ENGs help employees with built-in engagement opportunities, reducing isolation and enabling them to discuss any challenges they face. I’ve seen how incredibly well this works in remote and hybrid workplaces especially. They also provide rich leadership opportunities for members as they try their hands at organizing events, creating membership campaigns and heading up committees.
Along with your work at Robert Half and your community service, what else fills your cup?
You know, I would say my faith, and also my family. Those are my two great passions. I would add my golf game to that, but — although it’s an obsession for me — I am a very average golfer at best!
Meet other Thought Leaders at Robert Half, such as Jamy Sullivan and Steve Saah. And be sure to subscribe to the Robert Half newsletter for future installments of our Q&A series and to discover more unique stories, experiences and perspectives on the latest hiring trends.
Follow Gene Kim on LinkedIn.