If you or your company is having trouble filling vacant positions, you are far from alone.

A shortage of skilled workers is the biggest challenge executives face as optimism continues to rise about the U.S. economy, according to a new nationwide review of executive attitudes. This is the first time a worker shortage has topped the execs’ worry list in the long-running AICPA Economic Outlook Survey.

Overall, 64 percent of execs are optimistic about the economy over the next year.

In fact, 24 percent of firms say they plan to add new employees while 15 percent say they need to hire but are reluctant to do so.

“When asked about the market for candidates for their skilled positions, a majority of respondents indicated they have seen an increase in the level of competition,” the survey, which is published quarterly, says.

“The impact on their business was that a majority have had to settle for less than the ideal candidate, one in five had lost out on top candidates, and 7 percent have had important jobs open for extended periods of time.”

Inside the numbers

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which has a major office in Durham, says:

• 20%of respondents had lost out on top candidates

• 7% have had important jobs open for extended periods of time

• 52% have had to settle for less than ideal candidates

With national unemployment at the lowest rate seen in years, companies face challenges in recruiting additional workers while replacing those who have left for other jobs or retired.

And the situation is expected to worsen with 57 percent of the execs in the survey expecting a slight to significant increase in recruiting challenges.

In 2014, only 16 percent of execs said hiring competition was a significant problem.

“One out of five business executives say their company has lost out on top job candidates because of increased competition, and a majority say they’re having trouble finding the right candidate to begin with,” said Arleen Thomas, an AICPA executive, says. “For some companies, the scarcity of skilled workers could have an impact on productivity and growth over time.”

As a result of recruiting challenges, execs are taking a variety of steps in hopes of solving the problem. The survey finds:

  • Over a third (34%) of respondents are offering higher salaries to attract top talent
  • 17% are offering other financial incentives such as 401(k) match, employee stock options or an enhanced benefit package
  • Businesses are also using other methods to overcome the challenges of a tighter job pool:

 40% are promoting from within

 26% are doing more in-house training

 21% are working to create more precise job descriptions for skilled positions

Other worries

Other concerns included regulations (No. 2), domestic competition (No. 3), domestic economic conditions (No. 4) and employee benefits/costs (No. 5).

Overall, the AICPA index rose two points to 77, up two points from the previous quarter and just below the post “Great Recession” high of 78 reported in Q4 of 2014.

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