In 1993, accountant Gary Isakov was a senior manager at Ernst & Young. He serviced gold mine companies, pension funds for multibillion dollar clients and directed board meetings.
Later that year, he received a job offer from a much smaller company, where he would start at almost the junior level and work primarily on smaller accounts for less money. Isakov jumped at the chance. Why? The job was in the United States. He was working in South Africa.
"I felt it made more sense to make a future for myself in the United States rather than South Africa," says Isakov, in the flinty accent of his homeland. "Things are very unstable there."
Today, Isakov is a partner and director of health care services for SS&G Financial Services Co. Since he was hired, SS&G has hired three other accountants from South Africa and tapped into a talented and experienced labor pool which wants to take advantage of the opportunities available at an American firm while escaping the high crime rate and volatile government in their own country.
The firm's unusual recruiting efforts have not gone unnoticed. Isakov returned to South Africa this past summer to interview accountants for several other firms in the United States.
Thanks to a strong economy, dot-com companies and a sharp drop in the number of accounting graduates, SS&G had been scrambling in recent years to find quality prospects.
"Accounting firms are battling to find experienced accountants," Isakov says. "You can find people out of college, but we were specifically looking for people with a minimum of three or five years in public accounting. Sometimes it's difficult even to find people."
Like other companies, SS&G placed ads in local newspapers and trade journals and attended job fairs, but it wasn't attracting the experienced accountants it was looking for. Isakov, whose arrival in 1993 preceded the labor crunch, knew that accountants in his home country go through three years of mandatory training called articles after they receive their accounting degrees.
It was just the experience the firm wanted. And, although tax laws and some accounting principles vary between the countries, three years accounting experience is still much better than none at all.
"The training is phenomenal," Isakov says. "The education level is very high --- it's very focused -- much more so than in America. In South Africa, which follows the British system, from your first year at university, you're doing accounting, economics, business, finance, marketing; it's very business-oriented, very business-driven, and the education level is very good. So the people you get out of school there are good caliber people."
SS&G placed an ad in the Sunday Times, the country's largest newspaper, asking interested candidates to e-mail resumes to SS&G in Cleveland. When the ad was placed, SS&G was recruiting just for itself.
However, word of the trip spread through The Leading Edge Alliance, a consortium of independent accounting firms which SS&G created, and other member firms wanted a piece of the action.Forget the myths
While companies may be eager to recruit overseas after local markets have dried up, they need to be prepared to invest plenty of time and energy in the long, bureaucratic process of obtaining work visas for employees.
"America's not what it used to be," Isakov says. "My American friends still think that you can jump on a boat, pass the Statue of Liberty, land on Ellis Island, a doctor checks you out and that's it. America has become a very difficult country to get into legally. There are a lot of papers, a lot of documents.
"Once you've done it, it's not a problem, but you do have to get professional help to do it."
Not only does it take several months for the paperwork to clear, the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization is only issuing 107,500 work visas from Oct. 1, 2000 to Sept. 30, 2001. Isakov expects the visas, called H-1B visas, to be gone by March.
The visas entitle the employee to work for three years at the same company. It can be renewed for another three years or the employee can earn citizenship. Family and children can come to America with the employee, but if a spouse wants to work, he or she has to obtain a separate visa.
Despite these restrictions and complications, SS&G partner Mark Goldfarb says the effort is worth it.
"Knowing that there's this wonderful work force in South Africa that we've been able to hire, we've decided to go back to South Africa and make it a worthwhile effort," says Goldfarb. "Gary and the other accountants from there we've hired have really worked out well."
Know the terrain
SS&G's ad in the Sunday Times garnered 100 responses from accountants not only in South Africa, but also from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Nigeria. The resumes were paper screened by the firm's human resources staff before Isakov traveled 8,367 miles for 20 in-person interviews.
"Interestingly enough, it wasn't just white, Anglo-Saxon South Africans," says Isakov. "There were African South Africans, there were Indian South Africans. Actually, one of the people I really liked was from Zimbabwe. It was a real broad spectrum of personalities and backgrounds applying for the jobs."
Aside from the $1,200 plane ticket and rental car, Isakov kept costs down for SS&G by staying with friends and family and borrowing office space from a friend. He spent two to three hours talking with each applicant, and usually visited the home and shared a meal with the top candidates. While interested in the move, many candidates were worried about the relocation.
"They had questions and concerns about education, living and work and cost of living in the United States," Isakov says. "They truly are coming in blind. Their only perception of America is what they read in magazines, books or see on television, which obviously is not a true depiction of life."
Candidates also expressed concern about assimilating into America and losing touch with home. Luckily, Isakov had walked that path only seven years ago and could put their worries to rest with the story of one of his early days living in Cleveland.
There was an international rugby match in which South Africa was battling Australia in a heated rivalry. Due to the sport's lack of popularity in the States, no major network or local cable station was carrying the game. So Isakov grabbed a phone book and started calling downtown sports bars until he found one showing the game.
"I dressed up in my rugby jersey and my scarf and I went down not really knowing what to expect," Isakov says. "I bumped into about 40 or 50 South Africans. It was a wonderful way of saying, 'Hi, I'm here,' and they took me under their arm and we became friendly that way."
An offer they can't refuse
Because he was recruiting for numerous firms, Isakov couldn't make job offers to applicants. He did, however, pass on names with strong recommendations. His latest trip yielded about eight recruits, four of whom Isakov expects will accept job offers.
Although SS&G is behind this kind of aggressive recruiting effort, firms need to consider the time factor involved and if the time wouldn't be better spent on domestic recruiting. But, if you're not getting the kind of experience you need for your particular industry, maybe it's time to broaden your human resources horizons.
"This took a significant amount of my time and my HR person," Isakov says. "We probably spent at least 120 hours on this. It didn't help my chargeable hour goals, but obviously this is an investment in the future." How to reach: SS&G Financial Services Co., (330) 668-9696
Morgan Lewis Jr. (email@example.com) is a reporter at SBN.