Catastrophic future predicted for tomorrow’s PR talent

Speak to anyone with responsibility for hiring into public relations and marketing roles and the words ‘skills crisis’ will likely feature at some point in the conversation. It is an ever-constant that transcends both boom and gloom times and one that is predicted to get even more severe in the next few years.

That is unless employers rethink their existing hiring practices of favouring proven over potential young talent.

In July, we conducted a survey that involved 230 agency leaders to find out how the pandemic has affected the next generation of creative talent hoping to enter the public relations, marketing, advertising, publishing, and media sectors.

What we discovered is that there is a wide chasm between the number of agency businesses who ran internship, work placement, and graduate schemes before the start of the pandemic, and those who plan to do so over the next 12 months and beyond.

Before March 2020, two-thirds (67 per cent) of agency businesses ran such talent programs. But as the pandemic took hold, 4 in 10 (40 per cent) either paused indefinitely or cancelled them altogether. 28 per cent continued with their schemes but at reduced levels, while just 1 in 5 (22 per cent) agencies continued without interruption. Of course, priorities changed in 2020. Survival was top of the agenda for many businesses.

However, despite 65 per cent of respondents stating that they are either hiring right now (31 per cent) or expect to in the next 12 months (34 per cent), the nature of these new hires is overwhelmingly focused on those with previous experience over the next generation of talent.

Indeed, only a quarter (27 per cent) of agency leaders plan to either continue or resume their young talent schemes at pre-pandemic levels over the next 12 months. One-third (36 per cent) said that while they will restart them, fewer roles will be available. 37 per cent have no plans to either resume or introduce any schemes in the foreseeable future.

Leaders were then asked to outline which schemes they’ll likely be running. 40 per cent will provide work placement opportunities, 47 per cent plan to offer paid internships (but 17 per cent will run un-paid internship programs), and 22 per cent will run graduate schemes.

Clearly, the number of opportunities being created for young people to gain job-critical work experience and potential employment are being depleted. This, I believe, will be the undoing of many agencies and other businesses for that matter.

A huge amount of time has been invested in recent years to raise the profile of the creative industries as a career of choice for young people. But they are no longer being offered the same chances they once had, and that is detrimental to future talent pipelines. If a business focuses too heavily on recruiting experience over untested talent, what happens in two of three years’ time when those with ambition are held back from promotion because there is not the pipeline of fresh talent entering the profession to fill the gaps that will be created?

The dramatic shift in working practices is certainly a factor at play. Of the 230 agencies who took part in our survey, half of them (50 per cent) will adopt a hybrid working model from 19th July. 23 per cent will run on a fully remote basis, and 1 in 4 (23 per cent) plan to return full-time to the office as they did before the pandemic.

The skills crisis has never and will not ever disappear. Even when unemployment levels were at a 40-year low in February 2020, public relations and other creative industry employers struggled to attract and retain the talent they need. But our approach as an industry is self-defeating – we are focusing on the people needs we have today with little or no thought of what we will need tomorrow. We’re no longer in survival mode, this a time to thrive and push on. The consequences of this short-term approach will be felt over a prolonged period.

All of us were thrust into new ways of working last year, and many learned how to virtually onboard new people and support existing team members across multiple locations. The same principle applies to school, college, or university leavers. They too can be onboarded in a virtual world, and especially a hybrid one where they can interact with colleagues in a physical space.

I get the focus on hiring those with a few years under their belts who can by and large hit the ground running in a new role with minimum hand holding. It makes business sense. In tough times we all need those who can master their role. This in turn allows leaders to do all they can to steady the ship and sail it to calmer waters.

But the same logic does not carry any sway when times are good and promise to get much better, if current economic predictions are to be believed. During these periods, one eye should be on the immediate and the other must be looking ahead – planning for how the business will manage future demand.

In January, we took on our first intern. She was virtually onboarded, and I only met her for the first time a couple of weeks ago. In June, we hired an applicant who came to us via the government Kickstart Scheme. Again, she was hired and onboarded virtually and is the first of three such hires we are making through the scheme. With restrictions eased, we will be operating a hybrid model much like 50 per cent of the industry and rather than reducing or scrapping our existing young talent schemes we will be ramping them up.

The next few years will be critical for the sector. Demand for talent will reach unprecedented levels (many recruiters argue we are nearly there already) and hiring managers are going to be pressed harder than ever to raise their profile as an employer of choice.

Embracing young talent now is not simply the moral and ethical thing to do, the very future of many agency businesses absolutely depends on it.

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