OP-ED: Now is the time to consider how to help PR's future talent

Our industry has taken some hard knocks over the past few years. Layoffs, lost business, and shrinking budgets, coupled with the requests to do more with far less have plagued us all at some level. However, in our urgency to meet these immediate challenges, are we neglecting a longer-term and potentially more debilitating issue - how might the absence of well-educated talent in our industry pipeline impact how we do business in the future?

Our industry has taken some hard knocks over the past few years. Layoffs, lost business, and shrinking budgets, coupled with the requests to do more with far less have plagued us all at some level. However, in our urgency to meet these immediate challenges, are we neglecting a longer-term and potentially more debilitating issue - how might the absence of well-educated talent in our industry pipeline impact how we do business in the future?

Yes, there are many noteworthy examples of communications internship programs, communications/academic liaisons, and PR executives who have served as professional mentors to up-and-comers. We are and should be proud. But there are several reasons why I'm concerned.

A special report in the September 8, 2003 issue of US News & World Report, entitled "Paying for College," finds that nationwide student debt is up 66% since 1997. In addition, college endowments are down 6% since last year, the biggest drop since 1974, and 25 states are cutting their higher education appropriations by as much as 14%.

Also, according to the College Board, fees and tuition rose 5.8% at private universities and 9.6% at state schools last year. These increases contribute to the fact that more than half of college graduates now report owing between $10,000 and $40,000 in student loans, with the average debt now at $20,000, up from $17,000 last year.

At Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, the annual cost of undergraduate tuition is $24,170, while it's $26,712 for the annual graduate-school tuition.

The Wall Street Journal noted in its September 15, 2003 article, "College Tuition 101," that sticker shock is reaching down past the Ivy League schools to the public colleges and universities attended by three out of four American students. Students in the University of Massachusetts system will fork over an additional $1,500 per year. Ohio State University has increased its tuition by the same amount. In the University of California system, fees are set to go up at least 25% next year .

These facts are particularly striking as many agencies face rising payrolls for more experienced staff, insufficient junior staffing, and greater demand from corporate clients for specific expertise and skill sets. The great news is that our industry now has starting salaries that are competitive and that can attract talented communications graduates. The 2003 PRWeek Salary Survey found that, on average, male communications pros between the ages of 21 and 25 earned $35,324, while female counterparts earned $36,763.

The flip side is that any hits to our talent pipeline could negatively impact the gains our industry has worked so hard to attain.

The questions we must ask are these: How will we maintain the strides we've made in positioning ourselves as communications counselors and strategists for the C-Suite if student debts and loans become obstacles that prevent top junior talent from obtaining the appropriate education to enter our ranks? How can we ensure that a communications education remains timely and topical without losing emphasis on the fundamentals? What is our obligation in terms of creating educational gateways that serve as industry entry points?

As with any set of complex questions, these won't be answered overnight. Nor will there be initial agreement on the best way to develop solutions. As president of The Foundation of Women Executives in Public Relations, an organization that raises undergraduate and graduate scholarship funds to help ensure the excellence of future communications professionals, I believe that these issues are critical and demand our immediate attention. Here are some steps to consider.

Professionals need to develop relationships with communications educators in your market so that you can share insights about working realities and learn more about the higher- education perspective.

We should also become a resource for students and graduates. It never ceases to amaze me how hungry young pros are for personal career information. Share how you got started in the field, be up-front and honest about mistakes you have made, provide feedback on course selection, such as encouraging classes in statistics, finance and accounting, as well as marketing.

Support scholarship programs. All the good intentions, advice, and connections need financial support to take root.

Finally, remember, whether we have children or not, the cost of higher education impacts us all as professionals. It is a factor that may very well determine the future abundance or scarcity of talent flowing through our industry's pipeline.

  • Paulette Barrett is president of the Foundation of Women Executives in Public Relations.

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