Like all business, recruitment rises and falls according to economic conditions. It's no surprise therefore to discover that the current cautious air of optimism returning to the UK PR market has been matched by a revival in levels of employment.
After a prolonged period of reduced spending on recruitment, firms are beginning to shop around for new talent. Likewise, employees who rode out the downturn by sitting tight are again prepared to risk a move to pastures new.
But this has created a problem of supply and demand. The legacy of reduced investment in entry-level staff and the exodus of PROs from the industry can be seen as a gap in junior management. 'What we're finding now at the account-manager level is that the market is picking up massively with stacks of jobs, but far fewer appropriate candidates,' says Prospect Resourcing director of PR and communications Emma Dale.
It only takes a quick flick through the back pages of PRWeek or The Guardian media section to corroborate that there are more PR jobs available now than at the end of last year.
Furthermore, many advertisers are desperate for people with specific industry sector skills, most notably in healthcare and technology.
This is backed up by PR agencies themselves. Earlier this year, Firefly was trawling for account executives with hi-tech, B2B, consumer and corporate credentials, while infotech specialist Lewis PR is looking to fill 20 roles across its eight international offices. 'Appropriate candidates are few and far between as a lot of applications are from people with no experience in the sector,' says Lewis HR director Toni Castle.
This presents a dilemma of where agencies should go to seek out the next generation of account managers. In the past, such shortages have been met by enticing other professionals, such as journalists, to cross the divide, or by encouraging existing PR practitioners to embrace new sectors.
The recruitment dilemma
Forced to choose between PR skills and sector know-how, Castle says she would rather take on candidates with a technology background than agency experience.
'We're still quite strict in terms of qualifications, but we're prepared to consider people who have worked in the broader marketing communications mix, as long as they have been doing something PR related,' she says.
This approach also holds true in the healthcare sector, where it is not unusual for agencies to hire those who have worked in pharmaceutical sales or as healthcare professionals. In part, this is because of client expectations.
But it is also easier to hone an employee's written, management or client-handling skills than to provide a crash course in a science or medical subject.
The dilemma at account-manager level, however, is that agencies want new employees to hit the ground running and provide value from the off.
'There is a problem in healthcare following the exodus of senior account executives over the last couple of years,' says Nexus OTC healthcare division director Nicky Smith. 'And it is really tough to find candidates who, as account managers, have three to four years of solid, relevant experience.'
Smith has just hired a junior account manager and says that despite using a recruitment consultant and compiling a brief specifying a health background, fewer than ten candidates were suitably qualified on paper. 'It has been difficult; not that many people applied and we had to dismiss quite a few as they lacked the relevant OTC experience,' she says.
This apparent dearth of suitable applicants does not hold true across the board, with many sectors, such as consumer, still oversubscribed. Kinross & Render, for example, recently recruited an account manager for a general B2B, public sector and consumer role and, according to director Siobhan Griffiths, the agency received a significant number of applications.
Elsewhere, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council had no trouble filling a recent part-time PR vacancy. 'We had more than 30 applications and had great difficulty whittling the number down to a manageable shortlist,' says head of comms Eileen Brooks. 'We were very impressed with the quality of almost all the people we saw and appointed a first-class candidate. But we could also have appointed many of the others as well.'
However, according to recruitment specialists, organisations have to work harder at offering more attractive packages to ensure they attract the calibre of candidates they need as PR practitioners across the board appear more attuned to quality-of-life issues. 'A few years ago, people would chop and change to progress more quickly up the career ladder; now they are less greedy,' says Peter Childs Recruitment senior consultant Caroline Ivory.
Furthermore, many senior PR executives are prepared to consider a pay-cut in return for opportunities to work flexible hours. Operating from home or simply partnering with firms and brands they care about is also climbing higher on the list of priorities.
'This situation frequently enables companies to attract people who have skills and experience above and beyond those required, often resulting in a win-win situation,' says Blueskies clientside consultant Melanie Lawn.
As a result, some PR companies have devised flexible benefit packages - in the case of Castle's agency, the 'Lewis Lunchbox' - so that employees can choose which perks are most important to them.
'People rate things differently: some want pension contributions, while others want a flash sports car,' reveals Castle.
But while employers are still hiring people based on their ability to make a difference from day one, PR firms do at least seem to be returning to a long-term recruitment strategy, investing from the bottom up.
'We've noticed that many agencies have begun putting more emphasis on employing strong account executives and senior account executives to bridge the gap,' says Blueskies agency consultant Christina Elsom.
The crucial point, however, is to ensure this policy is maintained, so that talented and skilled individuals continue to rise up the ranks.
This will mean investing in the training and career opportunities that young PR practitioners expect, to persuade them to stay put. That way, the next generation of account managers will be homegrown.
In a sector where qualifications are a must, healthcare agencies and pharma companies are crying out for suitable candidates. However, the greatest growth in demand is within the NHS, where the Government has devolved power from regional authorities to strategic authorities and local trusts, as well as NHS Foundation Trusts. Further opportunities are available around private consortia looking to provide independent NHS care.
The voluntary sector is going through a golden period of PR job opportunities. Over the past few years, there has been a trend for organisations to take their PR function in-house. In addition, many are realising the importance of hiring professional communicators. However, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, many not-for-profits are under-resourced, while salaries may be lower than the industry average.
The introduction of Comprehensive Performance Assessment ratings for local authorities means councils are increasingly under pressure to communicate effectively with residents, staff and partners. This has opened doors for those with specialist skills in public consultation and internal comms. A further boon is that the remit of local government has become more interesting as councils tackle issues with strategic partners, such as solving crime.