Feature: The grads are back

Agencies are recruiting record numbers of graduates - but how can they select the best, and keep them? Helen Gregory assesses traditional, and more informal, methods.

Weber Shandwick's intake of 16 graduates this autumn offers physical evidence that PR industry graduate recruitment is healthy after years of stagnation. According to The Association of Graduate Recruiters, the number of graduate job vacancies across all industry sectors has jumped by 17 per cent to 20,000 this year.

‘It's a good time to be a graduate looking for work in PR,' says chief executive Carl Gilleard. ‘All the indications are that this growth will be sustained next year.'

Colette Brown, director of Prospect Resourcing - which looks after Fishburn Hedges and Geronimo PR's graduate recruitment schemes - says graduate interest is also high. She says agencies are now attracting a similar level of applications to blue-chip City firms, with 600 to 800 applications for six vacancies being the norm.

For instance, Golin Harris hired five graduates this year - choosing from 800 applicants - while Hotwire PR took on a record six graduates between June and August (choosing from 600 applicants).

Sifting through the pile
But the flipside of this situation presents agencies with new problems: how to cope with such high numbers of graduates applying for positions; how to select the wheat from the chaff and how to retain talented staff.

According to Hill & Knowlton HR director Caroline Samuel, it is becoming harder to identify which graduates care about the company they join, and their long-term goals. ‘I'm a massive believer in graduate schemes per se,' she says. ‘We've shown this by the fact that we've recruited for the past 15 years. But even though I'd like to think that's a USP - and we retain them for a while - we seem to train graduates for the rest of the PR profession.'

According to some recruiters, the best way to handle growing numbers of applicants is to get them to self-select their areas of interest. At Bell Pottinger Consumer (under MD Tricia Moon, who is responsible for parent company Chime's graduate recruitment scheme) applicants specify preferred disciplines, enabling Moon to gauge their interest. But Moon says it is also important to expose potential recruits to areas they might not have considered. ‘Recruiting into opinion leader research is a good example,' she says. ‘We now have a couple of people who are going to work in that area after filling a placement, but it wasn't something in which they had originally expressed an interest.

Elsewhere, Weber Shandwick recruitment manager Gemma McCartney says that too many graduate applicants go for the most obvious areas. Disciplines such as public affairs are among the most popular among graduates, but others such as healthcare and technology comms can be undersubscribed. ‘We want someone who is going to be committed. Although graduates are educated, and will indicate an interest in a specific area, they are sometimes not as learned as we'd like in the specifics of PR, and might not understand what, say, technology PR is.'

Earlier this year, politics graduate Rachael applied for WS's public affairs scheme, but ended up working closely with CEO Colin Byrne in the political and corporate comms team after McCartney identified her background in journalism (Hunter had previously edited a student newspaper).

Pool of talent
Financial Dynamics is an advocate of more formal graduate selection, having launched its first graduate scheme this year. It has already appointed 12 university leavers, with more to come. Head of HR Natasha Flores says: ‘As graduate recruitment is up, it seemed daft to go out looking when you need somebody, instead of using a pool of people who you're developing, and who understand the business.'

However, while this structure may suit the larger agencies, smaller outfits tend to take a different approach to graduate recruitment. Octopus Communications, for instance, has revamped its website to include a ‘fun' recruitment area. It prides itself on a less formal, and even light-hearted, recruitment process that rewards attitude more than grades. It takes on two or three graduates a year. ‘Our approach is simply to hire grads with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn,' says MD Jon Lonsdale.

According to media studies graduate Fiona McKenzie, a recent Octopus hire, the agency appealed because its recruitment process was more straightforward than that of other firms, and less focused on a shopping list of PR skills. ‘Some grad schemes were asking for essays on PR, and I felt that someone who had gained a PR degree might outshine me. Octopus was more interested in my ideas,' she explains.

Tried and tested
But many agencies still value their traditional recruitment techniques such as written tests. Hill & Knowlton, for example, makes potential graduate hires write an essay about an admired brand. Samuel says the test identifies those who can write.

‘It also reveals those who can't be bothered. We need to see where people fall down: we ask them to create a cogent argument.'

Meanwhile, plenty of agencies insist on recruits having literature-heavy degrees under their belts, such as English or history. And they look less favourably on a PR degree, which they still deem to be too theoretical.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters backs such formal approaches to graduate recruitment. It says that 
structured schemes are a sign of an established development process -which helps individuals develop faster and add greater value to the agency. ‘An informal approach might seem to be cheaper in the short-term but will probably cause an agency to have greater staff turnover,' adds the assoc­iation's Gilleard.

But Hotwire head of digital media practice Daljit Bhurji says formal recruitment schemes could be a barrier to graduates with less traditionally attractive skills. Hotwire sends former trainees to universities to spread the word about its graduate scheme. ‘I think more agencies will realise that this kind of recruitment is the way forward if they want to attract the really bright individuals,' he adds. 

Although Bhurji suggests agencies such as his are flexible when it comes to graduates' background, the Association of Graduate Recruiters claims employers are expecting more from graduates. Indeed, Gilleard says that while there is huge competition among agencies for the best graduates, many employers would rather leave their vacancies unfilled than take their chances on a ‘risky' candidate.

It is also worth noting that since last month's introduction of new anti-age discrimination laws, agencies could be forced to rethink how they operate their graduate recruitment schemes.  It is now against the law to, for example, only allow ‘young' people to join graduate schemes.

Golin Harris MD Matt Neale - who started his PR career at the agency when he joined its graduate scheme ten years ago - is, for obvious reasons, a champion of the recruitment process. He believes that if agencies spend time getting their graduate recruitment right, they can save a fortune and ensure talented people do not all end up at competitors. ‘Some PR firms are crap and short-termist,' he says. ‘I knew of one that hired only "Oxbridge firsts", all of whom left after two years. We need to tell graduates that we want them to eventually have our jobs.'

WS's GRADUATES

Toan, Daniel, Nabeel, Abi, Emma, Dafina, Nicki, Hannah, Saul, Rachael, Tom, Selina, Kate, James, Emma & Laura (surnames withheld by Weber Shandwick).

For corresponding photograph of the WS graduates, see page 24 of this week's magazine
.

HOW TO GET NOTICED IF YO'RE A GRADUATE: WRITE A BLOG

Technology-savvy undergraduates are cottoning on to the fact that an interest in the web is a great way to snare a PR job, particularly by keeping a blog - which can act as a highly interactive CV. A blog can prove they can write, and are motivated and engaged with current affairs.

PR graduate Stephen Davies, who confesses to a fascination with technology, decided to start PRblogger.com in 2005 in the hope of getting a job in PR. ‘I wanted to raise my profile - and it worked,' says Davies, who enjoyed the online conversations with other bloggers and immediately got good feedback about his blog and his thoughts on the industry. Having been spotted by a number of PR firms, he chose to join Edelman in August because of its use of blogs, particularly as a way of globally assimilating information on brands.

Meanwhile, Edelman in the US  took on another blogger, Erin Caldwell, after a brief interview in April. She explains: ‘They were already quite familiar with my writing capabilities, the extent of my understanding of communication and PR theory and strategy. The face-to-face interview probably just sealed the deal.'

She had not only been blogging consistently but had launched forward-moving.com, a group blogging project that brings together PR people from around the world to encourage best practice and discuss industry issues. Caldwell says: ‘A blog demonstrates that you're thinking about issues in a critical way.'

Another PR graduate, Alex Pullin, started wagesofsin.blogspot.com on her experience of university and job-hunting. She was offered a job with Lewis PR in August and, although she did not mention the blog in her interview, she admits to having contacted other bloggers at Lewis and asking them for their advice.

So, while blogs are no substitute for writing good job applications, they are an excellent supporting statement.

WHY GRADS LOVE PR

The cliché - that PR is a glamorous career, involving celebrities and pop stars, going to parties and getting freebies - continues to be believed by huge numbers of graduates, and the industry's appeal shows no sign of waning, according to graduate careers service Milkround. Its recent survey found that 22 per cent of its 415,000 subscribers were interested in working in PR. In a closer study of 1,700 of these candidates, 65 per cent said PR was their dream career.

A strong element of client contact was the most appealing aspect of the industry (91 per cent), while 78 per cent cited intellectual stimulation as a key reason for their interest. Only 26 per cent were attracted to working in PR for individuals, while most, 64 per cent, fancied working in corporate comms.

Fashion PR, at 22 per cent, was the most popular niche in which to work, closely followed by consumer PR at 18 per cent and public affairs at 12 per cent. Financial, healthcare, technology, charity and arts comms attracted only a small amount of specific interest, but 27 per cent of candidates said they would be happy working in any sector.

‘PR is definitely still seen as a very attractive career,' says Milkround content and PR specialist Hardwin Jones. ‘For many, it offers creative, interactive, highly communication-based work within the corporate sphere.'

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