Signs of economic improvement abound, and hiring new people in PR jobs has now become more a question of when rather than if.Prognosticators see good news and bad news for the PR job market in the coming year. The good news is 2004 will be better than 2003. The bad news is that's not saying much. Corporate budgets seem to be rising, and firms are reporting busy fourth quarters. Hiring should follow, recruiters say. "Cautiously optimistic" is still, predictably, the most common prediction of the job market, with extra emphasis on "cautiously." Some think that hiring momentum may build in the first quarter, while others don't expect it quite so soon. "If you are currently in a position, plan on staying there for the next six months to see how things play out," advises Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, founder of Berkhemer Clayton, a search firm in Los Angeles. Employers still have the upper hand, and those that erred on the side of expediency during the boom learned from their mistakes. "Now that they perceive that they have kind of a buyer's market for talent, they are looking longer and harder, and probably are making better decisions as a result of that," says Mark Palmer, Enron's MD for corporate communications. Jane Waldman, president of the contingency search firm Waldman & Co., says in 2000 she could place "B-minus" candidates. "In the past year, the only candidates who are getting hired are As or A-pluses." Recruiters agree that corporations can't afford to make hiring mistakes with budgets still relatively tight, and some agency execs say they searched months for just the right person. "If people's budgets loosen and they can finally hire, the [candidate] has to do every single thing in the job description, and some that aren't," says Maryanne Rainone, SVP and managing director at Heyman Associates, a New York-based search firm. Rainone thinks hiring people who won't have room to grow in their new jobs can be a mistake, and she has noticed some flexibility creeping back into the hiring process. Companies seem to be looking for bread-and-butter basics such as crisis communications, media relations, litigation, and internal communications experience, says Jean Cardwell, president of Cardwell Enterprises, a search firm in Chicago. Many want broad-view communicators who understand integrated marketing, Rainone adds. And not surprisingly, healthcare may hold the most opportunity. Julie Biber, recruitment VP at Edelman, says there is a shortage of people with specialized expertise in medical niches. A few tech PR jobs are blipping onto the radar screen, but people in Boston and Silicon Valley feel that their job recovery trails that of other regions. "Boston is really lagging a little bit behind the uptick I'm seeing along the Eastern seaboard from Atlanta to New York," says Laura Grimmer, whose Articulate Communications has offices in New York and Boston. Recruiters don't see many other differences geographically, although those doing business on the West Coast describe entertainment PR as flat or declining, and demand is building for all experience levels. Executives on the move Yet there have been some recent high-profile moves among high-level agency execs. GCI Americas president Bob Pearson moved to Switzerland to become worldwide communications leader for Novartis, Kathy Savitt is stepping down as president of MWW/Savitt to become Amazon.com's strategic communications VP, and Edelman lost financial communications MD Hollis Rafkin-Sax to Financial Dynamics. Meanwhile, Burson snapped up execs from other agencies to fill regional CEO positions, including one-time Edelman exec Bob Kornecki in the Midwest and Publicis Dialog's Andy Hopson in the Northeast. Former Ogilvy PR CEO Bob Seltzer has become a consumer practice leader at Ruder Finn. Hopson sees two factors at play in much of this high-level game of musical chairs: agency underperformance and acquisition earn-outs. "This has been a difficult period of time for PR agencies, so consequently, smart managers are looking for people who can turn their businesses around," he says. The second factor, he adds, applies to him. He was president of EvansGroup, an agency Publicis bought in 1998. "Evans was employee-owned," Hopson explains. "When we asked employees to approve the decision, we made a commitment to them to maximize potential earnings of their shares." Leaders of many other boom-acquired firms have completed their earn-out commitments. "It's a lot like a professional athlete," Hopson says. "When your contract is fulfilled, you can become a free agent." Mergers and cost cutting also pushed experienced PR professionals off the career ladder, and many are willing to jump back on lower rungs. "I'm seeing a lot of humility, especially at the higher levels," Grimmer notes. Recruiters agree that going from the corporate world to an agency can be harder than the reverse for experienced people. Moving from juggling multiple accounts to serving one internal client may be perceived as easier than vice versa, Rainone says. On the other end of the spectrum, recent college graduates face less dismal prospects than their recent predecessors. "The past couple of years have really been a downer," says PR professor Dennis Wilcox, director of the journalism school at San Jose State University. While internships are plentiful (and often unpaid), full-time, permanent, entry-level jobs continue to be scarce. On the bright side, agency leaders say young prospects are better prepared when they do land jobs. "We filled an entry-level position with an outstanding candidate who had completed five internships," says Sheri Smith, president of Publicis Dialog-Dallas. "It's probably going to be better this May than last May," says Russell Barclay, associate professor of PR at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. Some spring 2003 graduates still haven't found jobs. "Many students who graduated in the past two years are going to graduate school and law school - the traditional path of seeking even more education in tough economic times," Barclay says. Others gave up on PR and went into other fields. That trend may make mid-level positions even harder to fill. Organizations always value good account supervisor- to director-level employees and try to keep them happy, but fewer people entering PR during the bust means fewer can now move up to mid-level jobs. PR execs say the upper- and lower-level ranks may have been hardest hit during the recession, while mid-level people often possessed the combination of experience and lower salaries that saved their jobs. Tony Katsulos, president of Trinity PR in Dallas, adds that job titles may not always be what they seem in the post-recession world. "When agencies couldn't pay more money because business was eroding, they increased titles, in some places artificially," he says. Thus, recruiters can't always assume skills match job titles. Katsulos sees the combination of lofty titles and long tenures on the same accounts as red flags. "Mid-level overachievers are very ambitious, and don't want to sit still," he says. The effects of retention Some mid-level employees gained valuable and varied experience during hard times, and are being rewarded for sticking with their companies, so loyalty makes them hard to lure away, Rainone says. "They're not going to make a move for just any job," Cardwell agrees. Others suffer survivor's guilt, and may be primed to move if they haven't been treated well. Mindy Gikas, HR VP at Ogilvy PR, says she's already seeing a resurgence in job hopping. "Employees realize that the only way to quickly grow their salaries is to jump to another firm," she says, adding that caps on salary-increase pools mean firms can often pay new hires more than incumbent staffers with similar experience. While the job market is improving, salaries offered to high-level execs haven't changed much, and those of lower and mid-level pros have decreased in some cases. "You aren't seeing sign-on bonuses," Rainone says. "There is still bonus eligibility, but it's tied to company and individual performance." Recruiters see the light, but some aren't sure how long the tunnel might be. But a few, like Pepper Lunsford, a senior external affairs associate at Korn/Ferry International, are more optimistic than cautious. "We had our best two months in the past two years," she says of October and November. "2004 looks really good for everybody, and it's about time."