Industry must work to draw top young talent to PR field

At a recent retirement dinner, I had the pleasure of hearing my 18-year-old son deliver a short, but moving speech on my behalf. Though he was clearly the youngest person in a room full of adults, he showed such poise and confidence that I thought to myself, "Maybe he has a future in communications."

At a recent retirement dinner, I had the pleasure of hearing my 18-year-old son deliver a short, but moving speech on my behalf. Though he was clearly the youngest person in a room full of adults, he showed such poise and confidence that I thought to myself, "Maybe he has a future in communications."

But as the moment faded, I confronted the more sobering reality of what such a prospect might mean. Starting salaries in PR and communications are often well below those of other professions with similar skill requirements. I have spoken to many recent graduates from well-regarded programs in the field who are starting their careers in Manhattan, the mecca of the profession, at salaries that are embarrassingly low. One told me that when he compares his situation with those of his former roommates entering finance, marketing, and law, he questions his career choice.

To make ends meet, many of these young men and women share small apartments with three or more roommates in spaces scarcely larger than the dorm rooms they left behind. The hours are usually long, the tasks often mundane, and the recognition sparse.

To be sure, this same reality confronts many after college, regardless of career choice. But what is troubling is that, for many in PR, these difficult salary and job satisfaction comparisons continue into mid-career.

In fairness, tens of thousands of college students are currently majoring in PR and communications disciplines, and the communication major is one of the most popular at dozens of major colleges and universities. We are clearly attracting plenty of students, but are we succeeding at getting the best and brightest?

When I speak to recruiters and executives at the top of the profession, they acknowledge the issue, but also point to the conundrum that is a major contributor. Salaries - like all consultancy fees - are established based on the perceived value of the contribution made. If salaries are to increase in any meaningful way, clients must be willing to pay more for the counsel they receive. To increase the value - perceived and real - of these younger counselors, they must be better prepared both academically and through meaningful developmental activities as they move up the ladder.

In recognition of the need to compete more aggressively for top talent, some firms are developing more robust campus recruiting programs, internships, and fast-track programs for their high-potential employees. For many young professionals, the issue isn't solely compensation. They desire interesting, challenging work, as well as a sense of progression in the complexity of assignments they are given. They don't want to be stuck on the pitching desk indefinitely.

As for my son, he is entering college in pursuit of a general liberal arts education, with both an interest in and aptitude for writing and public speaking. I have learned long ago that parents can never push too hard in any given direction when offering encouragement to their children. When the time comes for career decisions, I hope that the communications profession will be compelling enough on its own merits, for my son and for other young men and women with talent, enthusiasm, and a passion for our field. After all, don't we already have enough lawyers and bankers?

Tom Martin is SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries.

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