Talent in demand

Tanya Lewis surveys the talent situation at all levels of the industry

Tanya Lewis surveys the talent situation at all levels of the industry

Sustained profitability has grown PR, and some say the industry is in the midst of a talent war. Certainly, there is great demand for senior- and mid-level pros. Junior folks seem to be easier to find, and many employers say they are more comfortable recruiting from outside the PR industry to fill jobs at this level.

The robust market is good for job candidates, and it has employers considering best practices for hiring, developing, and retaining talent.

"Broadly, the power is shifting from the employer to the employee," says Don Spetner, SVP of global marketing and communications and chief marketing officer at recruitment agency Korn/Ferry International. "You're going to have more choice. You should be patient. You have more leverage. If you're thinking about making a change, this is a great time to start talking to people because there will be opportunities."

Unemployment for college-educated people in the US is currently 2.5%, according to Spetner.

He calls today's job market "one of the hottest at the senior level" since the dot-com boom.

"Senior-level [people] who survived the downturn and have made a lot of money are retiring or moving on," he says.

A seller's market challenges employers. "Almost uniformly, clients are pay[ing] more than they originally projected," Spetner says. "Candidates are more expensive, harder to find, and they're getting pickier. They're now examining hiring companies in a much more intense way. This is a clear message about how important corporate culture is.

Candidates are going to do all kinds of due diligence and really check you out, and if you haven't been working on quality of work life, it's going to hurt you. This is particularly true in agencies."

Looking to the middle

Tremendous opportunity exists for people in the five- to 10-year experience range, as there is a marked shortage of mid-level talent. The dot-com fallout seems to be partly responsible, because many who would be at that level now bailed out of PR and did not return.

Spetner says another factor is "the good companies that have them are trying to keep them by giving them big bumps."

"Four years [after the dot-com crash], we feel the aftereffects of trying to find people who have the right mix of PR experience," says Brian Hoyt, director of PR Orbitz Worldwide-Americas. "[We want people with] a well-rounded client-side and agency background. Mid-level talent [has to] have the right level of media contacts and strategic plans."

It seems "very prevalent" to Cathleen Graham, SVP of HR at Ruder Finn, that SAE-level people are getting promoted quickly so employers don't lose them.

"Often, they haven't gained the skills," she says. "We still need qualified SAEs and account managers. They're looking at a checklist, and we're looking at mastery, and there's a disconnect there."

Brodeur CEO Andy Coville thinks good mid-level people are always hard to find because the shift from junior to mid-level is a "critical time" when people often choose to change career direction. "From AE to SAE are the wobbly years," she says. "[We've got to get] them over that hump and help them see they can build a career at an agency. I think that moving people around into different functions and practices helps."

"We need to be more creative in finding people, and we have to look at a much broader market than we've been reviewing," says Judith Harrison, VP of HR at Weber Shandwick. "Agencies tend to poach from other agencies, and that's not the way things can be going forward."

Laura Kane, second VP for corporate communications at Aflac, thinks it's always hard to find mid-level talent, but she believes it's a really good time to be in PR because it's valued more than ever before.

Consumer practice also has great allure. "It's very exciting because there are so many different ways to reach people," she says. "You can engage people in a much more personal way, which is lots of fun."

The right environment

Creating environments where people want to stay saves all employers time and money. Communicating and sufficiently challenging people are keys to retention, according to Harrison. She thinks it's critical that employees know an agency is committed to their development.

Coville doesn't think money is the most important thing. "It's entrepreneurship, being valued, and enjoying what you're doing," she says. "One force driving people to consider change is how well their careers have been minded in their present job - in good times and bad. They'll only leave if they feel opportunity has been exhausted for them."

Abby Gold, SVP of HR at Weber Shandwick, agrees. "Pay is the last thing on the list if they're getting challenged," she says. "It's not really what's driving [them to leave jobs]."

Stacy Libby, GM and director of HR at Voce Communications, says employers who respect the work/ life balance and help employees create "a unique and interesting growth path" have a leg up.

Coville points out that HR has come a long way. "HR now is about talent optimization and organization optimization," she says. "HR leaders can serve as talent developers. It's such a positive thing for our industry."

Text 100 boasts a 75% overall retention rate, and a 90%-95% retention rate for senior staff. Stacy Perry, VP for talent management, attributes that success to initiatives that include a talent management program focused on career advancement; a seconding program that allows employees to work short stints in foreign countries at Text offices as well as client offices; international transfer opportunities; three-month paid sabbaticals after six years of service; and flexible work programs.

Ruder Finn's Graham networks and "talks to everyone" to find new hires. The agency is recruiting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London, and has been successful in recruiting people from the corporate side and boutique agencies. She sees that retention rates and demonstration of culture are important to candidates.

"Often, even at the junior level, they want to meet all the team members they'll work with," Graham says. "That's a refreshing change. People are making informed decisions for the long term. It raises the bar on our process, which keeps us on our toes."

Edelman recently posted a "working at Edelman" podcast on its Web site so candidates can hear about culture firsthand. "It's a selling tool," says Laura Smith, Edelman EVP and US HR director. "It's a demonstration of culture."

Success out of school

Elliot Sloane, CEO of Sloane & Company, says it's not hard to find "fantastic young talent." His "best success" comes from hiring out of colleges, such as Holy Cross and Trinity, and training. "We end up with a much higher rate of retention because we really invest in these people," he says.

Aflac too has found great junior people, and Kane notices people coming out of school are better trained and "expect to be more generalists."

Sloane, who notes that people who ask about work/life balance aren't right for his agency, says he doesn't mind a seller's market because the right hire sometimes takes a while to find. "We want someone who wants to work here as much as we want them," he says. "We will not get into a bidding war. We will not recruit out of other firms."

Like many, Sloane interviews and keeps in touch with potential hires so he can "pull the trigger" when the time is right.

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