Strategic staffing will help mitigate talent crunch

After the 2001 recession subsided, PR pros lamented the death of mid-level talent.

After the 2001 recession subsided, PR pros lamented the dearth of mid-level talent. Now, as the industry faces another daunting downturn, can those lessons learned thwart another mid-level talent crunch? Jim Delulio, president of PR Talent, says he's seeing layoffs at all levels and predicts the industry could face an even more severe talent crunch after this recession.

“Last time it was the tech sector that was hit the hardest,” he says. “But now you're seeing it across all industries, so a lot of people are leaving [the profession].”

PR pros don't have the easy option of moving to another practice area because the recession has hit nearly all areas. And both large and small firms are finding themselves in a squeeze, Delulio adds. Large agencies that are part of public holding companies are pushed to layoffs to maintain profit levels, while small firms can be hurt deeply from losing just one or two key clients.

A spike in the number of students majoring in PR and pros turning to freelance work could mitigate the shortage at the junior levels, Delulio adds, but senior and mid-level shortages could be sharper.

Steve Seeman, VP at Makovsky & Co., says some agencies might substitute other cutbacks for layoffs.

“We are professional services – all we have is our people,” he notes.

But if layoffs are inevitable, Seeman suggests firms identify their star players and train them to begin building a new crop of mid-level talent that can be tapped later. Reassuring the strongest players of job security can also help offset the anxiety that develops when others are laid off.

Sandra Fathi, president of Affect Strategies, says even though layoffs are happening across all experience levels this time, junior-level staffers will feel the pinch more because there are usually many more of them.

“No one is safe, but if your firm has three senior, seven mid-level, and 20 junior people,” Fathi explains, “percentage-wise you'll have more of the bottom of the pyramid go. But then it makes it harder to rebuild that pyramid as time goes on.”

She suggests agencies look harder to senior-level cuts because some executive roles – and the lucrative salaries that accompany them – become obsolete during a downturn.

“[You have to consider the value] you're getting for senior-level salaries,” Fathi notes. “If a senior person who is normally driving new business doesn't have anything in their pipeline, are they going to be satisfied and productive doing AE-level work? Can you justify paying them a six-figure salary to do that?”

Even though the ultimate goal during a severe downturn is survival, Fathi says the industry should reflect on the difficulties of finding good people when considering cuts. In both good times and bad, it's difficult to find talented staffers who excel in the sweet spot of mid-level work, where they can take on both tactical and strategic roles within the firm, she adds.

“Good people are hard to find, keep happy, and [retain],” she says. “So cutting across just based on budget is not the way to go.”

Key Points:
Firms should find ways to keep staff employed amid industry cutbacks

Because all sectors have been hit, laid off PR pros often don't have the option to move to other areas of the field, exacerbating a potential shortage

Junior-level talent will likely feel more of the layoff pinch since they represent a larger employment pool

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