Agencies should ask why talent is scarce

Ask senior PR practitioners what's on their mind at the moment and they are likely to mention staff recruitment. The agency world, in particular, appears to be undergoing a chronic shortage of talent.

Two in-depth articles this week unearth surprising facts. Hill & Knowlton, a typical large agency with a headcount of 300, reveals it has to find 50 new full-time staff a year; a media recruitment consultancy admits it has nearly 2,700 candidates on its books.

Despite PR slipping slightly down the list of preferred professions, there does not seem to be any shortage of graduates wanting to get into the business, but bosses are often disappointed with their calibre. At the PRCA's annual conference a fortnight ago, CHA founder Colette Hill bemoaned graduates' communication and grammar skills, and said many had little real interest in, or respect for, the business world.

This tends to lead to a more acute shortage at middle-management level, where headhunters are falling over themselves, and salaries are escalating.

It is a challenge that has long been faced by an industry that tends to recruit in five-year cycles, and which is predominantly staffed by women, who often opt to downshift in their thirties and forties.

But some, such as industry stalwart Jackie Elliot, also point to a drift of the best staff from agency roles to in-house positions. This could be because client organisations - in private and public sectors - offer more flexible working arrangements and better employee benefits.

It is certainly clear that staff turnover remains too high within certain agencies, and one cannot blame entrepreneurial headhunters for trying to make a buck from this. Rather, agencies must offer more structured, rewarding and flexible careers for their employees.

Easily said of course, but slowing the revolving doors will enable bosses to get back to running their businesses rather than recruiting.

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