Graduate recruitment: Why can't I get a job?

In the midst of economic crisis, many graduates are struggling to gain that important first step on the PR career ladder. Cathy Wallace investigates the state of graduate recruitment within the industry.

Why can't I get a job?
Why can't I get a job?

This time last year PRWeek ran a front-page story celebrating the number of graduates flooding into the industry (PRWeek, 24 July 2008). Last year, the top ten agencies in the UK by fee income hired 85 graduates in total, compared with 64 in 2007.

This year it is a more varied picture, as our graduate recruitment table shows. In 2009, PRWeek broadened its scope to include the top 20 agencies in the UK by fee income. In total, they are hiring 81 graduates, which means four fewer graduates will be taken on by twice the number of agencies in 2009 than in 2008.

Tellingly, a number of agencies that were happy to provide their graduate figures last year have this year refused. Some agencies approached for the first time have done likewise. In these cases, silence speaks volumes. WPP, which owns Finsbury and Burson-Marsteller, advertises a recruitment freeze on its main website, which suggests no graduates will be joining these agencies in 2009. However, Hill & Knowlton, also owned by WPP, is still employing them.

'It is no surprise graduate recruitment is down sharply,' says Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA. 'It is happening all across the economy and the PR industry isn't immune. Many agencies are still recruiting graduates, but not in the numbers they did previously.'

Ingham's viewpoint is backed up by a recent survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which found that one in four graduate vacancies across the UK had simply disappeared. The survey of 226 top employers showed a 24.9 per cent fall in vacancies - the worst slump since the last recession in 1991.

Fierce competition for some...

On average, the survey found, there are now 48 applications for every graduate vacancy. In the PR industry this figure is likely to be far higher, because PR is a highly sought-after career.

Jonathan Flint, co-MD of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, which is employing three graduates in 2009, says the agency has had more than 200 applications for its graduate scheme. 'In a normal year we'd have about 110 applications,' he adds.

In total, three of the top 20 PR agencies confirmed they are not hiring graduates, although those refusing to give a number also appear unlikely to be hiring. These agencies may have had to make redundancies during the year and feel hiring new blood is inappropriate, or they may be looking to save money.

Other agencies are still hiring but at a reduced level. Last year, Weber Shandwick employed a whopping 22 graduates. This year, the figure has returned to a more modest nine.

'There is no fixed number for yearly intake, but we usually take on around ten,' says UK and Europe CEO Colin Byrne. 'Last year we had a big spike in graduate numbers because we grew by ten per cent over the year and launched a couple of new practices. This year we are not growing at the same rate.'

Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L) is hoping to take on two graduates this year. New business director Kate Steele says: 'We have traditionally had good ties with many of the universities that offer specialist PR degrees and have worked on internship and graduate recruitment programmes with Cardiff University.'

... but others are hiring normally

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Many agencies are keeping up healthy graduate recruitment rates. Engine will hire ten graduates in 2009, the same as in 2008. 'Any company cutting back on its graduate programme is not cutting fat, it is cutting the muscle that is vital to the strength and energy of its whole business,' says CEO Sacha Deshmukh.

Citigate Dewe Rogerson's Flint agrees: 'All agencies have to manage their cost base, but larger agencies can invest in the future a bit more, and we have to carry on investing.'

The Red Consultancy falls just outside the top 20 agencies but has recently run an advertising campaign boasting that it is hiring ten graduates this year. 'It is a totally false economy not to keep bringing people in,' says CEO Mike Morgan. 'We learned that as an industry in 2000 with the dotcom bubble. No-one hired for a year and that led to a real shortage of account managers later on.'

Weber Shandwick's Byrne agrees: 'Graduates bring enthusiasm, a desire to learn, fresh perspectives and a lack of cynicism to the industry. To be honest, I do think it is short-sighted not to take on graduates.'

Will things pick up in 2010?

The general consensus among PR agencies is that there will be more graduate vacancies next year. It is expected that many other agencies not currently taking on graduates will open their doors once the economy picks up and recruitment freezes are lifted.

That said, there is no denying PR is a competitive field. Securing a graduate placement at a top PR agency is no mean feat. Most agencies have a long recruitment procedure that can involve written tests, interviews and even entire assessment days.

Senior figures in the industry agree graduates are going to have to work harder and harder to prove they have what it takes to succeed.

'It is anticipated that graduate recruitment will pick up in the years ahead,' says Ann Mealor, acting director general of the CIPR. 'Graduates will, however, need to demonstrate their skills and commitment to their profession by doing things such as becoming members of the CIPR, getting relevant work experience and thinking about a professional qualification.'

The PRCA's Ingham agrees: 'In all candour, graduate recruitment is still going to be less than it was until recently.

'Employers are looking for more than a good degree from a good university. They can pick and choose among applicants, and they want to see evidence of a real passion for the industry, a proper work ethic and a hunger for the job.'

And he warns: 'If you don't have those, you should not bother applying.'

Name: Will Corden
Age: 22
Degree: Sociology and Politics
From: Nottingham Trent University
Lives: Surrey
Status: Currently looking for a graduate position

I graduated last year and pretty much started an in-house role straight away. However, the company went into administration and I was made redundant. Since then I have been looking for a graduate position within an agency but have had no success.

A lot of agencies seem put off by the fact I have not had a great deal of experience, even though I have completed work experience within a PR agency. I had an interview a couple of weeks ago for a very junior role but I was up against people with two years' experience. They explained that because people are being made redundant from higher positions in agencies, they are going for the junior jobs in the hope they can work their way back up. That freezes us graduates out a bit.

I am currently temping, but I am looking for a graduate or junior account executive role in a consumer or tech PR agency. I have applied to several graduate schemes and am waiting to hear back.

A lot of people have been saying to me: 'Next year there will be a lot more jobs.' That's great but it doesn't really help me very much at the moment.

I am completely committed to a career in PR, but if I get many more rejections I may start to look at something else - such as marketing.

Name: Anna Svensson
Age: 23
Degree: Public Relations
From: Bournemouth University
Lives: London
Status: Graduate trainee atPorter Novelli

I graduated this year from Bournemouth after a four-year course that included a year of work experience at Apple. I started looking and applying for graduate positions in January. I found that there were plenty of jobs to apply for, although they were quite slow to get back to me initially. There are lots of stages when you apply for a graduate position so it can be a slow process.

I applied for the Porter Novelli scheme back in January and there were four stages before I found out I was successful in April. I had to complete two written stages and two interview stages.

In total, I applied to six PR agencies that run graduate schemes, and two recruitment agencies for the PR industry.

I am quite surprised there are people who were on my course who are only just starting to apply for graduate jobs. It's not just graduate positions people are applying for now; it's general positions as well.

It is hard to say if it is easier or harder this year to get a graduate position; this is the only time I have looked for one. But I would say I have been pleasantly surprised by how easy I found the process. There are a lot of agencies running graduate schemes and there seem to be a lot of jobs around. But that could be because I have come from a PR course. It may be harder for people who do not have PR degrees.

Consultancy 2009 2008 2007
Bell Pottinger 5 9 8
Brunswick (R) 8 8
FD 3 7 6
Weber Shandwick 9 22 11
Edelman 7 13 11
Hill & Knowlton 8 8 8
Citigate Dewe Rogerson 3 4 3
Finsbury (R) 3 2
Freud Communications 10 11 7
Fishburn Hedges 6 4 4
Ketchum 6 4 20
College Hill 0 1 1
M:Communications 0 2 n/a
Cohn & Wolfe 2 5 8
MS&L 2 3 2
Burson-Marsteller (R) (R) (R)
Trimedia 3 13 n/a
Maitland 0 3 n/a
Fleishman-Hillard 7 8 5
Engine Business 10 10 n/a

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