OPINION: MICHAEL WALL ON ... THE SKILLS SHORTAGE

In September 1998, the Cambridge University Business Research Centre published a study called Enterprise Britain, which revealed that young, fast-growing companies were being threatened by a skills shortage.

In September 1998, the Cambridge University Business Research

Centre published a study called Enterprise Britain, which revealed that

young, fast-growing companies were being threatened by a skills

shortage.



In a study of 2,500 firms, research showed that 50 per cent had

experienced difficulty hiring people, with the greatest difficulty

experienced by the fastest growing companies. ’The biggest constraint on

firms,’ warned Grant Thornton, the specialist accountant for

entrepreneurial companies, ’is a lack of good people.’ I wish I’d paid

more attention.



When we started, just as this research was hitting the desks of business

journalists, financial advisers were taking pains to emphasise the

importance of keeping a low staff to income ratio. In America, the

standard is to recruit ahead of growth, but this is Britain. Seven

months on, we are about to start experiencing difficulty hiring people

with the required skills. Recruiting young account handlers has become a

priority.



It’s the ’required skills’ part that is the problem. When an agency

strives for exceptional work, the problem is compounded. Exceptional

people are, by definition, the exception, not the norm. Where is the

current generation of account handlers?



Is it possible that they are already ensconced in large agencies with

enlightened career paths plotted? Casual discussion at industry

gatherings suggests not. Have they gone abroad? Perhaps they have left

the industry?



Or perhaps they never got in there in the first place. They can’t all be

in Millbank.



One of the reasons why so many good people came into the industry at the

beginning of the 80s was that university graduates were diverted from

the arts, publishing and journalism, with the promise of a career in a

meritocratic creative industry, where they would get a sporting chance

to make a difference.



Extensive graduate recruitment programmes were set up, training

schedules invested in and experience on the job was superb for someone

with wit and ambition.



But between then and now, there was a long recession, training

programmes dwindled, graduate recruitment personnel quietly let go and

the level of experience gained in an agency seriously diminished. In

this climate, another generation of account handlers were recruited.



For the brightest graduates, greener pastures beckoned. Suddenly the

once derided PR option metamorphosed into the promising career of

spin-doctoring, design consultancies sprang up in quarters of London

never heard of, and management consultancies shone with glittering

career paths.



Someone will tell me it is a time thing. One should spend a quarter of

the week interviewing staff. And then at least another quarter of the

week training them to work in the way that is compatible with the

prevailing agency culture. And I am coming to the conclusion that this

may be the answer, because the contribution of new staff to any agency’s

culture is at the core of what will make any agency truly

successful.



Michael Wall is a partner at Fallon McElligott.



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