On the rebound: Career Guide 2010

Whether it's fresh-faced professionals or the most senior-level talent, hiring trends appear to be improving in many industry sectors.

For the first time in almost two years, Don Spetner, senior client partner of the corporate affairs practice for executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, is optimistic about the job market. That's because he's received more new business calls – companies and agencies calling him to find talent – in the past four weeks than he had during the previous six months. 


“We're really starting to see a sea change at the senior level; clients are moving back into growth mode,” says Spetner. “Clients seek people who they think can come in and reenergize their departments while helping to grow their businesses.”
 
Sectors like healthcare remained relatively strong during the downturn, Spetner adds, while demand has returned even in hard-hit industries such as financial services, manufacturing, and retail.
Karen Bloom, principal at search consultancy Bloom Gross & Associates, concurs, saying the demand for talent has come on like a “tsunami.” She adds that calls are coming in from all sectors.
 
“Every company we are working with right now is talking about innovation – it is all about what they can do to get ahead and gain that competitive advantage,” she says. “As a PR person, if you can understand that is what it is about and you can contribute thinking to that innovation effort, you'll be seen as an invaluable hire.”
   
DIGITAL DESIRE
The demand for talent is being felt in all practice areas, from corporate communications to product publicity (which, by most accounts, had been the quietest during the downturn). Regardless of the position, however, most companies are flagging candidates who demonstrate strong digital and social media skills.
 
“Digital is everyone's buzzword, but it's what makes people stand out today,” says Maryanne Rainone, SVP and managing director at executive recruiter Heyman Associates. She says firms aren't just seeking digital specialists, but candidates with a strong understanding of digital tactics and strategy for other practice areas. For example, she has had clients upgrade external relations positions to include a digital focus.
 
“For all the talk about digital, clients see it less as a standalone function and more as a tool,” explains Rainone. “But no matter the name of the candidate or the position, clients want someone who can help them navigate this cluttered media landscape – tell them which blogs to target, how they should use Twitter, and how to put up a successful corporate or product Facebook page.”
 
Digital candidates are in demand at agencies across the sector. Fleishman-Hillard, for example, has hired 300 such people this year (considerably more than this time last year). Currently, it has 120 openings.
 
“We're hiring across the board, but the focus is digital,” says Agnes Gioconda, the firm's chief talent officer. “Our recruiters are all digital-savvy. They know how to find people with the appropriate background. If you are not active in social media, you're really missing the boat.”
 
Constituency Management Group, the PR and diversified services arm of IPG, has made three times more hires this year than last, says Judith Harrison, SVP of staffing, diversity and inclusion.
 
“We're seeing a lot of demand in consumer and corporate, but digital is huge and very competitive,” she explains. “The kind of candidates we're looking for are thought leaders. But in the digital space, we are not only competing for these people with other PR firms, but also every other type of agency out there. That's the biggest challenge for us now.”
 
KEEPING EMPLOYEES INFORMED
Outside of digital, companies have also identified internal relations as a hot growth area. “That is where we're seeing the biggest demand for staffing,” says Spetner. He suspects that trend is being driven by the realization that whatever companies say to their employees will be communicated to the outside world.
 
“In the past, the main desire from corporations was around media relations for the communication function,” Spetner says. “Now they realize the need to communicate to all of their audiences – and that starts with employees.”
 
Rainone cites another reason for the increased respect for employee and internal communications. “If a department was once 25 people and is now five, a company does not want those five people to say, ‘You know what, I've worked hard, it's time for me to move on,'” she explains. “Clients have to retain people they have even as they look to rebuild and rehire.”
 
The talent pool is undoubtedly large and includes individuals who were not only the victims of job cuts, but also entrepreneurs who found the economy could no longer support their boutique agencies; students fresh out of school; and the gainfully employed who are now much less afraid to make a career move because they think the economy is on the rebound.
 
Tabrina Davis, VP of communications for ComEd, a Chicago-based electric utility company, says so far this year she has hired two mid-level staffers, including a digital specialist to enhance the company's internal relations function, as well as a manager of communications. ComEd received more than 500 résumés for the three positions.
 
When she couldn't find suitable candidates for the manager of communications position, she turned to recruitment firms to fill the vacancy.
 
Davis says she is surprised by how many résumés failed to show good strategic thinking skills or demonstrate tangible client results. Other candidates eliminated themselves during the interview process for a broad range of reasons: they were able to discuss tactics, but not strategy; they failed the writing test (“I am amazed at how many people lack strong writing skills,” she says); or they simply dressed too casually (“It sends a message about how serious they are,” she explains).
 
Ultimately, Davis says the candidates who were most impressive were those who had expertise across all PR disciplines.
 
“Anyone we hire needs to effectively juggle multiple balls and work cross-functionally with my team,” she explains. “You'll start seeing a trend to hiring generalists – individuals who can do a number of things.”
 
Rainone concurs. “Everyone is looking for a generalist – someone who has blurred the lines, maybe started in media relations and moved to internal communications,” she says. “The more complicated the audience gets, the more diverse the candidates will need to be.”
 
Tom Coyne, CEO of Parsippany, NJ-based Coyne Public Relations, expects to hire about 15 people this year – three fewer than in 2009, although this year's hires will be of a more senior nature (including a head of client services). He's also hiring on the digital side and has enlisted a recruitment firm because it's a higher-demand market.
 
Coyne gives the currently employed an advantage, at least at first glance. “I question when someone is not employed, even in a bad economy,” he admits. “When firms close a practice, they will cherry pick their best people as opposed to release them.” That being said, half the people he hired last year were out of work. “If they can prove they have the goods, they're in,” he adds.
 
Others recommend that those who have been out of work show how they've remained active in the industry, whether through consulting or even starting a well-written blog.
 
“With the less experienced, being out of work doesn't matter so much,” suggests Fleishman's Gioconda. “With senior candidates, you want to make sure the person has stayed current in terms of technology and what clients need today.”
 
IS THE WAR FOR TALENT BACK ON?
While everyone agrees agencies and companies are hiring again, there are divergent opinions on whether it will lead to an all-out war for talent.
 
In fact, there are some candidates who are underqualified* who have made the mistake of assuming it's already back on, claims Harrison.
 
“You have people who are unreasonable and ask for huge amounts of money,” she notes. “They think there is this pent-up demand for talent and they went through salary freezes and haven't had a raise. They're asking for the sky, but we don't have it to give them. It can make for short conversations.”
 
Yet others, such as Coyne, are looking to compete on salary. “My goal is to eventually beat the salaries in New York City,” says Coyne, who has maintained compensation at Manhattan levels throughout the recession. “If I can do that, I feel like we'll be unstoppable because the industry is all about talent.”
 
Still, at least on the corporate side, a lot of posted positions in the entry- and mid-level range are, initially, contract only.

“Companies are still being cautious by looking at contract work rather than offering full-time permanent positions,” says Blair Peberdy, VP of marketing communications and public affairs for Toronto Hydro Corporation. “Companies want a better feeling for how the economy is doing and whether or not the recovery will be sustained.”

A number of countries in Europe have fallen into what is being called a double-dip recession, and there are fears a second downturn could hit the US. “If we can avoid a second recession,” says Bloom Gross & Associates' Bloom, “I feel like 2010 will get us back to a very brisk hiring market.”

*Correction: In the original post of this story, it was written that "there are many candidates who have made the mistake....." We regret the error..

SECTOR INSIGHT
A trio of HR experts discuss employment trends in six main verticals

Consumer
The consumer sector is booming in 2010. Bigger budgets combined with a livelier new business environment have created much more demand for talent at every level of experience. This is being prompted not only by the improved economy, but also a change in the competitive landscape. The lines between the marketing disciplines have blurred, opening a wealth of new opportunities that require candidates to have a broader range of expertise and deeper creative thinking. Now more than ever, those seeking new jobs need to possess a strong creative drive, digital and social media expertise, and a keen understanding of how PR can lead – and not just support – a company's brand-building efforts.

Stephanie Howley, SVP, human resources, North America, Cohn & Wolfe
 

Digital
With social media exploding, brands now look to create and maintain personal dialogue with consumers. This reality has increased the demand for high-quality professionals who are expert at helping brands establish and sustain engagement. The strongest candidates in this space also possess a “metric mindset,” as it is no longer enough to execute communications strategy flawlessly. They must have both a passion and facility for developing and implementing leading-edge tools to measure and analyze results in real time. Collaboration is also a critical skill for digital experts, particularly at Porter Novelli, as we embed digital experts across our practices to best help our clients achieve measurable business results.

Scott Grubin, chief talent officer, Porter Novelli


Financial services
Career opportunities in the financial services sector are flat at this time, with little movement. Obviously, this area has been strongly affected by the economic downturn and, generally speaking, it is slower to recover than other businesses. For job-seekers, this is a good time to develop digital capabilities for financial services clients as we wait for a pickup in hiring. Meaningful digital experience is important for candidates across the board, including in financial services. To remain competitive, candidates must be able to relate to and communicate in the blogs, strategically create social programs, and demonstrate creativity in digital. At the same time, all of the traditional PR skills remain essential to be successful.

Lisa Welsh, SVP of HR, North America, Constituency Management Group, IPG


Healthcare
No industry is changing as much as healthcare. From the passing of a historic reform bill to clearer rules and regulations around the use of digital and social media, the best healthcare communications pros now provide a wider range of expertise. Concurrently, healthcare companies and government agencies look for a more integrated communications model and a full-service communications partner that can handle and work creatively with this unprecedented complexity and change. Candidates with strong digital and public affairs experience stand out, but hiring organizations still cast a wide net to find the best talent – whether it's agency experience, in-house, or someone with a non-traditional background – to bring real expertise and a fresh perspective to clients.

Stephanie Howley, SVP, human resources, North America, Cohn & Wolfe


Public affairs
Continuing concerns about the economy, events such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and congressional agendas keep issues, advocacy, and public policy fluid. In such a climate, organizations crave diverse experiences to fill their public affairs positions. The strongest candidates have a communications background with a strong understanding of how complex issues and environments affect stakeholders. Politics, media relations, government service, advocacy, coalition building, subject-matter expertise, and message development are all critical skills for this position. Candidates must be able to drive strategies that combine traditional and new communications tools to impact target audiences and drive results.

Scott Grubin, chief talent officer, Porter Novelli


Technology
Currently there is a hiring boom in tech PR, with many more openings than in 2009 and nearing 2007/early 2008 levels. Proven digital experience has become a vital credential. Competition has increased, given the ease in hearing about opportunities at your mobile fingertips through blogs, social networks, and aggregated postings, as well as generally more confidence in making a move right now. Candidates are differentiating themselves in a meaningful way by demonstrating deep, creative, and strategic abilities in driving Internet/social networking programs for clients. After recent economic challenges, which resulted in some companies cutting resources, people at all levels are looking for jobs that present career growth, as well as training opportunities.

Lisa Welsh, SVP of HR, North America, Constituency Management Group, IPG

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