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How Australia’s PR and comms industry can overcome the talent drought

Finding young talent in the PR and communications industry has been a long fought battle. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson speaks to industry leaders and young PR professionals to understand where the talent issue starts and what the industry can do about it.

One of the biggest issues the public relations and communications industry has been grappling with for the last few years is talent, from recruiting juniors to retaining highly skilled and well trained employees.

Despite agencies implementing internship programs, mentoring strategies, training days and staff incentives; the shortage of talent has continued, leaving the industry scratching its head.

Talented account executives, account coordinators, senior account executives and entry level communications professionals are highly sought after by many businesses and agencies in adland, but on the other side of the spectrum, many graduates find landing their first job tough.

So how should the PR and comms industry be tackling the shrinking pool of talent? Or does the industry just need to tap into unfound resources, students and universities?

Red Agency’s executive director Jackie Crossman says there isn’t one sole reason the PR industry has a talent shortage. Instead, Crossman argues there are many, starting with the difficulty juniors have in landing their first role.

Crossman says the first issue young talent face is getting PR and communications experience

“The first issue seems to be them getting their foot in the door, in an agency or in-house, that seems to be a problem.

“I don’t think they are getting jobs within their chosen field.”

Soraya Calavassy, who co-founded her own PR agency, Neon Black, when she was just 25 years old, says agencies and businesses who aren’t employing graduates are missing out on a colossal opportunity to learn, urging senior professionals not to underestimate the power of fresh ideas.

“If you have somebody who is freshly out of university, has never worked in an agency before, is coming in at a ground level, they might have really amazing ideas and those ideas should be taken into consideration.

“Young talent can just as much educate someone more senior who has been in the workforce for a lot longer,” Calavassy says.

Crossman agrees, taking it one step further by suggesting an urgent need for a corporate or industry effort to “actually give the good students their first chance”.

Outlining this as a huge contributing factor to the talent shortage in the comms world, the executive director of Red Agency says if graduates aren’t being employed from the start then there is a risk of them becoming a resource the industry doesn’t use, wasting a much needed opportunity for both businesses, agencies and graduates.

“If we’re not bringing them in the beginning then there is no one to flow through the system and grow,” she says.

“Obviously not everyone gets to leadership, but as you move up the seniority it’s almost like a triangle. We need to bring a lot more into the funnel at the bottom, and they’re clearly coming out of university. I don’t know what’s happening to them.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Neon Black’s co-founder contemplates the idea of university degrees, arguing that they aren’t essential: “We don’t look at a university degree as being mandatory to work at Neon Black or in part of the industry.”

University degrees don’t guarantee the graduate knows about the industry and how it works, Calavassy says, prompting the idea that personality, drive and ambition are all more important than a “piece of paper”.

“The ability to communicate and amazing writing skills, all of that stuff is stuff you can learn, you don’t need piece of paper.

Calavassy says a university degree doesn’t mean you know how the industry works

“If somebody comes in here with a degree and there is somebody without a degree, I don’t judge them differently. I look at who would be the best fit, what they’re about, their passion, their dedication and their commitment,” the leader says.

Crossman agrees, pointing out real world experience will always be extremely compelling to an employer.

“University courses are fantastic but you can’t substitute studying for real world experiences over a period of time.

“It’s almost like an apprenticeship, because an apprentice studies, but they are also getting hands on practical experience as they go through.

“That is the ultimate gold standard, if you as a person can be studying and doing all that really well, and we can be providing them with real world experience particularly in the last year of their study, that makes them far more job ready than if they worked in a cafe,” the executive director adds.

For Cabrini Broderick, a senior account executive at History Will Be Kind, universities don’t always “position what agencies are” and “set out what is involved in PR itself”.

Recently promoted from her previous account executive title, Broderick graduated just two years ago, saying the transition into the agency world isn’t something university prepares students for.

“Yes there is day-to-day writing and pitching and ways to go about those tasks, in this way university does prepare you for that, but I don’t think it prepares you for the social aspects of being in an agency.

“It can be quite daunting to think you’re going to be in an agency of a hundred people and you’re going from being a third year student where you’re quite comfortable, to being back at the bottom like a small fish in a big pond… All of a sudden it becomes the start again.”

Broderick: “I don’t think it prepares you for the social aspects of being in an agency”

Courtney Lambert, an account executive from Red Agency agreed with Broderick, says university is very theoretical and teaches students skills which typically wouldn’t be used until you had acquired a senior job title.

“University is very theoretical, as such a lot of what I learnt you wouldn’t do on the job, until really senior roles. It’s a lot of strategy.”

History Will Be Kind’s Broderick agrees with Crossman, pointing out universities need to push internship programs harder and help students build valuable connections with agencies and businesses.

“I know for some universities there is a subject which is an internship, but I don’t think they push that enough, or they don’t help you as much as they could in building connections with agencies,” Broderick continues, “I still think the onus is on you to do that, which is fair enough as a student… but I think there is definitely more that universities can do to support students in making the transition from a student into agency.”

Red Agency is currently looking to close this gap between university and the working world of PR and comms with its paid internships program, Crossman says.

“We do make an effort to get some people in so that they actually have a faster start and come out job ready. But we can only take so many. From there we also hire a couple of the smart ones to be account coordinators. Again, we can only hire so many,” she says.

Crossman urges businesses not to take on interns just as “free labour”, noting investing in interns and young talent is imperative.

“The commitment to talent isn’t always easy and it starts from the very beginning, at the university level, and continues right until students leave university “to employ and train and develop our future leaders”, Crossman adds.

One of Red Agency’s early recruiters, Courtney Lambert, says through Red Agency’s program she learned day-to-day skills which simply weren’t taught during her bachelor’s degree.

Lambert says Red Agency has taught her skills she never learned at university

“Red Agency has really given me the tools and ‘on the day’ skills to progress. Even just being able to do the basics like media pitching and writing media releases, that’s nothing that I ever learnt at university.”

For Neon Black’s Calavassy, mentorship is a powerful tool.

“It’s not always a financial investment, the amount of ‘go away and do this training kind of stuff’, that’s really minimal.

“It’s about people taking the time to sit down with you and even tell you stories about past campaigns they have worked on, you can take something from it and some kind of insight from every single conversation,” she says.

Another factor in the talent debacle is travel, because as Crossman points out, many people in their early 20s have ambitions to travel overseas.

“Some people will want to go overseas to work overseas and experience their overseas life and that’s natural,” she says.

Crossman says being accepting of this is critical for companies as the talent may well return, or, alternatively, working with agencies overseas to implement some form of talent swap program.

“We work really hard with them to really develop their careers and give them opportunities so they are less likely to want to go, but naturally you’re still going to have that problem at some point that some people want to go overseas. So I think that’s the role of the Brits shall we say is we are giving them out. We have to take theirs in to fill that gap. It’s a bit of a swap.”

Crossman says the talent shortage in the industry is just an issue with “some people, not all”, and if there is “more of a commitment at the front end to bring on people” the industry may eventually find itself with a larger junior talent pool to choose from.

 

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