How can we get the right experience?

It’s no great surprise that there hasn’t been a massive hike in pay rates in design over the past 12 months, even though the industry has taken an upward turn, (see Salary Survey, page 13). What industrial sector can claim salary increases to be a top priority as we regroup post-recession? The emphasis has been on the creation of new jobs – or the conversion of freelance or part-time posts into full-time.

Design’s performance here is encouraging, if the 15 per cent rise in staffing is anything to go by. It indicates that consultancies are finally accepting that to do their best to service clients, they have to have appropriate resources.

But numbers are only part of the equation. There’s no shortage of people wanting work in design – witness the volume of letters we all receive from new design graduates desperate for a job – but there is an amazing shortage of people with the right experience.

It’s not just about specialism, though the educators seem to think they are serving design well by setting up even more focused courses as the years go by. The average graduate from these refined courses probably has no better chance of getting a great job than someone with a more general design degree. But they do run the risk of having a narrower view of life.

There is a trend for bigger design groups to take on staff who are creative first and, say, packaging or literature specialists second. It’s particularly so with new media groups, the best of which look for potential rather than proven skills. But there is still a huge gap at middleweight designer level, because a generation was lost to the industry in recession. One top London group said that after interviewing 40 contenders, four vacancies remained unfilled; the scene appears to be even tougher in the regions.

It’s hard to say how to remedy the situation. You can’t always substitute raw talent for experience when you have a studio to run. Williams Murray Banks founder Richard Williams has called for the return of apprenticeships through these pages, but while that might be a good investment in the future, it wouldn’t solve the problem we have now. Others say design colleges should turn out better graduates with real-world knowledge, and British Design and Art Direction is among those striving to help with that – again for the future.

The experience shortage is a serious issue. The challenge is there for design to show its mettle – with backers such as John Lewis Partnership pledging confidence in the Halifax Initiative through cash and the Government giving design a public platform. How do consultancies enlist the staff to meet it? I’d welcome your ideas.

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