Make yourself useful

Clare Dowdy looks at opportunities that can be taken by designers who find themselves on the job market, or by graduates looking for their first ‘real’ job.

Restructuring, trimming the fat, getting rid of dead wood. Call it what you like, the design industry has been hit with its fair share of redundancies in recent months. In one week, Design Week reported lay-offs at The Identica Partnership, Wheel and PSD Associates (DW 2 June).

While this certainly isn’t the experience of every consultancy, there can be few which have not noticed a downturn in workload this year. Which means less recruiting is going on. Not a great climate to try to get a new job in, then. But it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are some positive actions those out of work can take.

The people at the sharp end, recruitment consultants, seem upbeat about their lot. They readily acknowledge there are more people looking for jobs: from those in work who feel concerned about the long-term health of their company, and those made redundant, to this year’s crop of graduates – and the backlog from last year – yet to nail their first job. But many consultancies still look to take good people on. ‘If you are good you can find a job even when the market has gone quiet,’ says Major Players director Paula Carrahar.

Some disciplines are busier than others. Digital media is obviously suffering at the moment – the inevitable victim of the dotcom fallout. But packaging and branding are still buoyant, and interiors is not being badly hit, say the recruitment consultants. On the identity front, Periscope managing director Kim Crawford makes the distinction between consultancies by size.

‘The big boys like Wolff Olins are suffering because they massively extended themselves last year,’ she says. ‘Bigger, high-profile consultancies are more likely to have international clients [which are likely to be more acutely hit by the global economic climate].’ This is backed up by the KPMG Corporate Finance report, that found mergers and acquisitions have fallen back this year; in value by 71 per cent and in volume by 29 per cent (DW 28 June).

Crawford adds, ‘Mid-sized groups probably didn’t extend themselves last year, and are still very busy and are still recruiting, though not at the same level. Small consultancies say it’s tough, but it’s not hurting yet.’

Recruitment has also slowed as consultancies are understandably taking longer to make decisions. Yet, despite the increased competition for positions, and the general concern about the future, job candidates are being very picky about where they work, according to Periscope. Many candidates are narrowing down their options to just the top five consultancies.

People who are involuntarily out of a job are particularly unwise to be so choosy about their next employer. As we are not immersed in a full-blown recession, when nobody’s job is safe, there is a stigma about being laid off. ‘Consultancies are slightly hesitant about seeing someone who’s been made redundant,’ says Crawford.

Karina Beasley, director at Gabriele Skelton, agrees, ‘Redundancy is [often] about getting rid of “dead wood”, and for those affected by this, finding a new job can be even harder.’ She suggests some such candidates would be better off lowering their expectations temporarily, both in terms of salary and job description. ‘Get a job, but put your career on hold,’ she says. ‘You can always pick up where you left off when the market improves.’

However, for the redundant there is a host of options, and jumping straight back into employment is just one of them.

If that’s the aim, then there are positive steps to take towards the next job. On a practical level, both designers and account staff should take work samples with them before they actually leave the studio, as it can be hard to get samples once you’re out. Designers should keep their sketchbooks to show prospective employers. A written reference from a line manager, and their agreement to take phone calls and act as referee, are also important, says Crawford.

Rather than permanent work, there’s always the freelance option. As consultancies with less work try to reduce costs, this has a knock-on effect. While there are few freelance contracts for project management at the moment, it’s a buoyant market for creatives. But there’s strong competition as there are fewer long-term contracts, warns Crawford, and because it’s taking these freelances longer to find permanent work.

Beasley adds, ‘Freelances should not be fooled into thinking that because they aren’t busy, they should increase their rates. On the contrary, they should be competitive.’ She suggests taking any freelance work going, even if it’s over the weekend. ‘The money is often better, which could make up for a couple of empty days during the week,’ she says.

Rather than going through recruitment agencies, you can always contact consultancies direct. However, it’s worth remembering that once you’ve made that direct contact, a recruitment agent is unlikely to put you up for a job there. Their job, after all, is to make the introduction.

Another alternative for the gutsy designer is to bypass consultancies altogether, and contact old clients to see if you can work for them direct. This might also be the time to brush up on some skills or retrain, if you can afford it.

Few designers cash in on the UK’s incredible design reputation by exploring overseas opportunities. ‘UK designers are in huge demand,’ says Periscope recruitment consultant Fiona Watson.

But the recruitment consultants are divided about the amount of work out there. ‘From what I hear things are just as quiet in the US, Australia and parts of Europe as they are here,’ says Beasley. Major Players and Periscope both see things differently. Watson cites the key European economies of France, Scandinavia, The Netherlands and particularly Germany as having potential.

Southern European countries are more likely to demand you speak the language, while the Nordic countries are less fussy. If you’re able to take some time off, this is the perfect opportunity to learn that second language.

And if it’s a change of direction you fancy, but want to stay within the design industry, now’s the chance to develop any latent sales skills. Good new business people are at the top of every consultancy’s recruitment wish list.

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