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A shortage of quality design personnel is causing wider problems for recruitment agencies and design groups.

As the recruitment boom rolls on, recruitment agencies are busier than ever trying to fulfil the long-term staffing needs of design groups. Consultancies now use between four and five agencies on average over the course of a year, which is a shade more than last year, and still a considerable spread.

In compiling this year’s Design Week recruitment agency survey design consultancies responded a little less enthusiastically than in previous years, hopefully because they were busy screening candidates to fill the evident glut of vacant positions. Digital media has been the area hit the hardest by the continuing shortfall in staff, though across nearly all design disciplines demand for staff outstrips supply. Our annual recruitment findings are a ripe source of data on trends in employment levels, as well as the people doing the hiring.

Having polled both recruitment agencies and design groups about their employment experiences of the past 12 months, it is apparent that designers’ opinions about how to recruit vary considerably, with regards to who to use for assistance and where the best experience lies.

Some design consultancies swear by headhunters, while others dispute the typical “exclusivity” arrangements of such deals. Roughly half the recruitment companies we spoke to did some retainer-based work, while the other half refuse to operate this way. While from the consultancy perspective, different methods suit different people, agencies proved much more unanimous in their thinking.

Some clear leaders emerge in the recruitment agency rankings, as selected confidentially by design groups, though they are certainly not as clear cut as in previous years. Chosen for industry knowledge, grasp of designer requirements and frequency of use, the usual suspects all figure prominently.

For their services, recruitment agencies continue to charge design companies an average fee of around 20 per cent of a newly placed employee’s annual salary, (rates range from 15 to 25 per cent). For freelance design staff rates can be daily, weekly or longer term and vary accordingly. Fewer rules exist for retainer work such as headhunting, and payment can range from negotiated flat fees, to salary percentages from 5 to 25 per cent.

Still the biggest concern on the part of design consultancies is the number of inappropriate candidates who are sent to them for interviews by recruitment agencies. The damage this can do to the agency/ designer relationship can be heinous, often irreparable. Conversely, recruitment agencies talk of a lack of clarity over the role of candidates sought, or goalposts being moved. Clearly, the communication process between both parties might be improved.

Survey methodology

For this, our third annual recruitment survey, our methods are in keeping with previous years. Recruitment agencies and designers were both polled with a different questionnaire to ascertain relevant information. The source of names on the design side is Design Week’s Top 100 consultancy database, supplemented with companies known for the quality of their creative work. Our sample, like previous years, includes small to large companies across design disciplines and locations.

In compiling the tables, designers were invited to provide details of the types of positions sought, which agencies they used and why. They were also asked which agencies are regarded as best in terms of industry knowledge, matching a brief and providing suitable candidates. Personality, speed and value for money were also requested, so too the most and least helpful recruitment agency and the most frequently used. Perhaps most illuminating were the “other comments”, which this year proved most informative. Consultancies were given the option of keeping their responses confidential. As this survey aims to look at long-term staffing trends, freelance staffing figures were not included in the results.

With respect to the subject categories, it should be remembered that these rankings remain largely subjective. Particularly with categories such as personality, opinions are based largely on individual relationships between design group and recruitment agency staff. It should perhaps be noted too that speed can be a misleading guide to efficiency: the time it takes to fill a position is usually inversely related to its seniority.

The shortage of design staff, or rather “good” design staff, towers above most other issues in the present climate, a fact which recruitment agencies and design consultancies evidently agree upon.

There is wide consensus too over the reasons for the shortfalls, which without wanting to state the obvious, stem from the consultancy demand for design staff exceeding the pool of talent from which to pick. The net effect has been steady growth in salary levels across the board, except in digital media where growth has been even more pronounced.

Some of the biggest gaps exist across the whole of Web design and in design management, particularly project management jobs, no matter what the design discipline. One hypothesis is that consultancies are trying so hard just to cling on to creative designers at the grass roots level that steering them into management roles is not an easy option.

Consultancies appear to be responding to threats of poaching with financial and soft incentives, rewarding design staff with both cash and quality of working conditions. Those employees who are promoted into management are noticeably younger than ever before.

“It has become apparent recently that a number of design consultancies are paying over the odds to hang on to good staff and are rewarding them well both financially and in terms of flexible working hours and other responsibilities within their organisations,” says Jacqueline Rose of Major Players.

This view is echoed by Karina Beasley, director of Gabriele Skelton: “There is a lack of good senior people on the management side. This is due to inflated salaries so they do not leave their current position, or another company cannot afford to pay them what they want, or because they have actually left the industry to pursue other careers (sometimes client side).”

The prolific void that has emerged in digital media candidates is perhaps the most significant trend of all, with virtually all recruitment agencies noting the need for talented staff in all functions of this field. It seems that creativity and technical skills are still not available in the abundance required for the Web space. According to agencies, clients are also looking for designers trained in print graphics with Web design experience.

Of concern is the fact that the industry’s shortfall of personnel is not being rectified by the graduate output. According to the recruitment agencies, it is not a question of volume here, but a question of quality.

“There is an evident lack of good graduates coming through, both on the design and design management side,” says Beasley, adding that this scenario will inevitably lead to future shortages “down the line”.

The point is reiterated by BDG director Valerie Gascoyne, who points out how “the recession of the early 1990s created a skills shortage that still has an effect on the market [for design staff] today”.

An interesting number of more miscellaneous observations were also made apparent by the recruiters, such as maternity issues playing a big role in the lack of senior female management, and consultancies paying their own staff to recruit for them.

A lack of knowledge over Schedule D taxation rules, both from the freelance community and consultancy-side, is another bugbear which needs addressing, says Stuart Newman of Network Design Recruitment. Jo Peters of Jo Peters Associates highlights a lack of job candidates “with genuine branding experience”. Of note too is something of a lack of representation for design staff in the product design, exhibition design and interior design sectors.

Competition for job candidates has been the cause of mounting tension between recruitment agencies. Kim Crawford of Periscope reports “unscrupulous practices from some recruitment agencies”. Such practices range from scattergun CV mailings without candidates’ permission, to failing to interview candidates properly, which can lead to misplacing them in the workplace. There is even talk of unscrupulously poaching staff from clients.

This competition has arisen from, among other things, the demand for design skills from the emerging technology and full-service agency side, says Diane Scally of Creative Recruitment. This has begun to “force salaries and career paths out of their league”, she says.

Recruitment agencies have a useful perspective on their design consultancy clients too. A lack of clarity about appropriate candidate characteristics is cited frequently, as is the need for consultancies to take a less short-term view of their recruitment needs, particularly, says Alport Creative Career Consultants founder Jonathan Alport, when it comes to planning.

“Ambitious consultancies that forecast major growth must plan their recruitment needs well in advance. It may take anything up to a year to find the right staff,” he says.

On the design company side, recruitment by word-of-mouth was cited as one of the most popular, and certainly most cost-effective methods of employing new design staff, and it appears that design groups are increasingly prepared to offer incentives to their employees to help recruit new staff in this way. The drawbacks to this approach were given as the length of time required to fill a post, and the lower quantity of staff available by less formal means.

Still the biggest concern on the part of design groups employing recruitment agencies is the inappropriateness of some candidates, either in terms of creativity, cultural fit or talent. Unsolicited mailings, random CVs, database-generated e-mails and cold calling were listed as the most irritable traits of recruitment agencies, while the most damaging factor to designer/ recruiter relations in the long term is simply bad candidates. Although design consultancies may prefer word-of-mouth recruitment, most accept that for time and effort-saving factors a recruitment specialist can help.

More than ever though, designers are finding the opportunity to pick a future employer with respect to the quality of working life a consultancy can offer. It is less about financial remuneration and more about job satisfaction and quality of work, says Rose of Major Players.

“From an employee perspective there is a growing trend to move jobs to attain real satisfaction within your workplace. It’s no longer enough to earn the right amount of money to be progressing your career.

“We find it very hard to place candidates in a dour work environment, even on a contract basis, because people are looking for real quality of life in their roles now,” she adds.

Another notable trend affecting the flight path of many within the design sector is the adoption of incentivised employment schemes, modelled on the dotcom world. A few, more progressive design consultancies have responded to the threat of losing staff to digital start-ups with their own share-ownership schemes. Some feel more could be done.

“The dotcoms have shaken up resource management with the advent of stock options, training sabbaticals and career monitoring. Design consultancies could do worse than take these points on board, particularly with the forecast skills shortage, increase in salaries and recruitment costs, not to mention the impact arising from the departure of key individuals,” says Alport.

But while recruiters do very nicely during business booms, not all is necessarily well. More than one high-profile design group, mentioning no names, have ceased using recruiters completely within the last year due to their “failure to deliver”.

The bigger names of the recruiter world should note too that in the eyes of some smaller design consultancies there is disdain. Perhaps it is because they recruit less, pay qualified staff lower wages or simply use recruitment agencies less frequently, but smaller design consultancies have complained of being overlooked, even blatantly ignored by some of the bigger recruitment agencies. There is clearly room for better practice from both sides.

Who do you rate the best?

1Gabriele Skelton

2Periscope

3Major Players

4=BDG

4=MCV

6Network Design Recruitment

7Price Jamieson

8=Adrem

8= EMR

8=Jigsaw

8=Management Personnel

8=Recruit Multimedia

8=Spectrum

Who do you use the most?

1=Gabriele Skelton

1=Periscope

3Major Players

4Network Design Recruitment

5=Adrem

5=BDG

5=David Neal & Partners

5=Jigsaw

5=Management Personnel

5=MCV

Knowledge of the design industry

1Gabriele Skelton

2=Major Players

2=Periscope

4MCV

5=BDG

5=Network Design Recruitment

Who have you used in the past 12 months?

1Gabriele Skelton

2Major Players

3Periscope

4MCV

5Network Design Recruitment

Understanding the brief

1=Gabriele Skelton

1=Periscope

3Major Players

4=BDG

4=MCV

Speed

1=Major Players

1=Periscope

3Gabriele Skelton

4BDG

5=Adrem

5=EMR

5=Jigsaw

5=MCV

5=Management Personnel

5=Network Design Recruitment

5=Price Jaimeson

5=Recuit Multimedia

5=Spectrum

Follow up service, including contract negotiations

1Network Design Recruitment

2Gabriele Skelton

3BDG

4=Major Players

4=Management Personnel

4=Spectrum

4=Workstation Solutions

8=Adrem

8=Creative Recruitment

8=Gloria Baldwyn & Co

8=Price Jamieson

8=Wallace Hind Associates

Suitability of candidates

1=Gabriele Skelton

1=Periscope

3Major Players

4=BDG

4=MCV

4=Price Jaimeson

Personality

1Gabriele Skelton

2Periscope

3Major Players

4=BDG

4=MCV

4=Network Design Recruitment

Recruitment agency comments

‘It has become apparent recently that a number of design consultancies are paying over the odds to hang on to good staff and are rewarding them well both financially and in terms of flexible working hours’

Jacqueline Rose, Major Players

‘There is an evident lack of good graduates coming through, both on the design and design management side’

Karina Beasley, Gabriele Skelton

‘Ambitious consultancies that forecast major growth must plan their recruitment needs well in advance. It may take anything up to a year to find the right staff’

Jonathan Alport, Creative Career Consultants

‘We find it very hard to place candidates in a dour work environment, even on a contract basis, because people are looking for real quality of life in their roles now’

Jacqueline Rose, Major Players

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