A chink of light

With clients, consultancies and recruitment agencies all reporting signs of renewed activity in the sector towards the end of last year, Anna Richardson tests the water to see how strong this recovery might be

If you weren’t touched by the dreaded double ‘R’s of redundancy’ or ‘restructuring’ last year – either directly or through some degrees of separation – you can count yourself among the lucky few. The past 12 months have been a struggle whatever sector you’re in. From smaller independent businesses to large groups, many consultancies have seen staff variously trimmed or redeployed.

It has been particularly taxing for new graduates. Those with some years’ experience are finding the job market tough enough, but those with only internships to their names must find it nigh impossible, making thoughts of abandoning ship a popular prospect for some.

However, industry veterans point to the fact that hardship breeds creativity. Indeed, the past year has seen a spate of enterprising start-ups determined to flourish, using smaller, low-cost business models that allow agility and independent thinking.

Existing consultancies, meanwhile, have adapted. Some adjust fees and services to accommodate clients – their loyalty and empathy awarded with a steady workflow – while others have pursued innovative ways of staffing. Networking body Bristol Media, for example, has pioneered a system of ‘loaning’ staff to competitors for a set period in order to hold on to talent in the long run.

Even though redundancies continued up to December, a flurry of activity in the run-up to Christmas meant that recruitment agencies started making positive noises once more.

The message was a festive one of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Significantly, it was noted that many big consultancy groups started to emerge from their recruitment freezes, signing off spend for new staff in 2010. The permanent recruitment market, which suffered most earlier last year, is back with a vengeance, some recruitment agencies say, while the freelance market has continued to show steady growth.

While creative departments had a high percentage of redundancies, they also had the highest percentage of new recruits, according to a survey from online job resource Creative Pool – 15 per cent of respondents said their employer had taken on new creative staff over the past 12 months.

With the market beginning to pick up, many businesses are using freelances to test the water. This is creating a new breed of freelance who probably wouldn’t have considered going the independent route 18 months ago, but the demand has meant candidates have had to adapt.

Recruiters have noted more competition among employers for the best candidates. However, it is still an employers’ market. There are a lot of experienced candidates looking for work, so businesses can afford to be choosey.

For job-seekers, word-of-mouth has always been a valuable tool, but personal recommendations have even greater value now, especially when it comes to graduates. People are still looking for new talent, looking at portfolios and offering placements. Such opportunities might be fewer, but if someone stands out, the word will be passed around. Taking on a graduate is less expensive and it can also buck up the rest of the team, is the thinking. And ensuring there are no gaps in the talent pool once the recession is over is at the back of the mind of many consultancies.

But those looking for work still have to make that extra effort and deliver more than expected. Being as creative as possible in the job search is vital. The more CVs creative directors are inundated with, the more likely it is that an unimaginative or typo-riddled portfolio will end in the bin. Social networking sites can offer additional alternative job-search avenues.

For those in work, this could be the time to start browsing. Where staff might have been hanging on to their job for security, they are now peeping over the parapet. Talent is becoming more mobile – something consultancies are very aware of, making motivation and professional on-the-job development imperative.

Some have held back on investing in development in order not to have to make staff redundant. But those that have had to endure a restructure find that development not only enhances skills, but helps rebuild the team, lifts morale and reinvigorates employees. Even informal development, such as tasking senior team members to talk about different specialisms or organising inspirational lectures can keep the momentum going.

Momentum in the recruitment market was gathering pace pre-Christmas, but there is a cautious nip to the January air. Britain is slower to emerge from the recession than some of its European neighbours, and it’s difficult to predict what impact this month’s VAT rise or the impending General Election might have in the immediate future.

However, with projects such as the London 2012 Olympics on the horizon, the profile of design will continue to rise, and UK creativity is still in high demand abroad. Making sure you have the right talent on board to deliver is more vital than ever.

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