They say that a business is only ever as good as its last sale. While that may be true, the reality is that a business is really only ever as good as the people it employs.
Times have moved on since employers used to take the ‘warm body’ approach, where someone would be hired just because they were there and seemed to fit the job. Now employers rigorously sort through job applicants using, depending on the size of the firm, a combination of CVs, interviews, psychometric testing, and on the job probationary periods.
But despite what Brexit is stirring up, the economy hasn’t crashed and we, like other first-world economies, find ourselves with a workforce at full employment. As figures from the Office for National Statistics published in January 2019 show, the unemployment rate is estimated at 4% and hasn’t been that low since the period of December 1974 to February 1975.
The state of print
Dani Novick, director at Mercury Search & Selection, says record low unemployment is “having an impact on recruitment and print is not immune. More specifically, print is in some respects a victim of its own success in terms of rolling out new technologies... there is a shortage of people prepared and trained for this new technology.”
On top of this, Novick notes that more generally there is a shortage of good people and top performers are always in demand. And Izabella Ivanovici, senior recruitment consultant at Taylor Higson Recruitment, agrees. She reckons that “there is a shortage of staff, in sales and production especially.” She says that “it’s very much a candidate driven market and there are only so many candidates out there.” She notes that there are fewer companies in the market than five years ago, “so in certain areas of the UK a specific print or packaging skill set can be hard to find.”
It’s telling, at least for the recruitment sector, that Neil Edwards, managing director of Pyramid Consultancy, sees buoyancy in the market. This “combined with a continual demand for quality, high calibre employees means that even during economic downturns or general political uncertainty there will always be a need for the best talent... and we have seen little indication of any drop-off.”
The process of recruiting staff
The move towards structured interviews and the inclusion of psychometric testing in recent years has, for Novick, provided a process to support decision making by examining business and cultural fit as well as simple role competency.
She has seen the rise of Skype, Facetime and Google Hangouts lead to more remote interviews being conducted, and at lower cost too: “Where once video conferencing was specialist and limited in availability these technologies are now effectively free and can be useful for initial discussions.”
Edwards has seen the same and says the likes of Skype and other video-call platforms “have benefited us greatly in terms of interviewing candidates as our geographical focus has radiated outwards”.
Taylor Higson, says Ivanovici, uses these new technologies internally and finds them a boon. She explains that the company has taken steps to deliberately build more of an online presence.
But despite the proliferation of technology, little has changed – as Novick says, “fundamentally, decisions are made after a face to face interview.”
The traditional approach
The world of 2019 is radically different from that of just 10 or 15 years ago. While online and social media including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn now have a place in the jobs market, much like advertising they are passive. In Novick’s view, “they are better suited to building and supporting an employer’s brand rather than specifically attracting candidates for a role.” Her reasoning is that typically these systems only attract the people that are actively looking for a move, who in many instances are not necessarily the highest calibre or most qualified individuals.
This is why she advocates a multi-faceted approach that requires careful thought and planning. She says: “Simply using every channel you can think of can be counter-productive, may present mixed messages or, worse, send the wrong message... a company seen to be constantly recruiting online can send out a message of instability.”
Edwards takes an expected position. He says “recruitment consultancies prove the most reliable due to their long-term relationships with candidates.” It’s through these relationships a consultancy will develop an understanding of the individual, their strengths and weaknesses, and therefore suitability for given roles. He warns of the risk of just using in-house recruitment as even “they need to call upon market specialists who have the coverage, contacts and industry knowledge to target the best people.”
Similarly, Novick thinks that for roles which do not require sector specific skills, or indeed nonskilled roles, locally focused recruitment may be most cost effective. Even so, she advises that “when specific skill sets and or knowledge are needed, particularly in roles with skills shortages or very senior roles, specialist recruitment consultants can offer the most effective route, often ensuring the candidate match is better.”
Many industry bosses will have built up networks of their own, but Novick warns against the possible downside: “The print industry is already very incestuous and certainly there are individuals who have worked for every company within a particular sector – just going after the people you know can limit the talent pool.”
The use of recruitment advertising via a channel that delivers a specialist audience (such as, of course, PrintWeek) means that employers can be precise about their messaging and do a bit of brand-building at the same time.
Edwards emphasises that social media isn’t the panacea it claims to be. “With developments in social media there has been an unprecedented growth in ‘visibility’ of potential candidates via sites such as LinkedIn, and while this has undoubtedly been a useful resource for many, it can breed complacency, and even laziness. Individuals will find themselves contacted again and again about the same roles.” For him consultancies are all about networks, referrals and recommendations which “will often unearth better qualified and committed individuals.”
Show more than money
Money has a limited effect; clearly firms paying below market rate will struggle to attract the right talent. But once an employer is paying an acceptable level money ceases to become an effective tool “not least,” as Novick has witnessed, “because if someone is only moving for money, they will be open to counter offers.” Add to this the stark fact “that top performers – the highly desirable – are usually secure in their roles, doing well and are well rewarded.” In this situation she thinks that attracting these people is very much about the role and opportunities, be that training and development or long-term career progression.
An alternative stand is taken by Ivanovici. She considers it key to “understand what the candidate is looking for and discuss all aspects of the role, and not be scared to ask the questions that you wouldn’t necessarily want to ask.” She also says to not procrastinate: “Good candidates are hard to come across. When you find one, don’t drag your feet.”
As an aside, both Ivanovici and Novick believe that there is a gender imbalance in the sector and across roles. Ivanovici sees the divide existing more across the production vacancies. But she also thinks “the industry is going in the right direction and people are not concerned about the gender of a candidate as long as they can and want to do the job.”
Even so, addressing this for the sector is a long-term issue relating to career choices. Theoretically, the industry should be more attractive to women as it has become less about brawn and become more tech driven. Even so, Novick thinks that there is work to be done in terms of changing perceptions – it helps that print is being seen more as part of an overall communications mix and part of marketing.
Edwards sees no male/female divide in print – “this is not something we recognise,” he says.
Verify the candidate
There are no guarantees in life and taking a lead from financial services, past employee performance is no guarantee of future success. Sometimes people who thrive in one environment struggle elsewhere.
Maybe it’s a change in the nature of the role or market expectations and sometimes its cultural or down to management style. Either way, it’s important that employers take references. As Novick says, “pick up the phone – don’t write; you will gain far more information by talking.”
When Ivanovici is checking out a candidate, she looks to make sure that promises made at interview stage are accurate while also checking references on candidates. She adds that Taylor Higson “often asks for colleague or former colleague references... it helps us get a lot more out of than the conventional HR approach.”
But while references are important, some employers can be reluctant to engage fully with them.
Some, as Novick suggests, “are sometimes so enamoured with a candidate they are convinced of their ‘rightness’ and don’t see the point in taking up the reference.” However, in the excitement of finding someone who appears just right it is easy to overlook small faults, which would normally betray larger issues. “In this case if the candidate is as good as you think the reference will only reinforce it; that final check could save you from a costly mistake,” she says.
On the face of it references are doomed; a headhunted candidate will never receive a glowing review from a disgruntled former employer. Further, employers are more and more aware of the law and so written references are becoming ever blander with the general sense that they are not worth the paper they are written on.
But references do still have a role to play in the process believes Novick.
“Rule number one is call. Don’t write for a reference unless you expect and are happy with a standard template that tells you little more than the dates employed, the job title, and absenteeism figures.” She sees the real value in a reference being in verifying information given by the candidate during interview.
Intrinsically it should confirm the honesty of the candidate and can be used to check on things like particular awards won, project involvement and scope of responsibility. For senior candidates you may look for issues during their tenure that may give an indication of the management style.
There will always be concerns over honesty of former employers when it comes to references, but there is enough case law to show that untruths leaves a firm open to claims as two law firms found out in the 2010 case Bullimore v Pothecary Witham Weld Solicitors & Another.
Employers that launch straight into probing questions will find, as Novick knows, that the conversation is likely to be a short one. She says: “It is always wise to start off with simple inoffensive questions such as dates of employment, job title, etc, before moving slowly onto more specific questions. We have a number of clients who are extremely good at this and often get extremely thorough information on candidates.”
Pitfalls to note
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to recruitment. But Ivanovici has seen some firms cut costs by going down the internal recruitment route “which does and doesn’t work depending on the model... and using local agencies rather than specialists doesn’t always pay off.” She makes the point that a client may think that they’re saving money on fees, but if the recruiter is sending them the wrong candidates, it’s wasting their time, which ends up costing more than it has saved.
Edwards concurs and offers a warning about ‘being cheap’: “We have had situations where we have had a candidate shortlisted and the company has decided to go with another, less experienced candidate, purely on them being the cheaper option. This tends to result in the role becoming live again three months down the line as the chosen candidate has proven to be unsuited or not up to the job.”
The sector has been warned.
Getting new blood into print
If print doesn’t attract the young it’s going to suffer long-term as the current workforce ages out.
So how should new blood be brought in?
For Novick, the challenge is to make careers visible to young people – “so many spend so much time online, with a culture of instant celebrity. Only last week a blogger brought Birmingham to a standstill. Many young people are growing up thinking they can make a living as a blogger or ‘Youtuber’. The reality is that very few do, and the bulk will end up in more conventional careers… so the challenge for the print industry is to show the types of career available.”
And the current position could be very appealing to the young. Print isn’t what it used to be – few people today can remember the glories of Fleet Street’s hot metal days. Print is now very technology driven, with a strong digital lead, and it’s highly integrated. As Novick says, “in many respects it not about the print anymore - it’s about what you can achieve with it and this really is exciting and rewarding.”
She firmly believes that print has a real opportunity to introduce print at school level, “not as a by-product of these heavy machines but as an effective communication tool and integral part of our lives… so involvement in print from a young age will open this sector up to possibility for the future.” That said, print isn’t helped by its ubiquity - because it is everywhere it’s easy for people not to really see it.
Ivanovici thinks that getting young people into any market isn’t a trade secret, but the problem for print is that graduate intakes don’t apply to print like they do for IT, retail or finance: “We have a brand called Fresh Recs, which runs graduate intake days across a range of different sectors, but it hasn’t really taken off (yet) in print.” Recruitment fairs are an option, but she thinks that just adding a set number of graduates per year should do the trick. The problem at heart is that there are plenty of graduates wanting jobs, but they just don’t think of print as a career.
It’s a valid point to make sure that engagement and retention are not age-related issues; it’s nothing specific to the young for example. Novick thinks that as we have record low unemployment all sectors of the economy must fight for the best talent they can… and this isn’t limited to specific demographics. This is why she wants better provision of career and personal development opportunities to keep workers fresh and current in terms of skills and knowledge.
Going beyond that, she thinks that workplace culture is important: “I’m not talking about bean bags and ping pong tables but a place that is positive, supportive helping people achieve rather than knocking them down – it may sound obvious but it’s not easy to achieve consistently.”
And Ivanovici echoes this. She tells clients to have in place a combination of visible career progression and regular social integration outside the office with their colleagues. “This doesn’t have to be a gala dinner – it could be something as simple as after work drinks or a meal out. Also, a nice working environment… a breakout area, quiet working spaces/pods, office gyms and flexi time are all nice things to have.”
The message to the sector is clear. It has an ageing workforce and a need to replenish the talent pool. While the younger generations are digitally minded, comfortable and proficient with the technology which surrounds us in the work place, there is knowledge in older workers which should be transferred and retained. But there is another factor to consider reckons Novick: “The young are the future customers and therefore bring insights of emerging and evolving markets.” Ivanovici adds more to the mix – they have “new ideas, energy, drive, ability to think outside the box and all-round infectious energy.”