OPINION6 October 2011

Facing up to the industry skills gap


A flooded job market doesn’t necessarily make life easy for research recruiters. Jessica Bower of Sundance London looks at what employers can do to make sure they find the right people and how candidates can show their best side.

While thousands of well-qualified graduates are failing to find work, market research agencies still struggle to find the right people to fill posts. Many recruitment consultants report that they are seeing very few strong candidates with two to four years’ experience.

We all know there has been a slowdown in graduate recruitment and training since 2008, but it seems there may be more to the problem. Are candidates failing to present themselves correctly? And are employers looking in the right places?

What candidates need to understand

Given the intense competition for positions lower down the ladder, candidates need to hone their presentation skills. It’s all about showing that your skills and experiences are relevant to the vacancy – whether that’s a technical specialism or a more commercial role. A candidate must really understand their prospective employer’s business – size, type of clients, scope of work, areas of expertise – to get an idea of their needs. Above all, a candidate should present relevant examples of how they would benefit the business. The particular skills and experience to highlight will be different for different jobs, but the good news for candidates is that many characteristics appear on most agencies’ recruitment wish lists.

Agencies exist for and because of their clients. Candidates who understand this will know that agencies want people who see things from the client’s perspective

The first clue is in the nature of agencies – they exist for and because of their clients. Candidates who understand this will know that agencies want people who see things from the client’s perspective – who understand that a client always wants to know ‘so what?’ Research agencies are service businesses and candidates need to bear in mind that the experience of the client with the agency is every bit as important as that of the consumers whose experience is being tracked. A personal example of active client service from a candidate – particularly if it involves problem-solving – can be a real winner.

Secondly, a faster-moving, increasingly pressured business environment means agencies need to respond faster and better than ever. Candidates will need to show that they can be flexible and adapt quickly to the needs of their prospective employer. Speed of response goes without saying – any candidate looking to work in an agency with international scope will soon understand that the UK working day means little when there are deadlines to be met in Shanghai, San Francisco or São Paulo. Most agencies work across a wide range of sectors and client businesses, so candidates who show they can quickly skill up and familiarise themselves with new issues are at an advantage.

Why agencies need to widen the net

Many agencies have traditionally emphasised academic excellence, and at graduate level this is still highly valued as an indicator of the ability to cope with large volumes of diverse data. But candidates with less conventional academic backgrounds can also make their mark, particularly if they have strong commercial experience or specific technical skills. Research agencies should be aware that experience, aptitude and above alla point of view – on the world, on the work, on the industry – can be more important in signalling the potential to get to grips with agency life. Internships on a CV can often indicate determination and energy on the part of a candidate.

We also need to look at where our candidates come from. While more university-level courses are including market research modules, do these really showcase the industry in the best way? And do graduates with less specific experience understand how it could be relevant to the industry? A small international qual agency recently hosted an intern studying classics, who was pleasantly surprised to find how much her subject helped her understand the modern cultural context for brands.

It may be time for more agencies to grasp the nettle and look to the large number of graduates entering a very tough job market. Here the challenge lies in attracting the best. As ever, research suffers from its relatively low profile in the marketing industry as a whole. The good news in Research’s recent graduate round table was that at least two of the six graduates actively sought out a career in market research – ten years ago that number would probably have been zero. So although the industry is still not an active career choice for most, the fact that research underpins almost every business decision, and the increasing presence of insight in the boardroom, is a compelling sign of its potential as a career.

Training – a shared responsibility

Large and medium-sized agencies have been training fewer junior staff than in the past. In Research’s round table, for example, SPA Future Thinking’s Charley Warwick described being the “first graduate back in after the recession”. Many smaller agencies, used to receiving a supply of employees trained by larger companies, are finding the new landscape difficult to adjust to.

“To truly address a skills gap we need to not only attract new candidates but work to develop their skills. Being thrown in at the deep end can be a very positive experience”

To truly address a skills gap, however, we need to not only attract new candidates but work to develop their skills. Being thrown in at the deep end can be a very positive experience – and it’s an experience typically associated with smaller agencies. But the opportunity for less experienced researchers to get frontline experience also demands openness from clients to working with more junior people, rather than demanding only senior-level contact.

More structured training and employee development also remain vital for progress. Industry-focused courses can help build technical skills, while mentoring and training plans – often a real weakness in smaller businesses – can address learning gaps for junior and senior researchers alike. And with new graduates often more digitally savvy than experienced researchers, knowledge and skills are likely to flow in more than one direction.

The current skills shortage may have its origins in a recruitment slowdown by larger agencies. But it is now the responsibility of every agency, and the industry at large, to ensure we have the skills required to maintain the contribution and role of market research in society and the economy.