Recruitment in the exhibition industry has seen little activity over the last 12 months. As the country slipped further into recession, so organisers reduced their headcounts and canned any recruitment plans. Bill Pretty, director of Dragonfly, describes the year as brutal. “Business just fell off the cliff. It’s been pretty grim,” he says.
His experience is shared by other recruitment agencies in the sector. Liz Sinclair, director of ESP, says the situation can be likened to the six months following 9/11, only this time it’s “definitely much worse”.
The job losses, they say, have generally been felt across the board, but those in senior positions have been particularly hard hit as organisers seek to restructure. To fill their place, organisers are hiring temporary staff, says Paul Farrer, chairman of PFJ. “We’re seeing a slowdown in permanent recruitment, but the temporary and contract side is holding up well. The big advantage is that organisers can let them go without any notice.”
But what’s happening to those who are losing jobs? It’s a pretty mixed bag. Many of those from senior roles are opting for more junior positions, but even these are difficult to secure, as employees fear they will leave to return to more lucrative jobs that befit their experience once the market picks up. But, it’s been an exciting time for other senior staff, says Farrer. “People who may have been operational directors have taken the package and left an organisation to launch events of their own. There’s been a lot of entrepreneurial activity.”
And Sinclair says others are exploring opportunities in emerging markets to find fulfilling employment. As a mature market, most of the jobs in the UK are ‘babysitting’ existing portfolios, she says. “It can be tough for senior exhibition organisers to find exciting roles. That’s why people are moving overseas to find exciting content.”
Some exhibition staff are setting up as consultants, with a degree of success, while others are leaving the sector altogether and going wherever they can find a job.One role that’s still in demand is sales, says Mel Agostini, director of Red Recruitment. “Good sales people are still incredibly hard to find. There are people on the market, but they are not necessarily the people you want to recruit.”
Dan Layton, a consultant with agency Eligo, agrees. “Really good sales people are being looked after and nurtured in their jobs. They are essential members of the team and so the best ones still have jobs.”
But not everyone feels so appreciated at work. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s quarterly Employee Outlook survey of more than 2,000 employees throughout the UK, finds a fall in job satisfaction. This has been accompanied by an increase in the proportion of people reporting they are under excessive pressure at work, either every day or once or twice a week, to 42 per cent from 38 per cent six months ago. Employees are also more likely to say that they have seen increases in stress and conflict at work, as well as bullying by line managers as a result of the recession.
"Graduate recruitment needs to be addressed because these people will be running the industry in the next 10 years."
The exhibition industry is no exception. Many of those who have held on to their jobs have suffered during the recession. They’ve seen their colleagues made redundant and their own roles change as they take on more tasks, work longer hours and in most cases, for no extra money and, in some, for less. And fewer jobs means less opportunities for career progression, which also adds to feelings of discontent.
“Many people are sitting in jobs they dislike because it’s better than having no job at all. They’re scared to move because they are worried about being the last one in and the first one out,” says Pretty.
So, how does all this affect the quality of the talent pool available in the market? Not very favourably, says Pretty. “Organisers think there are loads of good candidates out there, but actually the quality is not particularly good. The good ones have been snapped up pretty quickly.”
There are, of course, more candidates than jobs, which means it’s currently an employer-led market. And this means that organisers are placing greater demands on the recruitment agencies. Pretty says organisers have firm ideas of the quality of the candidate they want and the fee they are prepared to pay for finding that candidate. Paul Farrer from PFJ agrees. “In the boom that we had up until last autumn, it’s reasonable to say that all some people needed to get a job was a pulse. The benchmark has risen.”
Organisers are prepared to hold out for better candidates. And that, says Eligo’s Dan Layton, is the biggest change that he’s seen in recruitment this year. “They are looking for the ideal candidate, the person who ticks all the boxes. If you are an organiser of a property exhibition, you can hold out for someone with both an exhibition and property background,” he says.
Although, Red Recruitment’s Mel Agostini has found that organisers are more concerned with driving down prices. “Their main motivation is to get a deal, rather than the best person for the job. Organisers want the cheapest candidate and the longest rebate period.”
The agencies say they have been working with organisers during the difficult times by negotiating rates and introducing other services like psychometric testing. But the main problem is that many organisers have recruitment freezes in place and can’t take on new staff anyway.
One issue that concerns the recruitment consultants is the lack of new talent entering the exhibition market. Although it may have kept hold of the very best talent, the industry is not attracting fresh blood to the sector, which will have repercussions in the future. Layton says the tough economic climate has put pressure on organisers to deliver results at every level. And this means that they don’t want to take risks with graduates, instead they are choosing to take the safe option of recruiting people with experience who can hit the ground running. “The chances just aren’t there for graduates and the issue needs to be addressed because these people will be running the industry in the next 10 years,” he says.
And now’s the perfect time for organisers to stock up on talented graduates, says Farrer. “This is the first time in 10 years that you’ll be able to get bright, entrepreneurial graduates who have not been blinded by the square mile, because the big law and accountancy firms have reduced their graduate recruitment.”
"Organisers think there are loads of good candidates out there, but actually the quality is not particularly good."
After a tough year, most of the agencies say, albeit cautiously, that things are starting to look more promising with more jobs coming on-stream. Looking at his job sheet, Farrer says he has seen a 30 per cent increase in new permanent jobs over the last three months. There’s also been a 25 per cent rise in people in jobs looking for new roles. From November until June this year, the majority of those seeking employment were out of work, now they represent just half of candidates, says Farrer.
Agostini has also noticed a difference over the last four months. “I’ve had more meaningful conversations with clients and they’ve been more open to taking advice.”
But, we haven’t quite turned the corner yet and until we do, recruiters warn that organisers must ensure they support the employees they have retained to prevent a mass exodus when the market does return to full health.