The recruitment mistake agency heads will make in 2012

There are too many young people chasing too few job vacancies in the UK.  It’s been that way for a few years, but youth unemployment is currently running at its highest rate since comparable records began almost 20 years ago, with more than one million 16 to 24 year olds out of work in the UK.

For any business with vacancies to fill this is, quite simply, a buyers’ market.  And while, broadly speaking, this can be a good thing, like so many things in life it doesn’t take much to make a mess of a golden opportunity.

A few weeks ago I met with one of the UK’s more successful and respected PR practitioners (no names, after all I didn’t ask their permission to refer to them in public).  Our conversation turned to the issue of attracting and retaining new people into the PR sector.

My companion expressed the belief that PR agencies should be restricting their recruitment to graduates from top universities, and only those with good degrees in solid academic subjects, and who have impressive A level results too.

Buyer’s market, you see.  Why bother hiring kids who don’t have degrees, or who have degrees in flaky subjects from tier-two institutions, when there are Oxbridge graduates desperate for work too?

Why?

Well, because intelligence and ability come in all shapes and sizes for one thing.

Not to mention that we’ve probably all met someone with a first class degree from Oxford or Cambridge who also happened, bizarrely, to be catastrophically stupid and lacking in any sense of instinctive intelligence.

Why else?

PR agencies, in the main, have teams.  The best teams are made up of people with different outlooks, backgrounds and skills.  The points of conflict, debate and interaction in such teams don’t just keep everyone on their toes but can lead to excellent results, well-structured campaigns and a more interesting working environment.

But what about the impact on the agencies who decide to fill their ranks with as many Oxbridge graduates as they can?  Surely this is a canny move on their part.  Cheap excellent new hires who, a few years ago, would probably not have considered working in PR.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if this is how your agency has generally recruited then chances are nothing will go wrong.  Nothing that hasn’t already, anyway.

But if you are about to turn your back on the way you have traditionally recruited then you might want to ask yourself how you got to where you are now without such shining stars.  Where will it lead you?  What will your agency look like in a few years?  Will you have a shiny new company culture (mono-culture even) based on the über achievers club?  Is that what you always hoped for? When the market picks up, how will you stop the recently-arrived high-achievers from leaving?

What of the AEs and SAEs currently in the PR sector with degrees from universities like Bournemouth, or no degree at all?  In this brave new world they wouldn’t have stood a chance.  But they can’t be all that bad, surely?

I have a problem (actually it’s more of a chip on my shoulder) about this narcissistic outlook that says you should only hire “the best” now they are available.  There are bigger forces in play, frankly.

One of them is the mess the current government is making of higher education.  By stifling university funding and allowing institutions a free hand to increase their fees, the government has to all intents and purposes made going to study for a degree considerably more expensive at the stroke of a ministerial pen.

Fees of £9,000 per year at a time when (see above) youth unemployment rates are disgustingly high, is making some of the brightest and best turn their backs on university education.  And who the hell can blame them?  The prospect of graduating with £30,000+ debts and a dearth of job opportunities must be very dispiriting to say the least.

Going to university is a good thing.  Of course it is.  But it’s not right for everyone and it’s not always the right option.  Even while there many students simply don’t make the most of it.  It’s an experience that should broaden your mind, not just your book collection.

There are young people who could, quite easily, do fabulously well at any one of the UK’s top universities choosing not to bother at all.  Should we rule them out?  What do we value most – their potential or their pieces of paper?

Whichever way I look at it, I cannot help but think that the idea of only hiring Oxbridge graduates and eschewing all other candidates is a very bad idea indeed.  The kind that will eventually come back to bite you in the arse.  Well, here’s hoping.