Home Secretary Jack Straw is to pump &£4m into a national recruitment campaign in an attempt to reverse an embarrassing fall in police numbers. But Straw’s problem is just the tip of the iceberg. Every public service – from the NHS to the education system – is facing a recruitment crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Traditional appeals to a sense of duty and public service, which have been the staple of recruitment campaigns since the days of Lord Kitchener, are increasingly falling on deaf ears.
An erosion of respect for traditional authority figures and endless press stories of low morale – and even lower wages – are scaring prospective employees away. So the Government is turning to advertising, which has always been the key element in any recruitment drive, to improve the situation. But can it deliver the goods?
Saatchi & Saatchi’s award-winning “Be The Best” campaign for the Army showed that good, carefully thought-out advertising can change perceptions of a career and boost recruitment.
The campaign, which emphasised the sense of personal achievement and job satisfaction in serving your country, boosted the number of recruits over four years from 8,700 in 1993-94 to 15,700 in 1998-1999.
But advertising aimed at creating a good feeling about a profession can only do so much, particularly when the profession faces tough competition from other, better-paid career options.
The Teacher Training Agency’s (TTA) “no-one forgets a good teacher” campaign, devised by Delaney Lund Knox Warren, highlighted the sense of personal fulfilment to be derived from the opportunity to “make a difference” in the classroom. One execution featured Tony Blair, John Cleese and other celebrities talking about how they were inspired by a particular teacher.
The campaign succeeded in boosting response levels by 200 per cent. But conversion rates – the number of people actually going on to start training courses – fell by 26 per cent over a four-year period, forcing the agency into a radical rethink.
The TTA’s new &£6m campaign, unveiled this week, focuses on teaching as a rational career option, rather than an emotional, life-enhancing experience.
As the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, the TTA needs to sign up 30,000 new personnel a year. It sees itself as being in direct competition with accountancy, banking and management for top quality graduates – even though it cannot offer similar salary levels.
TTA chief executive Ralph Tabberer says: “In a buoyant economy, we cannot take recruitment for granted. We have realised that advertising is not enough on its own.
“We must target the most promising candidates and make it easier for them to go from the first response to the classroom. We need to be able to compete with the best graduate recruiters.”
Overcoming bad press
Tabberer accepts that teaching is always going to have an image problem in some sections of the press, with teachers being blamed for everything from poor literacy to falling moral standards.
Yet he emphasises the positive changes, such as performance-related pay and fast-track career structures, which have been introduced to make teaching a more attractive career option.
The TTA will continue to run morale-boosting, inspirational advertising through its new agency McCann-Erickson. But it will also highlight the &£6,000 training pay which is now available to aspiring teachers and the “golden hello” payments for graduates signing on for maths, science, technology and modern foreign languages courses.
The TTA has also invested heavily in customer-related marketing, to identify and track the most promising respondents and make sure they don’t slip through the net. The agency has recruited its first marketing director, Anna Campopiano, to oversee this drive. She says: “Only five per cent of graduates want to be teachers and we need to make sure it is as easy as possible for them to get into the classroom. We need to remove every possible barrier to entry.
“Another 45 per cent are prepared to think about teaching. We need to engage them in a dialogue and find out their needs.”
Greg Delaney, chief executive of Delaney Lund, which lost the account to McCann in a recent pitch, still believes the TTA should be wary of competing head-on with better-paid professions. “You have got to appeal to idealism. You cannot say it is a profession just like any other, because it isn’t.
“Teaching can never compete with banking when it comes to salary, but in terms of job satisfaction – that feeling you get when a light goes on in a child’s eyes, as one person described it in research – it can’t be beaten.”
But even more embarrassing for the Government than the shortfall in teachers is the shortage of police officers.
The Home Secretary has made much of his plan to put “more bobbies on the beat” but the number of police officers has dropped by more than 2,500 from 128,290 since 1993, and is still falling at the same rate as under the previous administration.
Chairman of the Police Federation Fred Broughton this week called for a Royal Commission on the crisis in policing and the new chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality Gurbux Singh called for more police officers to be recruited from ethnic minorities.
The Government is trying to address the problem by spending &£4m on the first national recruitment campaign for the police. It has shortlisted Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, J Walter Thompson, BMP DDB and M&C Saatchi for the task.
Previously, recruitment was left to individual local police forces, but this has failed to address the alarming decline in numbers.
Pay and conditions have been improved in recent years yet, according to one agency figure involved in the pitch, it would be unwise to depart from the altruistic approach. “There is a small minority of people who feel they would like to make a difference in society and these are the people you have to target.
“You cannot appeal to everybody because most people see the police and teachers as being underpaid and undervalued by society.
“There has been a big problem with morale and status in recent years and I think you have to address that. It is no good waving cheques at people because that means they will be entering the profession for the wrong reasons. That could lead to low morale and a high drop-out rate further down the line.”
The NHS has perhaps the biggest recruitment problem of all, despite the fact that nurses enjoy a better press, and a better reputation, than all the other services put together. There are more than 15,000 vacancies for nurses and many hospitals are being forced to look abroad for recruits.
Saatchi & Saatchi’s recruitment campaign last year took the controversial step of focusing on wages in an effort to reverse the image of the profession as being poorly-paid.
But the campaign backfired spectacularly, when it was found to have bent the truth about how much pay the average nurse actually takes home. The ad claimed average, full-time nurses earn more than &£20,000 a year. But the Independent Television Commission (ITC) forced Saatchi to amend the copy because the figure included bonuses and allowances and was not a basic salary.
The ad provoked fury within the profession because many nurses are never likely to achieve this level of pay. It was particularly galling for the 30 per cent of nurses who work part-time on a fraction of that sum.
A spokesman for the Royal College of Nursing says: “A lot of nurses were angry and upset by this campaign. We passed on more than 150 complaints to the ITC. Nurses want people to have a realistic idea of what their job is and what their wages are.
“We have had two years of above-inflation wage rises but nurses are still at only 85 per cent of average earnings. It is still not a particularly well-paid job. People go into nursing for many reasons, but it is rarely the money.”
The Saatchi campaign did stimulate interest, however, bringing in more than 40,000 calls to the NHS careers hotline and boosting the number of students enrolling on nursing courses by 24 per cent.
Despite the response, Saatchi lost the &£5m campaign to D’Arcy in February.
The real problem in nursing, as with many vocational careers, is staff retention. The drop-out rate is high and although advertising can play a part in making nurses feel good about the job, it can also fuel unrealistic expectations about what the job can deliver.
A different approach
Voluntary Services Overseas’ (VSO) first national recruitment campaign, which launched last week through Court Burkitt, takes a more hard-hitting, but humorous, approach to recruitment.
Copylines such as “Business advisors wanted; company bicycle included” play on the financial limitations of working for the VSO and some of the more uncomfortable aspects of life in developing countries.
Yet, according to VSO director of communications Matthew Bell, the organisation can afford not to take itself too seriously. “We haven’t got the money or resources to filter thousands of applicants so we have to be more straight-talking. We are trying to tell people what the deal is.”
It is difficult to underestimate the scale of the problem facing society if the public services we rely on fail to solve their recruitment problems.
Advertising agencies may relish the challenge of devising clever, high-profile campaigns for the police, NHS and teaching. But it would be unwise for any of these services to rely on advertising alone to convince young people to sign up.
The flexible labour market – so assiduously promoted by current and previous governments – has also made the lure of a job for life seem less attractive, removing one of the traditional reasons for going into public service.
The attraction of better-paid jobs and genuine problems with low morale and status will need to be properly addressed by the Government before advertising can truly hit home.