Why brands must not forget young talent during Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic and fears of recession have pushed the recruitment of graduates and apprentices far down the marketing agenda. But, if brands want to adopt a high-performance mentality they should think twice.

Marketing Academy Foundation training session
A training session for the latest intake of apprentices from The Marketing Academy Foundation.

The Covid-19 crisis is having a huge impact on recruitment. As brands freeze hiring, furlough staff and consider painful redundancies, bringing young people into the business is slipping down the list of priorities.

For the companies that are still considering recruitment, the risks of hiring a graduate or apprentice, compared to a seasoned worker, appear considerably higher. How, for example, do you onboard a junior employee remotely who has little to no work experience?

The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) estimates that 800,000 young people will join the labour market come August. At the same time, government support starts to be phased out for the 8.4 million people currently on furlough in the UK.

The ISE estimates there will be 12% less jobs available overall for those leaving university this year, and up to 32% less for apprentices and school leavers.

“If you’re a young person you’re competing with people who’ve got more experience, who have been in the labour market already, who are looking to switch sector and so it’s a pretty difficult picture for everyone,” explains ISE chief research officer, Tristram Hooley.

“Those companies that are still recruiting are cutting the amount of recruitment they’re doing. If you’re leaving university there will be at least 12% less jobs in marketing than there were last year. In fact, my guess would be there’ll be fewer than that as EMSI data suggests marketing is being quite badly hit by the current situation.”

Labour market modelling data from EMSI shows that ‘marketing associate professionals’ is one of the occupations seeing the biggest decline in job postings, with around 8,000 fewer job adverts than before the crisis.

I want to make sure that any hiring doesn’t go back to Russell Group grads and people from very middle-class backgrounds who tend to populate our industry.

Daryl Fielding, The Marketing Academy Foundation

These stats are backed up by data from recruiter Indeed. Marketing vacancies on its site are down 69% on last year (as of 15 May), compared to a drop of 57% across all job types, meaning marketing jobs have dried up faster. While there has been a 20% uptick in new marketing job postings since 20 April, that still lags behind the 35% increase across all job types.

Hooley recognises that companies will probably consider it more difficult to recruit and induct entry level employees who do not have much, if any, work experience.

“They won’t be recruiting with a long-term mindset. Most firms are only going to be recruiting what they have to and if it’s a ‘have to’, they’ll probably be looking for someone who can step in and start doing that job straight away rather than an entry level person,” he explains.

“That’s a problem because in the long run that cuts off people’s talent pipelines if they’re not careful. Also, it costs you more because if you’re recruiting someone who’s more experienced you’re paying them more than you would if you recruited someone straight out of college who you could pay less, but who in three or six months would be able to do quite a lot.”

While the ISE advocates for the recruitment of young people, Hooley admits at the moment it is hard to be “very optimistic” about the labour market for them.

The role of apprenticeships

The damage being done to junior careers by the Covid-19 pandemic could well dent future demand for apprentices. Apprenticeships are still nascent in marketing, highlighted by the fact Marketing Week’s 2020 Career and Salary Survey found just 0.7% of marketers have studied for an apprenticeship.

Only in December the Institute for Apprenticeships approved two new marketing apprenticeships, taking the provision all the way from Level 3 marketing assistant (equivalent to an A Level qualification) through to Level 7 (equivalent to a Master’s degree).

Why you should consider a marketing apprenticeship

Hooley is curious to see how deep employers’ commitment is to apprenticeships when recession hits. The fact that there are 32% fewer apprenticeships being recruited for, compared to 12% fewer graduate jobs, broadly suggests that companies still prefer graduates over apprentices.

“The only caveat to that is where you find apprentices and where you find graduates in the labour market is a bit different. If you think about a sector like retail where there are a lot of apprentices and fewer graduates, that’s a sector that’s been hit quite hard,” Hooley explains.

“Some of it is to do with the sectors that have been hit hardest, but it does look like this crisis is going to set back the apprenticeship system that everyone’s been trying to grow over the past few years.”

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s (CIM) director of qualifications and partnerships , Maggie Jones, insists that apprenticeships are a critical non-academic route for people seeking to enter the marketing profession, which is “hugely beneficial” to both employees and businesses.

While CIM has not seen a drop in the uptake of marketing apprenticeships, the team did change the end-point assessment date to enable people who were furloughed or had been made redundant to complete their apprenticeships.

“It is impossible to predict what the long-term impact of the crisis is going to be on the marketing sector or the job market more generally. What we do know is that the skills needed to be an effective marketer are changing continually,” says Jones.

“Our recent research has shown that many marketers are falling behind on digital marketing skills. So high quality training is going to continue to be essential and apprenticeships are an important part of the training mix.”

Salary Survey 2020: How to make marketing an aspirational career

The industry may have made great strides in highlighting the value of marketing apprenticeships at all levels, but during a recession companies could be tempted to fall back on traditional recruitment to source talent perceived to be a ‘safer bet’.

This would be a mistake insists Daryl Fielding, CEO of The Marketing Academy Foundation, which helps young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds find routes into marketing via apprenticeships.

“Brands will inevitably prioritise the people who are employed there already. I don’t blame them for that, but what I want to do is to make sure that any hiring doesn’t go back to Russell Group grads and people from very middle-class backgrounds who tend to populate our industry,” says Fielding.

“There will be fewer jobs, which is really disappointing, but my role is to help the people who haven’t got that social capital that comes from a middle-class background succeed in getting the jobs that are out there.”

The Foundation has nine apprentices currently out with brands – two at Amazon, two at Nationwide, two at Birds Eye, one at ad agency Karmarama and two at The Prince’s Trust. The two apprentices at Amazon only joined a fortnight prior to the lockdown, while those at Birds Eye had only spent six weeks in the office before working from home set in.

Living up to your purpose

Nationwide head of member communications, Sarah Howell, insists that as the 16- to- 30-year-old generation will likely be hardest hit by the pandemic it is time for brands to show some solidarity.

“A brand like Nationwide – and hopefully lots of other brands as well – have a huge commitment to this generation. Our strapline is ‘building society’ and if we turned our back on this generation we would be pretty disingenuous to our purpose as a brand and building society,” says Howell.

She insists that the benefits of diversity do not disappear because of a global pandemic and says brands would be wrong to ignore a generation of young people fighting to enter the workplace.

“You’d be cutting off your nose to spite your face if you were going to stop young, creative, vibrant people joining your department to help you evolve your thinking about how you’re going to stand out in the pandemic and particularly how you’re going to stand out to this audience,” Howell adds.

“Yes it’s harder to bring on new people when you’re all working at home, it’s harder to get them inducted into the team, but we’re committed to do that.”

Our strapline is ‘building society’ and if we turned our back on this generation we would be pretty disingenuous.

Sarah Howell, Nationwide

Nationwide has a number of industrial placement students starting in September, as well as graduates. The building society is also keeping on the marketing apprentices it recruited last year for another 12 months in a bid to better “nurture them”.

Howell and her team appreciate everything they learn from the young people who join Nationwide, especially went it comes to thinking differently about the world and how to interact with brands.

“In all the marketing departments I’ve worked in diversity is super important. When we talk about diversity, we forget about age diversity and that is so important to make sure that we’ve got a full understanding of the consumer,” says Howell.

“From Nationwide’s perspective, we’ve traditionally been a brand that’s appealed to an older consumer and so it’s even more important to make sure we have really good, energetic, creative young people coming into our department who challenge our thinking and encourage us to think in a diverse way.”

Last summer, 15 members of the Nationwide marketing team visited a school in central Swindon with a mix of children from diverse backgrounds to teach them about careers in marketing.

The team hosted a workshop with 130 Year 10 pupils, during which the students were asked to identify their target audience and devise a marketing campaign to advertise a new product. The hope is that once the pandemic abates the marketers can get back out to visit a new school, in a bid get young people fired up about marketing.

High-performance mindset

Throughout the lockdown, Fielding has been impressed by the resilience of the apprentices out in the field, who she says have not complained once despite being separated from their teams. The Foundation had a number of new apprenticeships ready to go when the pandemic hit, which are now on pause until there is a wider return to office life.

“We’re not necessarily going to activate those options for people until they’re ready to go to an office at least some part of the week, because that’s quite a big part of the experience we’re offering our young people,” Fielding states.

“However, if this situation where no offices are open continues for a very long time we would obviously reconsider that position, because we want to offer opportunities for people.”

It does look like this crisis is going to set back the apprenticeship system that everyone’s been trying to grow over the last few years.

Tristram Hooley, ISE

Looking ahead, the ISE expects overall recruitment in 2021 to be down. While some employers have taken on young people this year – albeit in smaller numbers – even if there is a fairly quick recovery, entry level recruitment will probably still take a hit.

With this in mind, Fielding urges employers to start from the perspective that diversity is a good thing, which makes maintaining a strong pipeline of diverse young talent a business imperative.

“There’s a real risk in positioning the acquisition of diverse talent as a compassion project. It isn’t, it’s a high-performance project,” she states.

“If you start from the point that diverse talent is higher performing, it’s not about fairness and compassion, it’s actually about performance – where’s the argument for not doing it?”

While the pandemic has taken a severe toll on businesses and recession looms, it is incumbent on brands not to forget the strides that have been made towards bringing greater diversity of thought into marketing and understand that diverse talent will help bring them out of this crisis.

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