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Printing Week

Recruiting a person with the right skills, qualifications, personality and aptitude can be a difficult process. And with a shortage in key skills, has the industry been too blinkered when looking at potential candidates? Caroline Horn reports

Selecting the right person to fill a job is no simple task. Finding someone with the right qualifications or experience is only half of it -- they also need certain skills to make their knowledge useful. A careful interview and selection process to identify these skills can be the difference between a rare gem and a personnel disaster.

With both recruitment agencies and print companies bemoaning the fact that good sales and production staff are so hard to come by, is it possible they have been going about recruitment the wrong way?

As it stands, printing companies are hungry for sales staff who have extensive contacts, along with an impressive sales record. The only place they will find such a person is from another printers. Hence the fierce competition for salespeople and the skyward spiral of their salaries.

Jack Deller of Jack Deller Associates says that the requirement for skilled recruits is essentially limited to one issue. "In sales, all they want to know is can they bring £500,000 with them? It's tough. Everyone is bringing in new 1.5m presses, and they are hungry machines that need 12,000 sheets an hour for 24 hours a day." As a result, he says, salaries "are getting silly. We advertisement for a £70,000 salesman recently and didn't get a single reply. Perhaps people thought the client would be very demanding."

David Jones, a partner at Harrison Scott Associates, agrees that, in sales, it is not track record but turnover that counts. "Every company is not looking for a type of person, but how much turnover they can bring in. When they ask for a sales director, they may be looking for someone to direct a team, or a managing director might be looking for a right-hand man," says Jones. "Or they may simply want someone to bring in stacks of business."

What makes salespeople so special? Simply, it is the skills they use to sell their company's products and services: negotiation and mediation, communicating technical complexities to those with rudimentary printing knowledge, understanding what the client's needs are, and finally the management skills to co-ordinate a client's demands with production limitations.

What skills do you actually need?

So why don't printing companies look for people with these skills? If they did so, it might result in them recruiting outside the tight printing circle they are currently stuck in. One recruitment consultant provides a clue: "When a printing company wants a new production manager, they ring me up and ask me to find them a person who can handle the kit they have. Quite frankly, the only people who go on about skills are 'human resource' types."

This is quite a different attitude from recruitment consultants in engineering sectors. These agencies often request a "skills list" from job applicants. The focus is on what skills a candidate has, and how they have applied them before, rather than print's ubiquitous "how much money can they bring in?"

So how do recruitment companies find the right person? According to Steve Hayden a managing consultant at Print Selection, much of the job involves head-hunting. "But apart from that, we rely on word of mouth and trade publications."

Selecting the right person from a number of possibles is a fairly methodical process. "A company has a list of things they would like a person to be. Naturally, not everybody gets a tick beside each of these things. We have to find the ones that fit the bill the best," explains Steven Treharne-Jones, managing director of Artisan Consulting.

Hayden insists that every position is different and must be treated as such."However, the ability to do the job well, have good personal chemistry and fit into the company culture is always a winning formula." Treharne-Jones cites enthusiasm as a quality that can inspire companies to create positions for a person who is "wrong for the job they applied for, but right for the company."

Staffing changes have been afoot in the print sales area. Companies have shifted attention towards supporting roles for their sales teams, says Treharne-Jones.

"For the last two or three years, we have seen a shift towards what you could call the customer services roles. Companies have started to realise that they need these as well as salespeople and they are tending to put more of a structure into that side of things. Salespeople now open the door and then move on." The demands on sales staff, as a result, have never been higher, he adds. "Companies seem to have cottoned on to the fact that some salespeople live off their past successes and do not do the new work. With company service type positions in place, and other people doing more of the day-to-day account management, the salesperson is expected to go out and sell."

The type of person companies are recruiting for customer services may, he adds, have print education backgrounds." They are generally young people in their mid 20s, perhaps with one job from the high street print environment under their belts, who are moving into big £10m turnover commercial printers. Others have little print experience but good customer services backgrounds."

It is one of the few areas in the print industry where a background in print is not the first requirement, although Treharne-Jones adds: "Qualifications at this stage are considered. Lots of these people have a form of qualification, perhaps a C&G in print and production. People with a few qualifications on their CV and a bright personality: those are the types who get these jobs, and who can very easily get up to £20,000. We see people and think, yup, they're right."

Personality goes a long way

These roles also tend to be the stepping-stones into sales positions or management roles. "Of the people we appointed three or four years ago, one of the guys is now customer services manager, and a number of the others have moved into sales. The people who rise to the top are the ones with a bright personality," says Treharne-Jones. "We place more people in jobs like that than in sales."

Hayden feels that it is up to the company to make that final selection decision: "We can evaluate someone's skills, but their personality, how they behave under pressure etc, can only be judged by the company once they meet the candidate."

"Harrison Scott Associates have devised our own selection procedure, to help to relieve some of that pressure," adds David Jones, a partner in the company. With their scheme, called Veriqual ®, he says: "We speak to people who have dealt with the candidate, ie print buyers and design agencies who have worked with them. That gives us good background information on the candidates."

Hayden says that his company works through very specific briefs. "We have to have a clear picture of what the client wants and the culture or profile of the organisation." Print Selection, like many other agencies, tends to deal more with graduates and mid-level management than the shop floor personnel.

Most recruitment companies tend to deal with sales and customer service type roles, where personality and how someone comes across matter, as against machine minders where the criteria is knowledge of a particular type of press. Where they do deal with these roles, Treharne-Jones says: "We just have a checklist of what they have worked on before. If someone matches, he is as good as through the door."

Given the pressure on turnover, very few companies are prepared to bring in candidates with a view to training them. "Companies have spent money on kit and are reluctant to have to train people as well," says Deller. They are also reluctant to bring in people straight from college.

The fact remains that the print industry has a skills shortage in certain sectors, and current recruiting conditions just seem to be exacerbating the problem. If companies concentrate more on recruiting bright, enthusiastic people with good interpersonal skills and then training them, some of the pressure will be relieved. But is this an investment that the print industry is willing to make?

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