· 3 min read · Features

Up-skill your way out of the recession

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When a recession bites, employers are faced with two choices: cut costs wherever possible, or spend their way out. This may be an oversimplification but these distinct trends are being witnessed across markets as businesses look to identify new strategies that respond to an unfamiliar commercial landscape.

In the last recession many employers took the cautious route. Following excessive cutbacks, some market research suppliers struggled when slimmed-down operations were found to lack the necessary skills to meet the post-recession boom. This time around, we are seeing a very different attitude. Graduate recruitment levels have remained consistent with pre-recession levels while The Market Research Society's (MRS) annual survey of the UK research industry reported that total industry revenue increased by more than 6% during 2008. Growth on this scale points to a sector that is weathering the storm well; suppliers are continuing to invest in their business and users are continuing to spend. However, it is expected that 2009 will be a tougher year for the research sector as clients' businesses continue to cut spend.  

Against this backdrop, we are seeing a new approach to investing in people. Applications to sit examinations for the MRS qualifications are at their highest ever level, as individuals take the opportunity to strengthen their appeal to current and potential employers. Numbers sitting for the MRS Advanced Certificate, the core graduate training qualification, have reached record levels, as those looking to enter a tough jobs market see the relative buoyancy within the marketing services sector.

Large suppliers that outsource their research services or use overseas offices and subsidiaries to deliver projects across many countries need to be sure they are using people with comparable knowledge and skills. Qualifications are vital to this process as they enable benchmarking of staff but this approach also gives employers greater flexibility as they can draw on global staff resources and deploy them in areas of the business where there is the demand. Businesses are also investing in up-skilling as a result of the culling of senior management jobs and the desire to train junior staff to step into experienced roles. As businesses rationalise across the board, the need arises for people to expand their capabilities into new areas.

Concern about future job security brings about a desire in employees to improve themselves.  In the good times, most of the training enquiries we receive come from the under-35s, as part of the standard professional development process. In the current climate, training becomes far more widespread; experienced researchers may be looking to step into independent consultancy roles, requiring refresher courses in business development and strategy or branching out into new research areas such as online. Mid-level managers see the need to build their CVs with ‘official' core skills development - but this is by no means purely employee-driven: 90% of MRS training courses are bought by employers. Companies want to keep ahead of the curve by ensuring they have the strongest team to respond to new business opportunities.

For HR managers tasked with identifying training solutions that strengthen the company offer at minimal cost, there are many options. MRS, like other professional industry bodies, has evolved its training offer in line with the changing business scene. Companies can opt for in-house bespoke training, which maximises effectiveness with no travel or accommodation costs.  Online training is also a popular option, particularly among individuals who want to enhance their skillset outside work hours. The key is to make smart purchasing decisions - to spend on the training and qualifications that will set you apart from your competitors when the business starts to flow again.

Debrah Harding is deputy director general, MRS


The HR view

Jason Flynn is associate director at GfK NOP's training and development division.  He comments: "During times like this, our people need very different skills sets. We are investing more in business development and consultancy training - there's no doubt our clients want to see more added-value when their budgets are squeezed.
"We hired more graduates last year than we have done for several years previously - we need to have a qualified, competent staff in place ready for when we emerge from the recession. We work with the MRS to take all our graduates through the Advanced Certificate programme - it gives them a crucial grounding in all aspects of market research.
"It is a mistake to think that a recession makes it easier to recruit. There is always demand for the best people and we need to distinguish ourselves as an employer of choice. Investing in training and qualifications shows that we're serious about our people's careers and that we're always looking for ways to keep ahead."