The Press, August 2011

Is there hope for any business fighting the ‘talent war’ when the Defence Force are having to spend up large on recruitment advertising? After all they are the ones with guns, tanks and uniforms, but still find it hard to get youngsters on board.

While there are large numbers of people, especially youth, unemployed in our country, there is plenty of evidence of a shortage of people with specific skills. In those sectors, such as information technology, there is a battle to attract and retain the most talented workers.

According to media reports, the New Zealand Defence Force (our army, navy and air force), are spending around $15 million over the next three years on advertising to enlist new recruits. Advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi are putting a mix of websites, advertising and events to lure new blood into our armed forces.

Compared to the industry I am involved with, technology, this is a pretty aggressive effort. Technology firms, like too many successful Kiwi exporters, tend to keep their heads down and focus on selling to offshore customers. Having any sort of reputation at home is seen as a distraction.

But being “world famous” in New Zealand is actually very important. Like the way they choose sneakers or soft drinks, young people considering employment are attracted to brands they like. In terms of the companies they seek to work for, they want to align with a brand they find attractive.

Past generations have been much focussed on pay and security, whereas the newer ones are smarter about career advancement and the skills they gain on a job. If the best engineers or technicians coming out of our tertiary institutions haven’t heard of you, why would they risk an expensive education on your company?

In a recent study conducted amongst job seekers by recruitment company Randstad to find the top 20 most attractive companies in New Zealand, IT company and Telecom subsidiary Gen-i was the only tech firm represented (Air NZ, APN and ASB were the top three).

In my experience tech firms are great places to work. You are likely to be working on products or services that are highly innovative, being sold all over the world, the pay is well above the average, and you are likely to get free pizza and the odd foosball table thrown in.

But how do you build a brand that attracts the young job seekers?

It is just like any normal promotional campaign. First, you need to clearly identify the target audience; second, clearly articulate your unique promise of value to those people; and third, implement a planned and measured set of activities to convey the message to the audience.

Multi-million dollar Saatchi campaigns aren’t necessarily required. It’s possible to target job seekers using a range of online tools (websites, online advertising or social media like Facebook and Twitter), as well as building your reputation through local publicity or pursuing industry awards.

Tech exporters often tend to see these things as wasted effort when they should be pouring everything into their export focus, but a good local ‘brand’ can make a huge difference not only in recruitment, but in other areas like attracting government support or venture capital.

An underappreciated target for building your employment brand is the parents of those teenagers currently considering tertiary education, or finishing their degrees and entering the big wide world. They often have a huge influence on their kids’ choices.

Running a few open days at your workplace, or working directly with your local high schools or tertiary institutes can make a major difference. Industry bodies, and some companies, are too quick to opt for the flashy, expensive but easy advertising campaigns than do the hard graft of engaging with their community.

And we need to do it, unless we want to end up with too many divas and dreamers. A fascinating 2009 study published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, compared kids career goals today against 25 years ago.

Dreams of being teachers, financiers, doctors or scientists dominated children’s aspirations in the 1980s. Today they listed being sports stars, pop stars, actors or astronauts as their preferred career gaols. Lawyer was the highest ‘real’ profession listed, although some would debate that classification.

Business people have a role to try and change this view, to make careers in business, as technologists or sales people or managers, attractive options. They are great careers, and are critical to the future of the New Zealand economy.

Don’t be a wallflower, ring up your local paper and tell them about the clever stuff you have been doing. Visit the local high school or tertiary training institute and get a couple of keen kids in for work experience, get yourself online and connect with the Facebook generation.

After all the Defence Force, with all its glamour and excitement, recognises the need to reach out and build a brand amongst its target recruits. Other sectors must adopt the same approach, and save our kids from spending all day dreaming about becoming reality TV stars.

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