Michael Gledhill: Events industry must win its own talent contest

WHILE Yorkshire's events and conferencing sector has the potential to contribute greatly to the regional economy during the faltering recovery, the widening national staff shortages and skills gap across all industries and some individual market forces, present serious barriers to growth.

Bowcliffe Hall, Bramham.

Ostensibly, the industry is robust here. Yorkshire’s central UK location is blessed with excellent transport connections that bring delegates in from distant regions and abroad, while its high population density drives a healthy “domestic market”.

It also boasts a remarkable range of landmark venues for events of every description across spectacularly diverse urban and rural landscapes. These include city centre arenas, purpose-built convention centres and remarkably beautiful country houses and historic locations – and business is good.

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However, recent research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) supports anecdotal evidence from most businesses that, when hiring qualified, experienced staff, demand often outstrips supply.

The latest findings by UKCES highlight that one in five vacancies is difficult to fill because of a shortage of skills, compared to one in six in 2011.

Employers no longer simply compete with each other for business, but for a dwindling human resource. People are ever more aware of their own marketability – and never better placed to switch employer swiftly if unhappy.

Like all sectors, the events and conferencing businesses must have absolutely top-notch players – experienced, educated, “people people” who are personable, possess excellent communication skills and are smart, driven and ambitious.

Quite apart from the obvious front-of-house operators and traditional waiting, kitchen and bar staff, people are needed in logistics; marketing and sales; social media; rigging, lighting, sound and stage setting; accountancy; IT and technology to name but a few.

Everyone from electricians and engineers to finance officers are in demand – as are diverse aptitudes and qualifications, including languages, HGV/LGV licences and medical or emergency training.

Events and conferencing must therefore attract these able staff by mapping out worthwhile, fulfilling and well-paid careers.

The problem is that most people arrive at conferencing and events via the hospitality sector which is generally seen as a low paid grind, with anti-social hours and poor career prospects.

As such, the industry needs to reduce its reliance on this pipeline and promote itself as a destination of choice. This entails making people of all ages with skills and potential – particularly school pupils and university students – aware of the plethora of challenging and rewarding career opportunities regionally, nationally and internationally.

Apprenticeship schemes, which can be highly effective in developing future talent, are a good starting point for employers. Managed properly, they boost a company’s skill base and create a committed, able and highly competitive workforce.

Interest in the sector among youngsters can be stimulated further via work experience placements from schools and universities and internships during gap years. To encourage intake further, larger companies would do well to consider sponsoring promising candidates through sixth form, technical colleges – or even university.

Ironically many people already spend much of their sixth form and university years working part-time in events and conferencing venues, or support services, without ever considering it as a career option – or being encouraged to. To put it bluntly, employers who miss the chance to capitalise on this “captive audience” are mad.

Every one of these de facto apprenticeships should be viewed as an opportunity for individuals and host companies to jointly benefit through learning and training.

Giving the sector more prominence can also be achieved via an organised, concerted programme of education, communication and lobbying: the promotion of the sector to those considering the apprentice route and apprenticeship providers; signposting towards grants, tax reliefs and soft loans for those offering work experience or internships; and many more relevant courses at vocational, GCSE, A-level and degree level.

Implementing all of the above would help to give the events and conferencing sector a more professional and respected standing – possibly giving it formal professional status over time. The type of agency that could deliver this is a trade body.

Conspicuously, events and conferencing lacks a professional organisation to represent the best interests of its workforce and employers and its absence is something that makes recruitment considerably harder than it need be.

Michael Gledhill is events director at Bowcliffe Hall, Bramham.