Life’s tough for anyone trying to secure a position as a graduate trainee today, whatever industry they target, compared with previous years. Add to this the fact that new graduates are still hungry for fulfilling and lucrative careers, and knowledgeable about the possibilities open to them, it makes competition for the most attractive positions fiercer still.

Among recruiters, likewise, competition for the most talented has never been stronger. In theory, qualitative research agencies could be up against the likes of WPP and Procter & Gamble in the minds of young, informed graduates - with the tempting salaries, clear career structure and opportunities to second to foreign climes that such giants can frequently offer.

So what challenges does that present when recruiting? What do we need to do to retain talented individuals? And are we getting the recruits we deserve?

Quality recruits

Contact with industry newcomers, through involvement with AQR courses and events, leads me to conclude that - as an industry - we are fortunate in the quality of graduates attracted to, and successful in securing a position in qualitative research.

I have also been impressed by the resourcefulness of those trying to get interviews. Many have done their homework and are determined to succeed now they’ve found a career that they feel will suit them.

The number of enquiries we get for the AQR Graduate Pack also implies that there are many others who are sufficiently interested in what a career could provide to find out more. Yet our apparent ability to attract such bright and enthusiastic individuals shouldn’t leave us complacent.

Competition from other industries, as well as other research companies, is strong. We need to be thinking how we can continue to attract and retain talented recruits.

The confusion surrounding the nature of qualitative research is well documented. Who hasn’t been asked, at some point in their career, whether it doesn’t get cold standing on street corners with a clipboard?

Raising awareness

This only underlines the need for university students throughout the country to be made aware what qual actually is, and what being a researcher would be like. One of AQR’s key aims is to promote qualitative research within the market research arena and the broader business community, but we have also identified a need to raise the profile amongst undergraduates and recent graduates.

Young people should be provided with sufficient knowledge about qual that it becomes a popular career option, up there with ad agencies, FMCG giants and the like. That’s why AQR has placed graduate packs and directories in careers libraries, and is also firming up links with universities so that we can go and talk to students face to face.

Our first sortie to the LSE was a real success - packed to the rafters - and we hope to visit other institutions in the near future. We have also been liasing with the MRS, which is also keen to raise the profile of market research among potential recruits generally.

Yet we also need to ask ourselves what we think we can offer new recruits? Recent investigation among industry newcomers has indicated the importance of the nature of work undertaken and the work environment.

The job itself is seen as intellectually challenging, offering variety, problem solving, and can be fun. The hours, however, are long and anti-social. Flexible working is, I predict, something that we will find interviewees asking about more and more in the future, and I believe it is imperative that we consider how to respond.

Clear policies

The opportunities for increasing independence and achieving better work-life balance are likely to appeal to the resourceful and multi-talented. Many of us probably have policies in place already, but we will have to get better at articulating them.

In terms of work environment, qual agencies can also offer very attractive company cultures. They recognise skills and achievements and don’t rely solely on ‘time served’ when deliberating about whether people are ready to move on to the next step.

We need to be mindful, though, that while so-called ‘flat’ structures can lead to creative and collaborative cultures, individuals still need to feel that their personal development is being monitored and recognised. Titles may not be as important as they were, but we should not assume that they are dead.

Once we have recruited talent, how do we retain it? Education and training definitely helps attract, and retain good recruits. Companies can offer a lot in terms of in-house training, while even the smallest can benefit hugely from regular formal sessions. They are a chance to share knowledge, and all levels from director through to junior exec have something to offer, and to learn.

Accreditation issue

The AQR’s education programme goes from strength to strength, and is a source of pride. We are well aware, though, that as graduates become increasingly discerning, they are probably going to want to feel that their training is part of an accredited programme.

Such graduates are also likely to want to feel that they are part of a ‘profession’ rather than just an industry. These are some of the reasons why we are exploring the issue of accreditation, and how it can dovetail with our current offer.

I believe firmly in giving recent entrants the chance to network with others. Since few qual companies can offer the large graduate intake events that major corporations can, we have to cast our minds back to what it was like to be a new graduate.

I can remember how important it was to be able to talk to peers, and share experiences about our new roles. These memories prompted me to start the New Researchers’ Forum evenings. By the level of chat at these events, I feel encouraged that they have helped delegates from Foundation and Moderating Skills courses, as well as others, to keep in touch.

Perhaps, though, we could do more do within our own companies to make the transition into a new industry and new job as easy as possible, by formalising mentor or buddy systems, say.

Plus points

We do have cause to be positive. Qualitative research may not be able to pay the highest salaries, or offer the most seductive benefits, but our work is (largely) enjoyable, and we are managing to create some attractive environments in which to do that work.

Opportunities for flexible working could also prove increasingly useful in attracting new recruits. For now, we are lucky to be attracting bright and enthusiastic candidates, in spite of the temptations to become advertising planners or brand managers elsewhere.

Luck, though, isn’t enough, and we cannot afford to be complacent. We have got to ensure that qualitative research remains an attractive career option. This could well involve considering the personal development programmes we offer new researchers, organising regular in-house training as well as taking advantage of industry courses, formalising flexible working policies and considering the introduction of mentor or buddy systems for new recruits.

From the AQR’s point of view, this means championing qual research and spreading the word in universities, making headway with the issue of accreditation, continuing to offer a quality education programme, and providing more opportunities for new researchers to network. It’s a challenge, but I think we’re up to it.