Research Industry Hiring Sputters

Recruiter Unpacks Employment Trend Portent

By Marc Dresner, IIR

By many accounts, the last couple of fiscal quarters have been something of a rollercoaster ride for research providers’alternating between feast and famine after a relatively stable period of slow but steady growth.

I’ve always felt that the job market is a pretty reliable, albeit lagging indicator of the state of business. So to get a better handle on the situation, I spoke with Karen Morgan, CEO of Morgan Search International. The firm specializes in placing research & strategy professionals.

She not only confirmed what I’ve been hearing, but shared some interesting trends worth noting in this forum’

According to Morgan, somewhere between May and June the research job market experienced a bout of dramatic fits and starts. In fact, she’s recently seen a slew of positions abruptly pulled, even at near-offer stage.

‘We’re definitely seeing some hedging of bets,’ said Morgan. ‘Companies’both agencies and buyers’are experiencing a great deal of difficulty planning ahead because there seem to be so many unknowns. People are nervous.’

Uncertainty Strains Resources

The retrenchment is exacerbating already strained resources. Morgan noted that research departments, in particular, have in cases been severely understaffed for an interminable period of time with little sign of relief.

‘During this last recession companies shed a lot of research jobs. Not only haven’t they staffed back up, they’re not always replacing people who move on voluntarily,’ Morgan said.

‘It’s not at all uncommon to see one person doing the work of two or even three,’ she added. ‘Senior-level professionals in departments need to be both strategic and more hands-on than before because they’ve got a skeleton crew.’

One might reasonably expect that an understaffed department would lean that much more heavily on its agency partners for support, but Morgan says that’s not necessarily the case.

‘Research companies appear to be experiencing a delayed fallout, themselves,’ she said. ‘There’s been a surge in layoffs recently.

‘Moreover, we’re seeing a good amount of burnout at clients and providers. Salaries have been frozen for years with no end in sight, people are expected to take on more and more responsibility and they’re not feeling appreciated’It’s even driving people out of the industry,’ said Morgan.

Qualifications Hinder Hiring

Interestingly, Morgan told me the positions that are available may in many instances be sitting unfilled due to inflated expectations on both the client and supplier sides.

‘There’s no shortage of talent,’ said Morgan, ‘but the breadth of skills employers are looking for exceed anything we’ve seen in research historically.

‘In the past, a qualified candidate could tick three of five boxes,’ she continued. ‘Today, companies want five of five boxes plus a little something extra, and they’re willing to wait for as long as it takes until the right candidate comes along.’

Morgan says employers want analytics jocks who can navigate Big Data, who specialize in both quantitative and qualitative, who think strategically and can creatively connect the dots and who possess diplomatic acumen and the elusive ability to persuade.

‘Sometimes it’s like they’re looking for a unicorn,’ Morgan said. ‘These people rarely exist, they’re not easy to find, they don’t come cheap and, frankly, the industry isn’t doing a great job of attracting them.’

Young, Cheap and Experienced?

Morgan added that employers tend to focus on younger candidates, in part because they’re less expensive and also due to ageism.

‘Companies are not taking advantage of the pool of available senior talent, and so we run the risk of an experience deficit,’ she said.

‘We’re also seeing a lack of willingness to invest in training. Companies want to hire younger candidates, but everyone wants them to be able to hit the ground running.’

To make matters worse, Morgan says many briefs she’s seen reflect a failure to understand what motivates younger job candidates.

‘Younger candidates care less about money and more about intangibles like culture, flexibility and work/life balance, as well as the opportunity to grow professionally and be challenged,’ she said.

‘Job briefs often read deadly dull, uninspired and limiting,’ said Morgan. ‘These candidates aren’t interested in building a traditional research CV, so the positions being offered don’t appeal to them.’

Non-Traditionals Snatching Up Talent

While the job market favors employers, Morgan said a wave of demand for research talent from less conventional players means some research companies risk paying a price for complacency.

‘We’re seeing a dramatic shift in our client base from the bigger, more traditional research organizations to non-traditional shops, strategic consultancies and creative firms. They’re creating an entirely new career path for researchers,” she said.

Morgan views the influx of competition from outside the industry as a positive, and she’s bullish on the industry’s prospects.

‘A recession can provide a great opportunity to innovate,’ she said. “I think we’re going to see some very exciting changes in the research industry!’

Marc Dresner is IIR USA’s senior editor and special communication project lead. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the market research industry. He may be reached at Follow him @mdrezz.

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