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The still-unsatisfied demand for digital talent — and even digitally savvy talent — has added a bit of a silver lining to a job market that for many in the fashion world remains cloudy and threatening.

This story first appeared in the June 16, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Compensation is up, hiring and job-fill rates have improved and workers have a greater sense of being in demand and establishing a better work-life balance, according to the 2014 Salary and Job Market Report to be released this week by 24 Seven, the New York-based talent recruitment firm.

But despite numbers that would seem to indicate an improved and still-improving job market for many seeking careers in fashion, Celeste Gudas, president of 24 Seven, points out that there is something of an uneven playing field. Aspiring applicants in more conventional disciplines within fashion are getting a smaller piece of the compensation pie and feeling less engaged and desired than those in rapidly expanding specialties involving e-commerce, social media and the integration of these pursuits into the clearly shaken “old world” of brick-and-mortar retailing.

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“It’s not exactly the best of times and the worst of times,” Gudas said, “but there’s clearly a continuing tale of two job markets. The reality is that there are tepid raises across most areas that we analyzed for the study. If you’re digitally sophisticated, you’re in demand and you’ve got a future and you’re part of the growth and innovation piece, but there’s a large part of the market that simply isn’t.”

She said the study reinforced trends that she’s noticed in 24 Seven’s business, which places individuals in both full- and part-time jobs and in freelance as well as staff positions.

“In a way, what’s happening in fashion and retail mirrors what’s happening in the job market as a whole,” she told WWD. “Most of the growth is on the e-commerce and tech side, with demand still growing and salaries expanding for those with the right skills. It’s the consumer-focused areas that are generating increases in overall hiring, particularly on the contract or freelance side.”

The overall numbers from the study indicate substantial improvement in several areas. Executives in the study are hiring more — 86 percent said their hiring rate is up, versus just 54 percent who said the same a year ago — and employees are less likely to be on the prowl for their next position as the percentage planning a career move in the next 12 months dropped to 76 from 86 in the 2013 study.

Six out of 10 feel they are in demand in the marketplace, up from half a year ago, and four out of five said they were being approached with job opportunities with greater frequency than they were a year ago.

Even the percentage of full-time employees reporting a “good” or “great” balance between their personal and professional lives increased, to 68 percent from 64 percent, although the number of freelancers who shared that sentiment dropped, albeit to and from higher levels than among the employee group. This year 77 percent of the freelance group, which accounted for one-sixth of the overall sample, was happy with their work-life balance, down from 82 percent a year ago.

The median salary for those surveyed remains unchanged year-over-year at $68,000 across the sample of 1,400 executives, managers, staff and freelancers queried. But the 24 Seven study found in some ways contradictory trends taking place. This year, 72 percent reported an increase in compensation, down from 77 percent who had received a raise in 2013, and the size of the raises was smaller — 4 percent for non-executive personnel, down from 6 percent a year ago, and 7 percent for executives, down from 16 percent a year ago.

Bonuses bore a greater compensation burden than in the past as 48 percent of executives and 36 percent of employees had bonuses of more than 20 percent and an additional 22 percent of executives and 10 percent of other employees recorded bonus increases in the range of 10 to 20 percent.

Whatever importance personal satisfaction and a sense of engagement and appreciation have gained in individuals’ minds, money remains the highest priority. When respondents considering a professional change were asked to rank their goals in seeking alternate employment, 74 percent chose “higher base salary” among their top-three objectives versus 46 percent who included “better advancement opportunities” and 40 percent who listed “better growth potential.” “Improved quality of life” made the top three in only 32 percent of the cases, “job I like better” in 27 percent and “better location” in 19 percent. Sixteen percent mentioned “more prestigious brand or company,” 12 percent “issues with my manager or supervisor,” 11 percent “better commission or better bonuses” and, last on the list, 8 percent cited “improved benefits.”

Discussing the implications of those findings, Gudas said, “The reality is that the number-one driver in the workforce is still compensation, and a lot of the talent in the market has concluded that they’re better off going out and getting a new job than they are remaining in place and hoping or even pushing for higher wages. It would be good to be able to be more optimistic about the prospects for retention, but in fact you’re probably going to do better if you make a change.”

When asked what keeps them up at night, “lack of clear direction/path” and “lack of management support” tied, appearing among the top-three choices for 26 percent of respondents. “Meeting deadlines” and “changing corporate structure” was a top-three selection on 20 percent of the surveys, with “lack of clarity around my current duties” selected by 19 percent of respondents, ahead of “fear of not getting a raise,” among the top three for 18 percent.

Perhaps because of the talent gap in the digital area, workers are more inclined to feel wanted if not necessarily appreciated: 57 percent believe they’re in high demand, up from 50 percent in the 2013 survey.

In a section of the survey initiated this year, 24 Seven attempted to understand the various elements of “engagement” that were more likely to make an employee eager to go beyond the simple requirements of his or her job. Among the self-described “engaged” employees, 82 percent feel that their company’s mission, vision and values have been clearly communicated to them; 89 percent believe in their firms’ mission and vision, and 83 percent said they have well-defined job expectations. Nineteen in 20 — 96 percent — feel they have the trust of their direct manager, and nearly as many, 94 percent, feel “connected” to their team and coworkers.

Gudas observed that companies that foster a sense of engagement will have an easier time finding and retaining the types of employees who will help them fill the “skills gap” that exists in the higher-tech digital and omnichannel worlds.

She was quick to make a distinction between digital skills and the skills that are in demand in a digital world.

“As technology pervades everything, the consumer is dictating everything, regardless of the industry one’s in,” she said. “Clearly, employers need skill sets they haven’t needed before, but they also need people who, rather than knowing technology, are comfortable with technology, who understand and can use the new technology that’s on the selling floor. Retailers and brands need people who can upsell and convert a showroomer into a buyer.”

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