Staff shortages in the AV world are creating 'The Big Resignation'

It’s not just products that are thin on the ground right now, it’s people too. Paul Milligan examines the current AV staff shortage.

Of all the knock-on effects we thought might occur when Covid hit, a staff shortage was probably not what any of us would have imagined. But this is where we are right now. Thankfully, the AV world is not alone is enduring this pain, it’s all part of something bigger, dubbed ‘the great resignation’ by Anthony Klotz, an organisational psychologist. Klotz says the pandemic has made workers re-evaluate what they are actually getting out of their jobs, something he called a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment. "During the pandemic we had the time and the motivation to sit back and say, do I like the trajectory of my life?".

The numbers do back up Klotz’s words. In America there were 10 million jobs available in June, and a record 3% of the workforce (4.2 million) quit their jobs in September. Job-to-job moves in the UK reached a record high in Q3 2021, and in May UK job website Reed had its highest number of monthly postings since 2008. In August 250,000 new roles went live on the same site. Even the big names are not immune, Microsoft said in mid-2021 that 46% of its global workforce were planning to make ‘a major pivot or career transition’. For many people Covid kick-started a change in priorities, encouraging many to shift career paths or leave one industry for another. Job movement is disruptive but can be dealt with, if people are leaving the AV industry altogether then that is another, far more serious issue. “What’s unique here is people in professional work now have choice,” said Grace Lordan, associate professor in behavioural science at the London School of Economics in an interview with the BBC. “Previously, with the likes of the Industrial Revolution, most people weren’t skilled enough to get the high-income jobs. Now, knowledge workers are in such high demand that there’s a skill shortage.”

LinkedIn has become a significant barometer of this situation, last March-June it was full of people ‘open to work’ (a kind way of acknowledging they had been made redundant). In the last six months we are all now being continually prompted to congratulate new roles. In multiple cases people have moved on two or three times since Covid first hit in order to find the right position and/or wage. Are AV companies struggling to find the right staff at the moment? “We’re desperately short of people, we’re struggling in every department, whether it be for freelancers or trying to employ people,” says Scott Arnold, MD of AV company Autograph, which covers both live events and permanent installs. Arnold says Autograph were three to four people short before Covid stuck but having made staff redundant during the early phase of the pandemic, is now struggling to fill multiple positions. “What I can’t quite work out at the moment is whether people have just disappeared, or people are being slightly greedy.” There definitely is a shortage of applicants says Graeme Massey, MD of AV recruitment firm Jacobs Massey. “Our interview to placement ratio has come right down, where previously we’d be talking about 15 or 20-to-1 for one placement, now we’re talking almost 3-to-1 or 2-to-1.” This is being felt by integrators too as this quote from Colin Etchells, group technical director, Saville Group illustrates: “Whereas you’d have 40 options before, now you’re probably getting three, and you’re not always getting three.”

Novum AV is another company combining a live events business with permanent install work, and it too is short of people, both permanent and freelance. Even when you get enough candidates to apply, you can’t always fill positions says Tim Jacques, Novum MD. “Because of the shortage of people, we’ve been sent candidates who were not necessarily the best cultural fit for us, or who carried the necessary skillset for the roles we were advertising. As a result, it’s made it difficult to commit to people.”

All those we spoke to had lost people, either freelancers or permanent, during Covid, either through redundancy, a career shift, or seeking a new role elsewhere, and none had returned to pre-Covid staffing levels yet. “We’re not back to those levels by any stretch,” says Massey. “We are certainly seeing more vacancies being filled than ever, but there are more vacancies, period. In certain respects, from a candidate’s point of view it is a perfect storm.”

Could an explanation for the shortage be that some people have exited the AV industry altogether? “I think the sector has lost a massive chunk of skillset, even the skillset that was subcontracted, because there was very little support for subcontractors some have gone off to be delivery drivers for Amazon and got used to a more stable income and have turned their back on the industry,” says Etchells. Autograph has seen a number of regular freelancers leave the industry says Arnold.

“I can tell you why people go, they are probably not getting paid as much but they are probably home at 6pm and not working weekends, so they are probably seeing their kids and putting them to bed. There’s a life balance issue here – some people don’t want to be sitting in a bus travelling to the next gig. We’ve witnessed a lot of that for sure.”

The debate over whether those people will ever return to the AV world is a tricky one, the most rational answer is that most will, when Covid has gone for good (or at least, managed far better), but not all will, and that’s because of the scenario Arnold paints above. Some have tasted another way of working and chosen a different life. Should we collectively be looking at the working conditions we offer in the AV industry? No one really wants to work long hours, or at weekends or late into the night if given the choice do they? “The industry needs to re-adjust this crazy perception that it’s okay to work 60/70/80 hours a week because those days are gone,” says Massey. “I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be flexibility, obviously if you work in events clearly there is a need but stop treating employees like commodities because it isn’t going to work in the long term.” It’s a situation that is causing huge frustration for employers like Autograph, “People are asking themselves ‘why is this happening? Why don’t people want to work for us?’ Well if you treat them like crap and make them work 14 hours a day and you don’t pay them for 90 days, and only pay them when they ring you up and remind them three times, yes those people are going to disappear,” says Arnold.

A solution is far from obvious admits Jacques, “It’s a phenomenal industry in terms of job fulfilment, but there is a point where you realise you’re sacrificing other parts of your life for that. Take a concert, for example, unless everybody’s prepared to take a €30 hike on the ticket price to pay for the fact that we need to double crew it, I can’t see how mathematically it begins to work.” Arnold is another to question if the economic reality of offering better working conditions actually adds up; “What it comes down to is more money, are you going to pay people to do a split shift? Are you going to pay people to work on a Saturday/Sunday night? Are you going to pay people to do night shifts?”

So what can we do? Are we powerless to stop a drift away from the AV world? We need to think differently explains Massey, and some employers are already changing things. “We’re seeing quite a lot of innovation among employers on how they attract young people e.g. previously overtime was not paid, it was given as time off in-lieu, now overtime is being paid.”

Money is clearly a huge part of this situation. Like any market the AV world pays a ‘going rate’, which translates to ‘just high enough to fill the position and no more’. But at the moment that’s being hugely skewed by supply and demand. “Pre-pandemic there were very few vacancies, those that existed were typically not paying terribly well. And there was an awful lot of people applying, where we are now is the complete opposite,” says Massey.

Pay has had to increase to try and attract new staff admits Jacques, but that comes with its own problems for employers. “Unfortunately, like many companies in our scenario, we’ve been fighting for survival, we’ve had to batten down the hatches,
so sometimes there just isn’t the budget to recruit, and that’s the reality.” Because of the current employment ‘gold rush’ some freelancers are understandably trying to claw back some lost income from the past 18 months. “We’ve seen freelancers putting up rates, I saw one with a 25% increase in fees. Our clients in this particular climate who are all crying poverty as a result of the hit from Covid are not going to swallow a 25% increase in labour costs, so then we swallow all that cost, which means we don’t make any money,” adds Jacques. Recruitment companies are at the sharp end of this equation, and Massey says he’s seen wages rise by 20% in 2021. “An AV technician salary typically would be mid-to-late £20k (approximately €23.5k), now it starts at minimum £30k. A senior technician would have been previously £30k, now it’s £35k +.”

Both Saville Group and Autograph have lost people during a recruitment process to higher offers from other companies. There is no doubt if you want good staff it’s going to cost you at the moment. “People are getting their heads turned by really silly offers, sometimes 30% or 40% or 50% increases on what we’re offering,” admits Etchells.

Is this current shortage just the industry paying the price of not doing enough to get young people into the AV sector? “We protect our little village, it’s difficult to get into and now we are 100% paying the price for that. We are a little at fault for that because we haven’t thought far enough ahead. When it’s all going well you don’t think of changing things do you?” admits Arnold. There are a myriad of opportunities in the AV world says Massey, but we have been poor at getting that message across. “We need more talent coming into the AV industry, because at the moment we’re all very reliant on a pool which is extremely talented but it is finite. You don’t have to be an academic to be in the AV industry, it’s a place for everybody. But the entry point has always been very obscure. It’s been something that you fall into, because either your dad did it, or you have an interest in music.”

The current staff shortage is a reminder that employment is subject to supply and demand just as much as projectors and matrix switches are. Are we guilty of taking a ready supply of talent for granted before the pandemic? It seems that way. You no longer have 40 candidates to choose from, you now have 2 or 3, and you can’t pay the same salary as before. This hammers home the need for more AV training schemes to lure young people into the sector, and the need to offer better (or more flexible) working conditions for those already in it. Recent times have shown us how important AV is in keeping us all working wherever we are, so we need to place more value on our skilled members of staff or we will lose them, to rivals or to other industries entirely.


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