To coincide with Learning at Work Week (15-21 May), Andrew Harrison talks to M&IT about why formalising training and development in the workplace could be key to plugging the ongoing skills gap and retaining talent in our sector.

The exhibitions industry has had a huge problem with recruitment and staff shortages over the past couple of years, as businesses across the sector struggled to find available skilled talent to rebuild their teams post pandemic and meet growing demand for their services.

Thankfully we’re finally starting to see some signs that these recruitment challenges are easing. Our most recent SASiE report (Size and Scale Index for Exhibitions) shows that we've bounced back to almost pre-COVID levels of business, which is obviously fantastic news. But it also means that the narrative around recruitment has moved on. We’re no longer seen as the uncertain career choice that we were at the height of the pandemic.

As an industry, we have worked hard to attract and recruit new talent, which has been a key focus for us at ESSA through initiatives such as our new free Student Membership. At the same time, we’re starting to see more and more people that left our industry during the pandemic to work in other sectors like the film industry, coming back to work in events.

So, now that things are easing from a recruitment perspective, do we need to shift our attention back to how we train, develop and most importantly retain the people that we have? Given the time and energy we’ve all put into finding the right people, we need to ensure we don’t lose them.

While there are the obvious things we can do, such as compensate fairly, prioritise wellbeing, offer flexibility and implement internal reward and recognition programmes, investment in training and professional development has become increasingly important to employees, particularly younger workers.

Recent research conducted in the UK revealed that Gen Z and Millennials are prioritising training and development (L&D) more than any other generation. Over a quarter of employees aged between 16-34 believe training and development is the most crucial factor when it comes to their engagement as an employee, two thirds said it improves their commitment to their employer – the highest of any age group, while three-quarters agree that it boosts their job satisfaction.

While these stats are not specific to the events industry, they are a good indicator of what the younger generations care about and learning at work is right up there. You might be thinking, what if we train people too well and they leave? That’s always a risk. But according to the LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report 2023, three of the top five factors that people consider when pursuing new jobs reflect their desire to stretch, grow and develop new skills, which means that people who aren’t learning will leave. As the famed Sir Richard Branson quote goes, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t have to.”

Young people coming into the events sector are hungry to learn. They want and, quite rightly, expect professional training and development. In our industry, a lot of that is done on the job. But there's no formality around it, which is something we need to work on and is a core part of our mission at ESSA.

Small businesses often struggle to onboard people successfully. And with resources currently stretched in the events sector, short lead times, supply chain challenges and more to contend with, we understand that it can be difficult to prioritise and make time for training. That’s why we launched ESSA Individual Induction, a series of bite-sized induction courses for newcomers to the industry that cover a range of health & safety-related areas, to support our members with the onboarding process and bring some formality to their learning and development.

Our Future Focus Board is also focused on supporting our student members and finding new solutions for our industry to recruit and retain talent. As part of the Events Industry Alliance (ESSA, AEO, AEV), we also recently launched our government manifesto with skills and training one of five key areas, and we are contributing to the UK Events work with the government on developing industry wide formal education and training to improve the pathways into our industry.

The skills shortage in our sector is not a new thing. It’s something we were talking about long before the pandemic – a survey by the UK Events Industry Board Talent Taskforce in 2019 revealed that 61% of events industry employers were experiencing skills shortages within their businesses.

To solve this issue in the longer term, recruitment will have to shift from bringing in ready trained, off-the-peg individuals, to providing better training to new starters and those already working in the industry to help them develop and progress. Prioritising learning and development is a no brainer – businesses that encourage employees to learn have up to 50% higher engagement and retention rates.

Training results in happier employees that are better equipped to work effectively and efficiently, improved customer satisfaction, and a stronger bottom line. If we can work together to develop better training for our industry, it’ll be a win-win for everyone.

 Published in M&IT magazine on 15 May 2023


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The Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA) is a trade body representing the very best contractors and suppliers of goods and services to the UK’s thriving events industry.

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