Placement pro Dawn Penfold provides insights into what meeting and event professionals can expect to find in today’s job market.
The U.S. job market overall is looking pretty good. The much-hoped-for “soft landing” appears to be happening, reducing fears of a recession, and the labor market as a whole is stabilizing after some crazy pandemic-era roller coastering. Despite predictions that job gains will slow, unemployment rise a little, and wage gains moderate, overall, things are looking pretty good for the U.S. job market. But does the same hold true for the meetings and events niche?
Prevue turned to the expert to find out. We recently caught up with Dawn Penfold, President of Meetingjobs, a CADRE company and national search firm serving the meetings and events industry that specializes in the placement of permanent and temporary meeting professionals worldwide, to learn more.
Prevue: How does the overall job market for meeting and event professionals look for 2024?
Penfold: I had thought there would be a huge burst of hiring at the start of 2024. In the past, when the economy and the stock market have been strong, hiring usually has increased, but instead it’s stagnant. It seems like people are holding tight, possibly because of the uncertainty of what’s going on politically and with the economy. I wish I had better news but that’s what I’m seeing.
I’m not saying that it’s gone down, or that it’s impossible to find a job, but in the 30-plus years I’ve been doing this, hiring in the beginning of the year usually is going like gangbusters, and it’s not this year. I hope this will change in February, but we are not back to normal. We may never get back to normal — and you could argue that we don’t know what “normal” is anymore.
Prevue: What types of organizations are hiring now?
Penfold: I’m seeing more association positions now than I’m seeing corporate positions. But what I’m seeing more than anything is an increase in third parties looking to hire. My take is that the corporate sector is outsourcing more than hiring now, which would account for the number of third parties that are looking for people to work individual projects. For example, I had a pharmaceutical company a couple of months ago that hired somebody just to do food and beverage for a high-level incentive program.
One hiring official told me last year, “I had to lay off so many people during COVID that I just can’t do that emotionally or mentally anymore. I’d rather go with hiring a person to do project work.” There also are a lot more people who instead of applying for full-time positions want to go the gig route as independent contractors.
That is where the real crunch is right now — people looking to hire independent contractors and gig workers. Then if they work out, they’ll keep hiring those workers for more contracts and possibly even hire them permanently.
Prevue: What types of experience are hirers looking for, generally speaking?
Penfold: Everybody wants somebody who has three to five years of experience — that is the magic middle management button. The challenge with it three to five years of experience is that when COVID hit, nobody hired for two years. So that person with three to five years of experience really doesn’t exist.
Even higher-level coordinators are hard to find now because, during again, during COVID, no one was hiring, mentoring or moving people up in our industry. But even higher-level people are finding it difficult to move up. The higher you go, the harder it is to find the position you want.
Prevue: Are hirers finding it more difficult now to find job seekers?
Penfold: In some ways, yes. The sexiness of our industry took a turn during COVID — let’s face it, travel is not as exciting as it used to be. Ten, 15 or 20 years ago, people were excited to get into this business because they got to go to places like Hawaii, Paris and Rome. And now people say, “Really, you want me to travel 50% of the time? And work 16-hour days? No thank you.” It’s a different world out there.
This goes across all types of organizations — associations, corporate, third parties — and all types of industries. We’re not the only industry suffering from this.
Prevue: How important are credentials such as CMP, CMM, etc., in today’s job market?
Penfold: [Meeting Professionals International] MPI will hate me for saying this, but while credentials are a plus, they’re not going to land the job. The bottom line is a hiring official wants experience. They want people who have done the exact job they’re hiring for, not someone who has learned about it and gotten a credential. So while you may have a certification in digital meetings, they will want to know about the digital meetings that you have planned. That’s what they’re going to be putting emphasis on.
A credential may help move the needle if the hirer is interviewing two candidates with the exact same background and the exact same experience level and one person has the certification the other person doesn’t.
That’s not to say that education is not important, it is — you can always learn more. But right now, it’s what you’ve done that will land the job.
Prevue: How long, in general, does it take to find a new position now, compared to the past?
Penfold: It all depends on what you’re applying for, how you interview and what you bring to the table. Somebody can have the best experience, but if they interview poorly, their job search is going to take much longer. Similarly, if you’re constantly applying for jobs that you don’t have the right experience for, it’s going to take you longer.
Prevue: How is the work-from-home trend trending in the meeting planning profession? Is this something that is important to job seekers and/or employers?
Penfold: We’re entering into a dynamic where some hiring officials want to go back to the norm after everyone went remote during COVID. Before the pandemic, our industry was fighting the work-from-home trend like a dog being dragged through mud. You had to be present in the office.
Then during COVID, everyone was forced into a work-from-home situation, and it was proven to work. And for hiring officials, all of a sudden a light bulb went off because, once they started hiring again, if they were in New York, they didn’t have to hire somebody from New York. They could hire somebody from somewhere else who may have better experience and could be hired at a lower salary.
Now, more hiring officials are saying they really want somebody who can work in in the office two or three days a week. I’m also seeing some companies that want to go back to being in office five days a week, and candidates aren’t willing to do that. I had a candidate last week who said she didn’t want to commute from Jersey City to Manhattan, which is about 10 minutes on the train.
Everybody’s looking for their ideal work situation, and no one is willing to budge.
Prevue: What are some of the perks people are looking for now and/or employers are offering (in addition to working from home)?
Penfold: One of the challenges of having four generations working together in today’s work force is that each generation tends to have different work styles, different work ethics and different motivations. For example, I recently interviewed a Gen Z person, and before she even told me about her background, she wanted to know the social platform of the company — how they give back to the community, their work ethic, their lifestyle options. I said, “Let’s back up and first to see if you’re qualified for the job. And if you do go in for an interview, you can’t start off like that.” And she was completely perplexed. Those were among the most important aspects of the job for her.
For some, health insurance is important, for others, not so much. I had a candidate who didn’t want health insurance benefits because she was still covered under parents’ program for another four years. But what she did want was for them to cover pet boarding costs while she traveled. Some people are asking for companies to pay their commuting costs, and others want more comp days if they have to work weekends.
I’m also seeing more companies that doing away with a formal vacation policy, saying, “If you need time off, just let us know.”
Another thing that’s going away is tuition reimbursement. Instead, some are offering to reimburse student loans, with payments going directly to their student loan accounts.
Prevue: What are the top two or three things job seekers can do now to make themselves more attractive to potential employers?
Penfold: Match the job to your experience — don’t just apply to anything and everything that sounds interesting.
Follow the directions in the ad. I have clients who will not even look at a candidate who doesn’t follow the directions. For example, if they ask for a salary range and you leave that blank, they may not consider your qualifications.
Almost every hirer now wants people with experience in using Cvent. I had a client who hadn’t been using it at her current place of work, so she went and got Cvent-certified on her own because she knew she would need it. She got a great job.
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