The statistics alone present a confusing picture. In C&IT’s State of the Industry 2014 survey, agencies were asked if event degrees provide relevant skills for a career in the sector. Some 27% of 100-plus agencies surveyed answered no, 27% were undecided and 46% said yes. While the majority may appear unconvinced, 70% of agencies recruited event management graduates in the last 12 months. So, what does the industry really think?
There is a consensus across the industry that event degrees provide a solid foundation of theoretical knowledge and skills. Tina Morris, managing director of agency Adding Value, is a big fan. She says: "We provide input into the Leeds Metropolitan University course and our CEO, Randle Stonier, is a guest lecturer. With the support of agencies in the work placement year, universities can produce promising, well-rounded candidates. The biggest challenge is to ensure that students gain experience in the variety of event disciplines from the outset. But, like any degree candidates, they still need to have the right attitude, hunger and passion."
Lucy Collins, Principal Global Events head of product development, agrees: "The people we have employed with event management degrees have been able to hit the ground faster than many other new employees entering the industry. However, this is not true across the board. In some cases, it comes down to the personal attributes of the individual."
While no degree can teach creativity, passion and stamina, there are concerns that existing curriculums simply aren’t relevant. Simon Maier, managing director of events agency TFI Group, says: "The content is too broad. It mostly covers logistics and includes education on the hospitality industry with very little about delivery, measurement and event technology."
Luke Flett, head of sales and marketing at Ashfield Meetings & Events, has similar concerns. "In the past, we have found that the skill sets of an event management student have been the correct level required for entry level roles in our organisation and any gaps could be provided through our internal training programmes with relative ease.
"However, the event management landscape is changing, particularly in the healthcare sector. Roles are becoming either more administrative or reporting-based at one level and more strategic and creative-led at another.
"As more and more of our business becomes focused on the audience engagement aspects such as meeting content, message delivery, creativity and strategic thinking, we find there is a definite gap in the current skill sets of graduates. This is understandable as these are harder skills to acquire at a young age where a typical graduate would not have had exposure to [them]."
For some employers, a degree itself is valued, rather than the discipline. Lodestar’s managing director Phil Watton favours creative courses. He says: "I’m not convinced that all events courses offer what we need. What we do is heavily creative, so I look for students with a creative arts or communication degree because that’s the kind of background we want."
Nevetheless, degrees can be a key differentiator in the job market, particularly when combined with work experience. Mark Riches, managing director of First Protocol, says: "An academic degree could be a differentiator between two candidates with similar skills and experience.
"Yet, experience is still king. Degrees that include a sandwich course, where students are able to gain experience, are most beneficial. We would like to see wider entry routes into the industry, including a formal apprenticeship scheme."
There is wide industry support to set up an apprenticeship programme in events in the UK. Event consultant Sarah Wright has been campaigning for a national apprenticeship framework for nearly three years. She recognises: "There are some apprenticeships out there, but they do not meet the needs of our industry."
Some larger agencies such as BI Worldwide, W&O Events, DRP Group and Grass Roots Meetings & Events offer internship or graduate schemes in place, although many of the smaller agencies lack the resources to drive their own programmes forward. BI Worldwide’s director of events David Battley says: "We hire two graduates every year on our dedicated graduate programme. It’s difficult, as these days the typical graduate tends to do a job for just two years and some may have had as many as seven jobs by the time they turn 35."
Associations such as MPI (Meetings Professionals International) advocate the Convention Industry Council's (CIC) internationally recognised Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) qualification, which helps event planners sharpen their skills and even boost their earning potential. Office Depot’s head of events Sophie Christopher points out: "Certification would help with the credibility of the events role within a business. In difficult times, the events team is easily disposable. It shouldn’t be, but we do need solid objectives and proof that we assist the business in achieving its overall targets. There are some excellent heads of events that would like to brush up on their skills."
Read the full analysis on this year's State of the Industry Top 50 agency rankingNew and exclusive content from C&IT's State of the Industry Report will be published online throughout June with the full report downloadable at the end of the month.