Supply Gluts Local Designer Market

March 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The advertising industry is only just recovering from severe cutbacks, but local colleges and universities are producing graphic artists and designers at pre-recession rates.

As each graduating class enters the market, it competes with experienced and sometimes desperate displaced designers still seeking work.

"It's really depressing," said Structure Interactive Creative Director Charlie McGrath. "You can tell certain life stories by reading a resume. People spend 15 years with Meijer working as a graphic designer, and they know store signage but nothing else."

In rapid succession, many graphic artists and designers found themselves out of work after the closure of Michigan Bulb or layoffs at Meijer Inc. and throughout the office furniture industry — and agencies that relied upon these clients.

When SI advertises for a graphic designer or Web developer, it consistently receives over 100 resumes.

"Some of them are just so unqualified," McGrath said. "They are very qualified for something else. They spent 15 years doing it. They say they'll work hard and they learn fast. I feel their pain. But I've got all these resumes from people who are experienced and are really good.

Not long ago, such a position would receive only a half-dozen applicants, and McGrath would hire one and hope for the best.

Today, the region is blessed with several design programs.

At Kendall College of Art and Design, 63 percent of design majors reported finding employment. At Grand Valley State University, of a 66 percent response from the class of 2004, 85 percent indicated they were employed, but only 60 percent in design-related positions.

Placement data were not available from the region's third-largest design school, Ferris State University.

It's estimated that more than 100 entry-level designers annually will enter a market where the staff of an average agency can fit inside a Ford Explorer.

In its 2005 Employment Forecast, The Employers Association of West Michigan declared graphic arts its least promising field.

The Cull Group is one of the few agencies in the region to consistently add employees over the past few years. It boasts a creative director from Calvin College, designers from Western Michigan University and Kendall, and an intern from GVSU.

"We have access to a very creative gene pool," said President Steve Cull. "It's a situation where the whole industry — visual communications and graphic arts, and even photographers — are struggling to find work."

"Lately, we've been inundated with people looking for work from around the country," said Vice President Jeff Weaver. "Then, with all the resumes we see, we see an even greater number of people looking for internships. That doesn't bode well for any coming graduates here."

Justice & Monroe recently filled a position after a six-month search.

"We had a hard time finding the right fit," said Vice President Jen Czekai. "The problem is that they don't have experience under their belt."

In hopes of strengthening the labor pool, a number of agencies have become involved with The Polishing Center.

Led by Frank Blossom of Frank Communications, the 15-week postgraduate course pairs designers with mentors from the local market who serve as eventual job contacts.

"Based on my experience with the local schools, they are graduating kids majoring in digital communications or graphic arts that the professional community does not feel are up to the job," Blossom said.

Through surveys of local creative directors, Blossom found agencies hoped to hire local entry-level talent, but the quality of applicants frustrated them. The single largest complaint was a lack of business savvy, Blossom said.

"As one guy put it, 'I see a lot of pretty stuff but no smart stuff.' It's design for design sake without strategy and solutions to business problems."

Freelance opportunities are widely available locally, according to Ad Club President Elizabeth Ratliff of the Highland Group. Noting that the fourth quarter of 2004 saw large increases in ad spending locally, she believes positions should begin to open up soon.

"But I think, commonly, students want the glitzy glamour job," she said. "Part of the problem is that they are looking for jobs they are not qualified for, and the rest are going to larger markets that they think are more exciting."

Although Ratliff believes this may change with the region's Cool City efforts, Blossom has noticed the trend as well.

"It's an interesting back and forth," he said. "They're either starting out here and trying to move up to a larger market or they've been in one for five to eight years and they want to come back." 

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