In 1985 the HAY-MSL Index of advertised executive vacancies reached its highest level since it was started in 1959; the number of vacancies flowing through Jobcentres was the greatest since 1979; and employer competition for newly qualified graduates was the most intense for many years.

This high level of recruitment activity was totally unexpected.

For 30 years the recruitment market has followed a pattern of alternating boom and recession. So, in recent years, recruitment specialists have been able to predict accurately the timing of each upturn and downturn. The forecasters were expecting the market to enter a new recession at the start of last year. This did not come - and nobody is sure why.

Historians studying the 20th-century labor market are likely to find the 1980s, and 1985 in particular, of special interest. Until the last recession, as the number of job vacancies increased or decreased, so the numbers of unemployed fell or rose.

But in the early summer of 1981 vacancies started to increase as we drew out of the recession, but unemployment also continued to rise.

The trend both for vacancies and for unemployment has been upward ever since. This apparent paradox has arisen because we are now at the center of a new industrial revolution involving a massive restructuring of our economy.

Many of the unemployed have limited skills or talents which are no longer required, while employers are starved of a wide variety of skills which are in short supply.

Furthermore, employers are structuring their workforces in new ways which provide them with greater flexibility. This includes having a smaller core of permanent employees and making greater use of temporary part-time and self-employed workers.

Thus many of the vacancies now arising are for posts which those seeking full-time permanent employment find unattractive.

Though the rise in unemployment at a time of increasing job vacancies can be fairly simply explained, we do not yet know why the cyclic pattern of the past has changed and so allowed 1985 to be a year of recruitment boom.

The number of vacancies flowing into Jobcentres in 1985 was just under four per cent higher than in 1984. As these are claimed by the Department of Employment to represent about a third of all the vacancies in the economy, UK employers last year had more than 7 1/4 million vacancies to fill.

Even this may be an under-estimate because some evidence suggests that Jobcentres handle a lower proportion of vacancies, perhaps no more than a quarter, at times when the recruitment market is buoyant and skills in short supply.

Thus in 1985 there may have been as many as 10 million vacancies, approaching the boom levels of the mid-1970s.

The present boom has been most marked in the service industries and those sectors of manufacturing which use high technology to make high-value-added goods. Those with technical, professional and management skills and experience have been most in demand.

This is apparent from the pattern of recruitment advertising appearing in the national newspapers. In 1985 the growth in job advertising volume in a sample of 12 national newspapers plus The London Standard was 14.3 per cent up on 1984.

However, the growth in the popular dailies was only 1.3 per cent while that in the quality newspapers was 16.9 per cent. Reflecting the buoyancy of the overall jobs market in London, The London Standard showed a growth of 10.1 per cent.

Within the overall pattern of jobs advertising, there are intriguing variations. Thus the quality dailies showed a growth of just over 19 per cent but their Sunday equivalents gained less than seven per cent. The latter was accounted for solely by The Sunday Time's growth of 13 per cent. The Sunday Telegraph and The Observer both fell sharply.

Among the dailies, The Daily Telegraph showed a fall of 11 per cent, leaving The Guardian to carry the largest volume of recruitment advertising of any national newspaper.

Even so, the largest gains were made by The Times with a volume increase of more than 73 per cent between 1984 and 1985. The middle-market papers, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, showed a joint growth of just over one per cent, little more than the remaining populars with a joint growth of just under one per cent.

Executive Post, the weekly jobs newspaper published by the Manpower Service Commission's PER, showed a 6.3 growth in the number of vacancies advertised. Though it claims to have advertised 23,220 vacancies in 1985, this is almost certainly a significant under-estimate in that it appears to under-count multiple vacancies.

The index shows that in the last quarter there was a 26 per cent fall in demand for research, development and design people over the same period in 1984. There was also a 14 per cent drop in demand for production management and a seven per cent fall for marketing and sales.

The largest sector of growth was accounting and finance. This pattern, in the past, has tended to herald a drop in the recruitment market.

The Manpower Survey of Employment Prospects, normally a reliable indicator, similarly indicates a slowing-down of the jobs market. The survey of 1,629 employers found that 20 per cent expect to increase staffing in the first quarter of this year and 14 per cent expect staff cuts.

The report notes: 'This is the first time in five years that prospects for the first quarter have failed to show improvement over the first quarter of the prior year. '

Vacancies flowing into Jobcentres reached a peak last October and are now, on a seasonally adjusted basis, declining.

The outlook for newly-qualified graduates in 1986 looks more promising. A joint survey by the Standing Conference of Employers and Graduates, the Central Services Unit and the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services predicts that employer demand will be up by four per cent on 1985 although graduate supply will be down.

However this increase is likely to be centered on non-manufacturing recruiters with big increases in transport and communications (32 per cent) and in the public sector (13 per cent). Manufacturing vacancies are predicted to fall by nine per cent.

It is too soon to know whether we have returned to the old cycle and to dismiss 1985 as an aberrant year. But even if we are now entering a jobs recession, it seems most unlikely that it will be as severe as the last.

The HAY-MSL Index, which has been monitoring selected executive vacancies advertised in five national newspaper and The Economist since 1959, reached its all-time peak in the second quarter of 1985.

The index's moving annual total, which smooths out seasonal variations, has changed little through 1985, moving through the four quarters from 174, through 176 and 175 and back to 174. However, in the final quarter there were signs that the market may now be moving from a high plateau towards a decline.


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