The economic meltdown spooked people into staying put. But now they're getting restless. Could an explosion in the job market be just around the corner? Nick Hughes reports

The snow that brought chaos to Britain's road network last week forced workers to make some tough choices. Sit tight until things return to normal, or take a risk and brave the conditions.

It's a scenario all too familiar for anyone working in the fmcg sales sector. As companies nervously await the first signs of economic recovery, the jobs merry-go-round has ground to a near halt. Sales jobs are at a premium and with redundancies affecting half of all businesses, employees are opting to sit tight rather than risk putting themselves in the vulnerable position of being a team's newest recruit.

The standout figure from The Grocer's 2010 Salary Survey, compiled by Pursuit NHA, is that attrition rates within the sales force fell to an average of just 6%, down from 14% in 2009's survey. "The impression I have got from the past 15 months is that people are scared of changing jobs. It's about the devil they know versus the devil they don't," says Mark Smith, director of SmithCarey, a new fmcg sales and marketing recruitment business.

What also emerges from the survey, however, is that employees are starting to get itchy feet. Sixty three per cent of those surveyed stated their intention to switch jobs within the next 12 months, suggesting that once the first people do move, it could have a dramatic knock-on effect.

"We could see a domino effect," says David Evans, consultant at Pursuit NHA. "If a few positions open up, you may see a massive movement back into the recruitment market. It might be forced by individuals, or by companies becoming more confident and starting to recruit again."

There are signs this is already happening. Just last week, Kellogg's announced it was kicking off the new year with a major recruitment drive, which would see its field sales team top the 100 mark for the first time. "We went into 2009 with about 50 people, so we'll have doubled our field sales organisation in the space of 12 months or so," says Kellogg's sales director, Mike Taylor.

Those who are taking new jobs broadly fall into two camps, according to recruitment experts: people already out of work, and senior sales executives lured by hefty salaries and bonuses.

"We've been approaching people who are currently in jobs, but there has been a reluctance by clients to offer jobs to those people because they want someone quickly," says Andy Preston, director of recruitment agency Penman Executive. "So in the past 12 months, we've been prioritising working on behalf of candidates who are out of work. They're more willing to accept jobs and are less likely to get a counter offer."

Pursuit NHA calculates that salaries have increased just 2% across the industry compared with last year, which suggests that across all sales roles, organisations have been keeping a tight hold on the purse strings. But at the top end of the career ladder, they're finding they have to hire at the top end of their salary bands in order to persuade the industry's top talent to move on.

"People are thinking: 'If things don't go to plan and I lose my job, I'm going to need extra money to put towards any costs I may incur, so I want a 10 grand pay rise to move'," says Evans. "That's a totally different attitude from before the recession, where people would move thinking, 'if this doesn't work out I can just get another job'. Those other jobs aren't there at the moment."

If organisations are having to pay big bucks to attract sales people, it stands to reason that employers are having to offer strong incentives to ensure they keep hold of their most valuable assets. The survey found examples of managers being paid 50% of their salary up front as a two-year bonus, refundable should they leave within the next two years.

"There's been a significant rise in companies offering counter-offers to keep people. As soon as good employees hand their notice in, they're being offered a two, three or five grand pay rise, because the cost of replacing them has been so much more significant than losing them," says Preston.

Evans concurs that the industry's top sales talent is in a powerful negotiating position. "If you are a talented individual and you're getting stifled because there aren't internal roles available, then the options are to go out and find another job or stay where you are. If the organisation wants to retain you and ensure you give what you've always given, then they need to offer some kind of incentive."

At the sales director level, such incentives have been in the form of increased bonuses as opposed to higher salaries. While an average salary has increased 3% to £92,439, an average bonus has risen 17.7% to £22,185. A senior national account manager, meanwhile, can expect to earn over £53,000 and a further £11,000 in bonuses.

"If you're a senior NAM in one of the top 50 fmcg companies, you'll be paid very well to look after that business," says Evans. "The big retailers are squeezing really hard on their suppliers so you need your top talent to manage those discussions."

Despite the rewards being offered to senior executives, there's no sign of junior employees being forced to accept less money to balance the books. Only territory managers, whose average salary has increased by just 1%, are having to make do with a below-2% pay rise in 2010 although they are being compensated with a 21.2% average increase in bonus payments.

"Higher-end or top-band salary increases have to be paid for somehow, but I'm not sure they are going to have much effect on the salaries of lower positions," says Evans. "I think employers will look at their total budget and headcount first."

More than half of respondents said there had been sales redundancies in their organisation in the past 12 months, while 32% had seen a sales recruitment freeze. In many cases, employees who survived the cut have had to assume greater responsibilities; 51% said they had seen an increase in their hours in the past year, compared with just 8% who said their hours had decreased.

"In previous years, when a food manufacturer had a new customer, it would appoint a new person to look after that customer," says Preston. "Now they're using current staff."

That greater responsibility has brought greater stress, according to Smith. "People are definitely under more pressure. Clients have told me they've noticed an upsurge in how hard people are working over the past 15 months. Some bosses are saying their employees' output has gone up by as much as 15%. Staff don't want to make a mistake because they are scared of what might happen to their job if they do."

If the jobs market is to open up once again, employers and employees will need to overcome this fear factor. Smith believes it will take an upturn in the performance of the wider economy for confidence to return. "When people see the outlook improving, they'll be more inclined to buy a house or a car or a holiday. They will also be less nervous about changing jobs. The more career-minded people think: 'I've sat here for 15 months with my head down, but I'm getting to the point now where I can't sit here any longer'."

There are already signs of movement. The example of Kellogg's demonstrates that businesses are still actively looking to grow their sales forces, although in Kellogg's case, through unconventional avenues. The cereal maker is stressing that previous sales experience is not essential for its newly created roles.

"We're looking at people who haven't chosen sales as a first career but have taken a different tack, such as finance or marketing," says Taylor. "They can bring a different perspective, new ideas and fresh thinking to a national account manager role. This is about tapping into that market."

With a glut of talented graduates struggling to get a foot on the career ladder in worse-hit professions, the next generation of account managers may not be salesmen by trade but accountants, marketers or lawyers.

One thing the experts agree on is that activity in the first quarter will give a clear signal of how the jobs market will perform in 2010. "It'll be interesting to see how things pan out in the next few weeks," says Preston. "I do believe some people will see the economy starting to settle down and decide now is the time to get out there and look for their next career opportunity."

And if they start to move in numbers, the first domino will have toppled.

For further information on the 2010 Pursuit NHA Salary Survey please contact 0118 940 5100.