The biggest source of recruitment advertising for regional and local newspapers is showing signs of running dry.
The NHS, with 1.3m workers the UK's biggest employer, spends £120m annually on recruitment advertising in England, more than two-thirds of it on regional press and the remainder mainly on specialist medical trade titles.
That rich source of revenue is under threat due to the growing success of the NHS' nascent in-house online recruitment site NHS Jobs. NHS Trusts began experimenting with the website in November 2003 and now 575 of the 650 trusts use it to varying degrees.
Last month NHS Employers, the Department of Health arm that operates NHS Jobs, published a report on its initial cost savings. In the six months to 30 September last year, trusts using the job site saved £5m in filling 10,200 jobs. Of that figure, £4m was saved by not using paid advertising and £1m by reducing back-office administrative costs, as the site uses a single online application form.
NHS Jobs attracts 1m visitors a month and is already the UK's fourth-biggest job board behind Jobsite, Totaljobs and Reed. Last year trusts placed 76,500 jobs on the site.
Stuart Morison, NHS Jobs' service manager at NHS Employers, says it is on target to deliver £25m in savings by 2008 - money that he says will be ploughed back into patient care. 'Most of those savings will have come from the trusts not having to place ads in local press and specialist journals,' he says.
It is perhaps no coincidence that on the same day that NHS Employers published its cost-saving study, The Newspaper Society, which represents 1300 regional and local newspapers, met with NHS Employers and the Digital Content Forum, a discussion group sponsored by the DTI and comprising industry and government departments, to influence policy-making.
Publishers are not only concerned about lost NHS business, they are also worried that other government departments will see the NHS' success and replicate it. Some argue that they should have been more involved in the set-up of NHS Jobs, when they could have agreed ways to work together to benefit advertisers.
The Newspaper Society has also released findings of research conducted by media strategy consultancy Human Capital based on a survey sent to 8000 people in March last year.
It found that regional newspapers were the most useful source for job seekers.
It plans to present its findings to NHS Employers.
Robert Ray, marketing director of The Newspaper Society, says that local newspapers still have a role to play in attracting applicants. Relying on an online job site would miss causal 'job browsers' who are not proactively looking for a new job but would consider one if they came across it while flicking through a paper. Such browsers account for 32% of the 51% of the working population looking for a new job, according to the study.
'Browsers are hugely important to many public-sector employers, which look to attract people from other public-sector professions or the private sector,' says Ray. 'Take the NHS as an example; it is trying to get former nurses to return to work. They aren't likely to go to a destination website, but they might see an ad in their local paper.'
Fifty one per cent of respondents to the survey said local newspapers would be the first place they would go to find a new job. Online local newspapers would be the first port of call for 42% of them, with local NHS websites third at 7%.
Some 400,000 candidates have registered with NHS Jobs, with many signing up to an email alert service. The site receives 1m applications a month.
Morison counters the 'missed browsers' argument with the fact that on average every vacancy receives 14 applicants.
'In the majority of cases the service is generating enough applications and traffic to the site to fulfil the majority of vacancies,' he says.
'For some of the more specialist roles, trusts may find they need to support it with some other form of paid advertising.'
Newspapers and trade magazines are already registering the effect of lower levels of NHS recruitment advertising, although this is due in part to the government scaling back a recruitment drive it launched several years ago.
In its trading statement for the six months to 30 September last year, Emap attributed a 30% expected decline in recruitment advertising volumes at Nursing Times to NHS Jobs and the Department of Health's slowdown in recruitment. Johnson Press admitted in its trading statement last December that its regional newspapers were seeing some migration to the NHS Jobs website.
The site's unique advantage is that not only does it save trust money, it also saves management time. The applications are online, so it can link into local NHS job sites and job description packs can be emailed to candidates.
For candidates, it provides a 'one-stop shop' for information about jobs and they only need to complete the online application form once and then tailor it to suit multiple job applications. Since print ads direct applicants to NHS Jobs anyway, going there could become second nature.