If anyone still thinks the North of England is a rundown area of old factories and grimy chimneys glowering down on perpetually rain-soaked streets, then they need to think again. Coronation Street is, after all, pure fiction.

Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool boast the results of massive investment over recent years. New buildings are changing the skyline of the northern cities as major companies move operations into these increasingly fashionable areas. Train and bus companies are beginning to respond to demand, improving and upgrading their stations and services to accommodate the vastly increased numbers of daily commuters. A range of trams, guided bus systems and park-and-ride systems are either already in operation or being planned.

On the social scene, the growth of new restaurants, bars and clubs has been incredible. Anyone who moved away more than a couple of years ago would be amazed at the vibrancy of the areas were they to return. Exhibition centres and concert venues have bolstered the social scene. The Commonwealth Games are coming to Manchester in 2002, Blackpool is as popular as ever and the beautiful Lake District is within an hour of the hustle and bustle of these vibrant cities. The 77 million visitors who come to the area each year find plenty of value for their total spends of £1.5bn, with the North becoming a popular tourist hotspot.

So what about the insurance market? People might think the number of mergers and acquisitions over the past decade has led to decreasing career opportunities, but they've probably been watching Corrie again. The insurance market in the North is in fact buoyant. All the major insurers are present in the area and several new companies are moving north. In terms of job opportunities, there has never been a higher volume of urgent and immediate vacancies.

What's more, the range of staff required has significantly widened within what has become a changing and developing industry. As with many other industries, there remains an acute technical staff shortage. Motor claims handlers, liability and injury specialists, commercial underwriters and a range of specialist staff (marine, credit insurance, professional indemnity, etc) are fought for, as employers find it increasingly difficult to find people.

Pro-active recruitment
Demand outstrips supply and employers are beginning to realise that they need to employ pro-active recruitment methods to find interested candidates, and then actively sell their company. Even throwing money into advertising campaigns has not proved successful. One firm reported spending £15,000 to find just one candidate suitable for interview.

A similar situation exists for good quality sales staff. Career opportunities abound for smart, switched-on sales people, particularly those with skills in new business development, as insurers and brokers seek to grab and expand their market share. Again, salaries for these people are rising.

Companies are increasingly facing the option of raising salaries or appointing more trainees and investing more time and money on training. This bodes well for graduates, who are eagerly sought out by the top companies at graduate and trade fairs. Firms are actively running programmes for graduates who then tend to be fast-tracked through training and moved into key positions quickly.

Nor is the industry closed to those with other backgrounds. Opportunities abound for customer service and telesales people from all sectors. Whether your work history is in selling mobile phones, holidays or stereos, basic skills

of customer service and sales are prized. Insurers are often willing to provide the training in technical, household and motor sectors, preferring candidates from other industries for some roles. Moreover, consider the range of companies involved with insurance – building societies and banks have been insuring for a while, but now supermarkets, car dealerships and many major industrial companies are self-insured or have a requirement for insurance personnel.

Competitive salaries
Salaries in the area are extremely competitive compared to the rest of the country, with a recent Hays survey showing salaries rising more than in most other areas. The shortage of candidates is likely to continue as companies look for ways of retaining their existing staff as well as attracting new recruits.

More importance has been placed on employee benefits and these are comparable to those across the UK; pension schemes, travel, lunch, sports facilities, mortgage subsidies, private health care and flexible hours are often offered as perks. Car parking has become a major issue in busy northern city centres and assistance towards this can often influence a prospective job seeker. In many instances, companies have moved away from busy city centres towards out of town purpose-built offices – ease of parking and cheaper rates are often reported as influencing the decision.

The cost of living in the North remains much better value than in the South. House prices are rising but not at the same rate, or speed, as in London. A three-bedroomed house in the greenbelt is probably a third of the price of its London equivalent. Commuting may be getting busier in northern cities, but remains far better than the South, with an excellent network of local motorways. Four major airports service the North, all of which are enjoying significant growth. Manchester has free buses from Piccadilly station to the city centre departing every minute.

The recruitment market in the North is currently very candidate-driven. Candidates can be more selective and find it easier to attend three or four interviews and have a good comparison of what is available both from a career and financial/benefits prospective.

Recruitment agencies and consultancies are having to earn their fees as never before, being forced to become pro-active in attracting candidates and not merely waiting for responses to adverts.

Grim up North? Not unless you're heading for Coronation Street.

  • Rob Bailey is a senior manager at Hays Inter-Selection.