Recruiting for recruitment: how agencies attract the best talent into the industry

There’s no other way of saying it – agencies face a big problem,” says Jonathan Graham, founder of Leeds-based IT specialist recruitment firm Inward Revenue.

“Ever since tuition fees, expectations of what a university education will give back to people have escalated; graduates have much higher aims. They’re thinking of banking, finance, accountancy, certainly not entering recruitment.”

For all those agency heads whose business is founded on placing the highest-quality candidates into their client’s companies, it’s perhaps ironic that finding talent to join their own organisations is becoming increasingly difficult.

“We know the industry overall has an image problem,” adds Graham, “but while individuals may aspire to join the larger Hays or Michael Pages of this world, it is clear smaller agencies are struggling to provide the personal identification young people crave from who they work for.”

Invest in staff

So worried was Graham that he actually re-interviewed people that had rejected job offers to join his company to out why.

“What we were surprised to learn was how things we thought would be attractive – like potential for money and having fast-paced environments – was turning people off. It was creating the impression we were an overly tough industry.”

The results have led to the formulation of a year-long training period, to make it clear to people that they are being invested in, and not thrown in at the deep end. Talent is only made client-facing after they have reached certain goals, and there are softer element like Xboxes in the office, team nights and even ‘gamified-style’ league-tables where staff can see their performance (projected onto a screen), almost like a computer game high-score table.

If agencies are to attract and hold onto the best talent for their own organisations, this is just the tip of the iceberg according to experts.

“I don’t believe recruitment firms are doing enough to recruit the best talent,” says Simon Conington, MD of resourcing firm, BPS World.

“What often happens is that the same people simply migrate between similar organisations. This distorts brands’ own individuality as their values are eroded by individuals with different sets of characteristics.”

Conington reflects the oft-held view that agencies are often too quick to hire the same ‘type’ of person – the pushy sales-types, motivated by bonuses and short-term gain rather than long-term business – because that’s what’s worked, and because too many are risk-averse to try something different.

Instead, he says he looks for consultants rather than salespeople, using psychometrics to recruit, before placing them into its Rising Stars Apprenticeship programme which nurtures them into fully-fledged recruitment agents.

Insider knowledge

But even this, say some, means agencies will still cut themselves off from vast pools of untapped talent. This is why one firm, The Candidate, which recruits into the digital media sector, says it does things rather differently. It believes the best talent it needs are those who have previously worked in the areas it places people into – ie digital marketing experts.

Brian Matthews, managing partner, says: “We’re in a talent-shortage sector, yet we manage to hire people with degrees in PR and marketing, and those with digital experience because that’s who we’ve targeted.”

He says not only does having former industry talent mean they know the pressures of the jobs they’ll be placing people into for clients, but clients respond to their former inside knowledge.

“It’s a trust issue,” he says. “Our staff know what our clients need because they’ve done it themselves [he says they’ve only had three people drop-out of placements in three years], and the result is that we are the preferred supplier to the three largest media agencies in Manchester.”

He accepts persuading digital marketers to move into recruitment hasn’t been easy, and the poaching process does reveal the stereotypes people hold of the recruitment sector, but Matthews says the effort is worth it.

“We recognise these people are different, so will design their jobs to be less targets-driven,” he says. “As long as we’re able to facilitate a career for these people, I think that’s all that matters. We encourage them to still have their toe in the sector, by supporting them on placements, so they stay up-to-date with what’s changing in this sector.”

Encourage diversity

Hiring people from the sector agencies place into is one way of getting the best talent, but another step being taken is to attract new people completely into the industry by casting their search nets still wider.

At Barrington Hibbert Associates, founder Michael Barrington-Hibbert is fast developing a track record for hiring from under-represented minority groups, working with an organisation called The Brokerage, which helps provide young people with a pathway into industries they may not have previously considered.

He says: “Hiring people from public school background might be relevant when placing a CEO, but what the recruitment sector really needs most is people that can think differently, not be part of the crowd, and suggest to clients people they may not have been thought of before.”

Barrington-Hibbert recently a new starter, who came from a tough Hackney council estate, but he calls him one of his “best hires,” because he has a will to succeed.

He says: “There is so much more value-add to be had from a diverse talent pool. “We also recently hired a young Muslim girl and during talks with a German client, she spoke fluent German. The client was blown away by this.”

He accepts he still has bills to pay, and there is a typical commission structure in place, but he says having a broader range of people makes for being able to offer more personal rewards – giving someone a few days off for a job well done, or a spa-break, or Selfridges vouchers etc.

“I run a charity in Africa, and I’ve just told the team that if they hit our repeat business targets I’ll take them there,” he adds. “These are the sorts of things we can do to motivate diverse people.”

For all agencies, it seems the perks on offer will merely be the things people expect, and that it’s the bigger picture that needs to be explained to attract them in.

Tony Wilmot, director at Frontline recruitment, says: “Yes, we’ll offer all the usual staff perks – health and life cover, income protection, loyalty cards, private medical insurance and pensions, but what we really look for is people that are willing to grow with us.

“We don’t get engrossed with people’s previous experience, but we’ll assess the similarities that make for good people. By making it clear we want to give people ownership of our brand, we’re tapping into the more entrepreneurially-based talent, who are excited by running their own operations.”

It’s clear that if agencies go the extra mile explaining the benefits of their own organisation, finding and retaining talent for their own businesses will come more easily.

So, what are you waiting for? As you will no doubt tell your clients, talent is out there – you just have to find it, and make them aware of you.