Time for a change?

Published:  15 August, 2012

What do employers need to know when sourcing candidates? Could jobseekers be better prepared? How can a recruitment agency smooth the process? Lisa Arcangeli talks to the top companies in the field and discovers a diverse and surprisingly buoyant market.

“Wherever a vacancy is attracting candidates from within the industry, a recruitment agency should be the last port of call,” says Jeff Hulme, the managing director of Sharples Davies. The exception to this is where time and internal resources are an issue. Companies and candidates, he believes, should get out their little black books and identify who they know in the industry and ‘network’ first.

“When this criterion has been explored, they should consider whether or not to use social networking sites such as LinkedIn and job boards like Monster, etc. Most people looking for work will automatically register in those ‘announced market’ environments and these are available to both clients and agencies,” Mr Hulme reasons.

If time is a constraint or there are a lack of resources with which to handle the recruitment process; or if management time is simply too precious, a recruitment consultancy can be brought into the equation earlier on to manage the entire process.

“Clients should demand a specific level of performance from a recruitment consultancy, almost like a service level agreement,” Mr Hulme advocates. Agencies will charge in a number of ways, fixed fees, salary on commencement, and some on the aggregate first year’s remuneration. So fees can be quite hefty and clients need to know that they are getting value for money.

“Obviously, most companies know their business well, but when they look at themselves, they don’t really see who they are,” Mr Hulme says.

“When reading a company’s website, you have to ask whether that is the real company. To whom is their message intended – shareholders, competitors, employees, their customers? Sometimes companies can start to believe their own propaganda,” he warns.

“When we sit down with the client, we identify who the company is and try to personify it. What is the current external environment and performance? How does it behave? How does it operate? What is the real expectation for the new position? What internal environment will the candidate be entering? What are its values and its culture?

“Most managing directors or chairmen would tell me they are lovely people. I know some that are strong, some weak; some may even be bullies and some who are great to work for.

“If you cascade their differing styles down through a company, whether it’s a managing director, sales director or a supervisor recruiting, there will be an impact on candidate fit,” Mr Hulme says.

“Specific competences of the role are always of key importance and therefore need assessment, but the fit of a candidate into the company and team should also be assessed. Failure to do this can lead to poor performance and retention problems.

“When most companies send us a job description, they are usually dated, too scripted or even a standard template that has been downloaded. Our intimate knowledge of the industry allows us to work with clients to produce a ‘job profile’ which is the specific candidate ‘recipe’ behind a generalist job description.”

Mr Hulme adds that surprisingly, the ‘unannounced market’ is where most of the candidates are coming from at present. “That’s where people are actively looking for a new opportunity or progression but have not registered with agencies or job boards. They may be dissatisfied with their existing employment, perhaps due to pay freezes and lack of opportunities for progression. The trigger is there for them to move and usually when we interview these candidates they have long-term career plans.”

Advertising will attract these candidates, but he warns that headhunting from the ‘unannounced market’ needs careful assessment and a good agency should investigate the reasons for leaving.

“We want to introduce candidates who are looking to move for the right reasons and bring talent with them,” says Mr Hulme. “We tend to ‘interest assess’ rather than headhunt because it removes ego, identifies talent and means candidates have to compete.”

A good agency’s job, he explains, is to tease out information to improve candidate selection. Understanding the environment the role will be in, such as the impact of building regulations, competitors’ activity and knowing which sectors of the market are picking up and which are sluggish impacts on candidate selection.

It is important that candidates also make similar assessments when invited for interview rather just relying on their CV. Preparation, research and the ability to articulate their talent separates candidates. “These are the candidates we are trying to identify,” says Mr Hulme.

Industry knowledge is important and a knowledgeable agency is vital unless you are only thinking about filling general roles where core competencies are more important such as an accountant, bookkeeper or a call centre manager, he explains.

“A good agency that is dedicated to the market will be able to be objective and candid because it knows what it is talking about, candidates and clients relate to this and it instils trust.”

A good agency should be able to give advice on the size of the candidate pool and whether a candidate specification exists and at what remuneration rate. These days though, companies have to be more forensic, he believes. “The market has become far more demanding and employment costs are a massive part of the running of your business. Ticking one or two boxes is not enough; you have to tick all of them.

“When the recession came along with its redundancies and cost reductions, the justification of appointments became critical. Adding, say £30 000-£50 000 a year to a wage bill, plus cars and other benefits, companies need to know they will be getting a very good return on their investment,” he says.

Because of these cost pressures, companies’ expectations of payback times have been compressed. “Companies want people to come with proven levels of competence and deliverable abilities. Those people are also expected to require less training or hand-holding,” Mr Hulme explains.

“A huge driver for recruitment agencies has been energy reduction and carbon-saving and the Green Deal,” Mr Hulme says, “even though no-one really knows how effective it will be, where the funding is coming from or how fast it will roll out. “What everybody has known for a while is that they will need to have resources in place before its launch in October 2012. To do so, companies’ specifications of the individuals they require are becoming more defined as they start to understand how they will manage future income streams and identify skill shortages. Sharples Davies prides itself on being forensic. “We offer a range of psychometric tests,” Mr Hulme says.

“Looking at the company, department or team traits such as dominant/passive, people-oriented or not, fast or slow-pace, structured or unstructured environment, impacts on candidate selection.

“We can conduct behavioural and emotional intelligence profiles of candidates, along with assessments of general intelligence and aptitude,” Mr Hulme relates.

“We don’t send our clients CVs anyway; we always send profiles, so we are half way there from the start. We’re not a bums-on-seats agency and I prefer our clients challenge what we do.

“Whatever a client is paying us, we should be prepared to be nailed to the floor regarding the service we give them.

“They should ask us for detail at each stage of the process and ensure they are receiving quality and value for money. I am prepared for my business to be quizzed and our standards challenged.”

Tony Smith, managing director of the Courtney Smith Group, says May was the best month of the year for his business.

“There is always demand for candidates, but these days, there are also lots of vacancies.”

Since October 2008, companies have been drastically shedding jobs. Now, however, they cannot cut back any more if they are to maintain their service levels.

“That means there is more choice for candidates now than there has been for the past few years,” Mr Smith says. There is also more optimism in the market, too, he reports.

“Clients are still cautious and because of that caution, they want better calibre candidates,” Mr Smith states. “Some of my clients have used LinkedIn but found that it took too many man-hours and didn’t find it to be particularly successful.

“Even though LinkedIn is becoming a more powerful tool, many people are wary about putting their details on this site. That’s why my business is busy with clients who prefer to use a more traditional method of registering their vacancies.

“Clients want value for money and although there has always been an issue about agency fees, in order to get the right person, companies have to be willing to pay, or else they’ll be left behind behind,” Mr Smith says. 

The really bad times experienced in 2008-09 seem to be over, he admits.

“This year at Ecobuild, my team came back feeling very positive thanks to the feedback they received from both manufacturers and merchants at the show.

“There was a big black hole, but now clients are starting to plan how they are going to get out of it,” he says. The next 12 months will see steady growth, he believes, or at least greater market stability. In March 2010, Courtney Smith opened a building services division incorporating lighting, electrical, HVAC and cable manufacturers.

“This business is flying,” Mr Smith says, “with more enquiries from independents and national merchants.” For employers seeking candidates, he recommends that they meet with the consultancy.

“That way, they can see the style of the agency representing them and we can meet the client and get to know their ‘culture’ and the business they represent.

“Anybody who works closely with a consultancy needs to give that agency more time, clearer briefs and make more use of psychometric testing,” he believes. These testing products, Mr Smith recommends, should be used a part of the interview process, but not as a decision process.

Candidates need to do much more research than they did in the past.

“They have to be prepared for interviews, take the time and make the effort to look at their prospective employer.

“Go into the merchant and ask them when they last had a call from a representative, how did they compare in terms of their pricing, service and quality as opposed to competitors? That sort of research gives the candidate first-hand market knowledge,” he urges.

Refine, research and find out who you will be seeing. “The vacancies are out there, but candidates have to be sharper these days and better prepared to get the right job.”

Adding value is essential for any business and SRS is keen to give its clients and candidates as much extra help as possible. Every consultant on the SRS team has worked in the industry and has specialist knowledge, explains managing director Mark Hall. “That way, when they talk to clients or candidates, they speak a language they can understand and cut through the nonsense. With their experience they can decipher what candidates and clients say and what they really want.”

The SRS website is currently being revamped and, says Mr Hall, it will  feature psychometric test practising along with other sections to help candidates ensure they are presenting themselves in the best possible way. This package will also enable candidates to go onto the site and get used to how these tests look, how they operate and how to work within the time parameters to help them perform to the best of their ability when they actually have to do the real thing.

“It won’t offer personality profiling because with sales people, everyone has a different style which they adopt in their sales process,” Mr Hall explains. “What it does do, however, is to focus the thought process, examine numerical and statistical ability and all the things that they do.”

“We are also offering clients psychometric profiles for the final interview stages of the process,” he says. With a special online link, the client can download a copy of the results. “That way, clients can verify the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. This feature is designed to add value and is part of the package that recruitment agencies need to give their clients, Mr Hall believes. “We ask: what more can we offer? What more does the client need? What can we do to smooth their path?” Like the other companies interviewed in this article, he concurs that there are indeed vast amounts of vacancies in the market. The question is: are there any good candidates?

“We’re in a bit of a hiatus at present,” Mr Hall states. “We may be in a recession, but companies cannot afford to sit back. You need to look for quality staff to pull you through a recession.” Companies are losing good candidates because of dithering, he warns. Candidates are also slipping through the net because many who may be poised to move from a salary of ‘X’, will come in on an offer of ‘X plus 5%’.

“That makes it easy for their current employer to turn around and offer them more to keep them. Then it all goes round again,” Mr Hall says. There are also a lot of people trying to knock square pegs into round holes, he comments. Then, six months later it has all gone wrong and clients are back to square one.

“There are some quality candidates on the market, but we always take the line that good people are not always looking for jobs. It’s our role to seek them out, contact them, refresh them, ask them how they are doing and tell them about a couple of opportunities that happen to be around.

“With over 21 years of operating in this field we have an extensive database in all disciplines to draw from.

“What amazes me is that clients are still willing to sign exclusive deals and some of the bigger national agencies upfront, usually agreeing to excessive fees. Then, two months down the line they still haven’t found anybody when we could have offered suitable candidates in two days.” SRS, he points out, operates on a no-win, no-fee basis. Companies who enlist a number of agencies to fill a vacancy are doing themselves no favours.

“It dilutes the process,” Mr Hall says. “People are very reticent to jump into a new job just for the sake of it at the moment,” he adds. “Every time they turn the television on the words ‘recession’ and ‘double dip’ are being used. There’s bad news from Greece this week or from Spain the next. Charley Farley is sitting at home and thinking about changing job. His wife says ‘don’t be stupid, we’ve got a mortgage to pay’.”

“The bad press hasn’t helped our industry,” Mr Hall says. “A lot of merchants and manufacturers you speak to will tell you business is getting better. “Then you turn on the news and suddenly it’s down. And they say the construction industry is supposed to be a barometer of economic activity.

“The independent merchants and specialist distributors are actually getting stronger, because what they are doing is allowing their staff to trade again, and build up relationships with key individuals in both customer and supplier organisations” he observes.

“The nationals are going down the price book policy route and that stifles trade.” What about the statement that employers prefer candidates who are working to those who are out of work?

“An employer will perceive that someone who has a job will also have a live customer base that they can bring with them.

“Most sales people will say that they can bring all their customers across. The reality, if they are lucky, is that they will be able to bring a reasonable percentage of their customers across immediately. The rest may follow in time. Clients should be looking for the long-term potential of a candidate within their business,” Mr Hall says. The industry has had a bumpy ride for the past few years. Clients should appreciate that when some candidates’ career history seems to have taken one or two strange turns, usually these have been as a result of redundancies or cutbacks by employers.

“That’s why it is not always fair to judge a candidate as unsuitable just because of this. They often have a wealth of knowledge and experience,” Mr Hall comments. “If you’ve got someone who has the want and the will, you’re 85% there. The rest is just fine-tuning.”

According to Neil Smith of Anthony Neil Associates: “there is definitely a shortage of good quality people at present. This is something which many of our clients find surprising.

“In terms of vacancies, it’s very busy, so the opportunities are out there. But, from a candidate’s perspective, there is a certain reluctance to move – particularly if they already have a job.” This, he explains is causing a bottleneck of talent within the industry.“People aren’t prepared to move in the way they were five years ago,” he explains. “The gamble factor wasn’t as high as it is today.” However, Mr Smith states, from a candidate’s point-of-view, even in a slower economic climate, there is still a great opportunity for career progression.

“Even in times like these, it can be a good idea to consider a career move.” Sometimes people simply have to move in order to expand their career, he says. “Not every employer is able to offer every employee a definite career path.” To ease the bottleneck and make the most of an agency’s services, candidates and employers both need to be prepared to consider ‘transferable skill sets’.

“Clients want 10 out of 10 boxes ticked and that means they are narrowing their avenues too much,” Mr Smith explains. “We advise clients to look at the overall skill set of the person, not only their current experience. “For example, if a heavyside merchant is seeking a salesperson and wants an individual from a similar background, we challenge the merchant.

“Why? A salesman from a lightside merchanting background, with proper training, will be able to use similar processes – other than products – because the routes to market are similar.” He admits he has had some resistance to this line of lateral thinking.

“However, it’s these types of preconceptions that can mean that a business will become far too insular, because it will lack fresh ideas,” he says. “The companies who have adopted this line of thinking have certainly benefited from doing so,” he comments. Candidates seeking employment have to be well prepared.

“Access to information is easy these days. “Everything is available on the internet. So, candidates must research the business they are targeting and look at its competitor companies in some detail or else they are likely to fall at the first hurdle,” Mr Smith warns. Agencies tend to view sites like LinkedIn as both a threat and an opportunity. “LinkedIn may have some potential confidentiality issues,” Mr Smith says, adding that “most candidates that are currently employed prefer to be represented by a third party rather than exposing themselves directly”. Companies struggling to find candidates should put themselves in the hands of a professional recruiter.

“We can offer them a search and selection process where we can highlight certain experience and skill sets required for the job, then put together a targeted campaign to attract people from the relevant market sectors. “Companies often believe that the right people are roaming the streets looking for their job.

“Some people think that if they put an ad on LinkedIn or on a general job site, then they will be inundated with wonderful candidates. That is clearly not the case. Your business needs to be ‘sold’ or represented properly,” Mr Smith explains. “As an agency, we are able to target prospective candidates and promote the company that we are working for. “A candidate needs to know why they should be willing to take the gamble to move to a particular company. A proper recruitment campaign can ‘sell the job’ and gain the candidate’s interest.” Mr Smith, who is also an accredited Thomas profiler, is a keen believer in psychometric testing. He recommends it for senior appointments.

“For internal moves, it can be useful to show a company at what stage its key people are at in their existing roles.

“Profiling is also a good way to identify key strengths and potential weaknesses. These days, there can be no hiding. Everyone needs to make a difference and a contribution. It’s what good people do.”

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