What do most recruitment agencies actually do, apart from take an unfeasibly large fee and help to create an unstable employment environment?

Do you ever wonder what some recruitment agents bring to the party? I’m responsible for recruitment here at Conisbee and I seem to be receiving more and more approaches from organisations that say they can find me good people, even though in some cases the words “chartered” or “CAD” don’t register with the over-friendly charmer at the other end of the phone. There are a few good agents around whom I rely on, but sadly I get the impression they’re in the minority.

What do these other “agents” actually do? Is an interview the same as a phone call? Do they really help candidates prepare CVs – in which case how unimportant do they think spelling, grammar and logic are to an employer? What kind of business requires the payment of 27.5% fee? And why, after a brief phone call, do they offer new customer a special introductory rate of 17.5%? Or reward regular customer with the same percentage? We all have to be flexible in pricing but that’s a suspiciously big discount, albeit on an absurd initial figure.

The agents’ businesses must depend on their knowledge of the needs of specific clients, so why do they send me, a structural engineer, lists of QSs looking for work? What kind of personal service is it when they send flyers introducing themselves even after we’ve received CVs from them and spoken on the phone several times?

I know what the agent means when they say in their covering email “If this candidate can be of assistants …” I know what the candidate is saying – although I struggle with the sentiment – when their CV says they are “a true team player that’s thrives on success of the team and his contribution”. I know that the Institute of Structural Engineers is actually the Institution of Structural Engineers and I know that maybe I should get out more. But frankly, if this degree of rigour is lacking in something as important as a CV, I’m already nervous of how that difficult staircase design or that tricky little survey report would turn out.

I could fill this article with other examples of such sloppiness but, although initially amusing, they just waste employers’ time. However, there is a more fundamental issue. How do the agents’ long-term aims fit in with those of our industry as a whole? Recruitment and retention are arguably two of the biggest issues that construction faces. Assuming the earth’s environment can hold out, society will always need buildings but if nobody can design, build or repair them, the industry ceases to be.

A relatively stable employment environment is essential in running a successful organisation and such employers, be they clients or “suppliers”, are the essence of that success. An employer who can rely on a reasonably steady workforce can invest in training. Our industry’s skills then remain, and so, ultimately, does our industry.

How do the agents’ long-term aims fit in with those of our industry as a whole? What about the incidents where young engineers have been approached by an agent who placed them with me only six months earlier?

I’ve been careful to include the word “relatively” because I’m not suggesting that people should stay with the same employer for life or put up with a bad one. But changing jobs every 18 months benefits nobody other than the agents. Depending on the individual and the employer, moving jobs every few years can be healthy, but the CV of a 30 year old with five or six previous employers raises questions.

Most difficult of all, however, are the incidents I have had heard of where young engineers have been approached by an agent who placed them with me only six months earlier. You can imagine the conversation: “Looking after you are they? You know So-and-sos are desperate and are offering a very good package …” Promising young engineer, greener grass, and so on. Other engineering practices tell me similar stories and I imagine it happens in other professions.

That’s business, you say; get over it. Yes it is, and I will, but not without first looking at the web site of the agents’ trade body. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation has a “code of good practice” and section 26 says that, unless initiated and confirmed in writing by the employee, there should be no contact between the agent and the employee after the agent has placed the employee in a job. Fine sentiments, but difficult to police I accept. But please keep trying REC, or you may find that the destabilising effect of an unnecessarily high staff turnover, affects the goose’s egg-laying capacity.

Finally, and rather obviously, if you are looking for a job, please visit websites of possible companies and approach them directly regardless of whether they are advertising vacancies or not. Even if it uses a typical agent, an employer is still paying several thousand pounds to take you on. That must be worth effort on your part – and your potential employer will realise that.