No place for hurt feelings in recruitment

Getting frustrated in your dealings with recruitment agencies? Maybe you need to bone up your skills, change your expectations, or change agency.

We've had some correspondence in the past month or so about recruitment agencies, exposing a misconception in the minds of some people about how agencies make a buck. They do so, as spelt-out in a story in Computerworld (Recruiting's harsh reality), by charging employers a commission for helping them to hire an appropriately skilled person for a particular job. The job might be short-term or long-term (in the IT industry they're often short contract positions for the duration of a project); and the fee might be a one-off amount or continue for the duration of the placement.

Someone scanning the back pages of Computerworld for a job is naturally going to get excited at the selection of often apparently well-paid positions on offer. A typical issue of the publication has about 10 pages with perhaps 300 jobs up for grabs. The job seeker, who may have been out of work for a month or two, sees all these possibilities, dollar signs start flashing before his or her eyes, and gets on the phone to the agency to make an interview appointment.

This is the moment, as a job seeker, to realise where you fit into the scheme of things: the agency is not working on your behalf. Just as when you phone the real estate agent about the cute do-up (tumble-down shack) with harbour views (from the roof), the interests of the person paying the fee are foremost in the agent's mind. You're important in the sense that you help part the employer (or house vendor) from their money, but the owner of the money is the one getting all the agent's attention.

There's nothing untoward about this. In the real estate market, the agency puts buyer and seller in contact and extracts a fee for the service. The same happens in the job market. So long as everyone is clear about where everyone else stands, there should be no hurt feelings; when they're not clear, as demonstrated by letters to Computerworld by unhappy job seekers, cynicism creeps in.

I sympathise with job seekers to the extent that the sheer volume of apparent vacancies and the glittering prizes on offer to successful applicants create an impression of plum positions there for the taking. But as with the ad for the tumble-down shack, all the marketing wiles known to humankind will be used to get your attention. You need to be aware of that fact, remember the agent is acting for the employer, and use the same marketing tactics to ensure you're the person at the top of the agency's list when the next plum job comes along.

I've had nothing but positive experiences with recruitment agencies, although I concede they date back more than a dozen years, took place in London and were not in the IT market. Back then, with a booming financial market desperate for secretarial skills, even a male with minimal typing ability (I'd learnt to do it at journalism school) could be a secretary.

My most memorable placement was at the Financial Times where, far from landing a journalist job, I was temporary secretary to environment correspondent Dr Fishlock. I had to deal with the good doctor's mail and clip his (or her) published stories for filing. I never discovered whether the doc was male or female since s/he was on sabbatical for the whole time I was there (and didn't write a single story, needless to say). I did become an avid reader of the FT's pink pages, however.

That was only one of several bizarre jobs handed me by the agency (run by New Zealanders; called Love & Tate, which readily turns into Love & Hate). But in truth, it was mostly love: it found me jobs, I did them, it earned commission, I was paid, everyone was happy.

In a market where IT skills are in short supply, it should be possible for IT workers to have a similar happy experience. If it's not working out, find out why. You might need to bone up your skills, change your expectations, or change agency.

Doesburg is the editor of Computerworld. Send email to Anthony Doesburg.

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