The Role Of Recruitment Agencies

At this point, it’s worth me spending a moment to explain what recruiting agencies are, how they work, and how they get paid.

What Is A Recruitment Agency?

Recruitment agencies are outside firms who go and find candidates for employers.

Do not confuse recruitment agencies with employment agencies. The main difference lies in who ends up being your employer.

  • If you get a job through a recruitment agency, you become an employee of the employer.
  • If you get a job through an employment agency, you become an employee of the employment agency.

There are employment agencies out there who provide IT support people to firms, but professional engineering roles are normally found through recruitment agencies.

Why Do Employers Use Recruitment Agencies?

Recruiting people takes a huge amount of time, and for many firms it is a real struggle to find enough time to do it well. Recruitment is also very much a numbers game: an employer often has to look at a lot of applications before he finds the right person for the role. That might sound a bit horrible and impersonal, and it is, but it’s also how it is.

Recruitment agencies fill a specific need. Employers need the right people to apply for their jobs, but often they don’t have the time to go and find these people themselves. They use recruitment agencies to do this for them, so that the employer can spend more of their time interviewing applicants.

Agencies are a major and important part of recruiting for the computing industry in the UK. You will probably find at least one of your first three jobs in the industry through a recruitment agency.

How Do They Work?

Agencies get lists of vacancies from employers, and then they place adverts on internet job boards, and sometimes in other places too. They are also always on the lookout for new CVs being uploaded to the internet job boards.

If you’ve ever spent time looking through an internet job board at the current vacancies, you will probably have noticed that very few adverts mention the name of the company that is hiring. The reason for this is that the agencies are worried about not getting paid: if you saw a job that you liked, and you applied directly to the firm, then the recruitment agency wouldn’t get its fee.

Some agencies will take the CV that you give them and send the employer an edited version. (This, by the way, is the main reason why many internet job boards only accept CVs in Microsoft Word format). The agency may simply put your CV into their branded template, and some may remove your personal details to prevent the employer trying to approach you directly to avoid paying the agency. (There is often no love lost between employers and agencies!)

No reputable agency will change the contents of your CV without your permission.

Are Agencies For You?

Should you use a recruitment agency at all?

If you know which employers you want to work for, and if they accept direct applications, then there’s no reason to apply through a recruitment agency. There’s no benefit in doing so, and with no middle-man for all communication to pass through, you might find that you prefer always dealing with the employer directly.

The better recruiting agencies can be a great help in getting hired, especially later in your career when you’re chasing more senior jobs. They’re able to chase a tardy employer in a way that a direct applicant often can’t get away with, and if they’ve worked with an employer successfully in the past, they can have a good feel for what the employer is looking for.

It has to be said, though, that many employers merely tolerate recruiting agencies. Staff turnover inside recruiting agencies can be very high, making it difficult for the employer to build up a successful long-term relationship with the agency. Without that partnership, employers often feel that recruiting agencies don’t understand their requirements well enough, and employers are often not very good at working with agencies to improve matters. Recruiting agencies also charge substantial fees to employers, and employers often begrudge this, rightly or wrongly.

However, if recruitment agencies weren’t useful and performing a necessary role, there wouldn’t be so many of them.

Picking A Recruitment Agency

As in all walks of life, there are good agencies and there are bad agencies, and it can be difficult even for industry veterans to tell them apart at first. I recommend checking to make sure that the agency is a member of The Recruitment & Employment Confederation - the industry’s only recognised trade body for recruiting agencies. You should also use Google to find out what other people have recently said about the agency. If you’re not happy with what you find, there are usually other agencies out there advertising the same role or similar ones.

The one exception to the rule is when an agency has an exclusive contract with an employer. In this situation, the employer has decided to use a single agency for all recruitment, and all applications have to be submitted via that agency. If this is the case, you should be able to confirm this from the employer’s website, or by telephoning the employer.

From an employer’s point of view, employers generally do not like agencies who send them unsolicited or inappropriate applications (known as ‘wallpapering CVs’). Once an agency has done this with your CV, it can be very difficult for you to get those employers to look at your CV, because the employer hasn’t agreed payment terms with the agency, and doesn’t want the hassle of an aggressive agency trying to invoice for money that the employer hasn’t agreed to pay.

My advice is to deal with any agency on an advert-by-advert basis, keeping track of which firms you have applied to through which agency. Always ask the agency if they are a ‘preferred supplier’ for the employer you are applying to (and ask them via email to make sure you’ve got a record of their answer).

If the agency is a preferred supplier, that means that they have already agreed payment terms with the employer, and the employer will consider your application. You should also phone or email the employer directly to check that the agency is indeed a preferred supplier before you apply, just in case the agency is not being honest with you.

If the agency is not a preferred supplier, then one of three things usually happens:

  1. The employer and agency agree payment terms, and the employer will consider your application.
  2. The employer considers your application anyway, but does not agree to pay anything to the agency.
  3. The employer decides that dealing with the agency is too much hassle, and will not consider your application.

You’ve no way of knowing what will happen in this situation, as it can often come down to a personality clash as much as financial terms. You’re better off avoiding this situation if you can, and avoiding any agency you ever catch lying about their preferred supplier status.

How Do They Get Paid?

Recruitment agencies get paid by the employer for every candidate they put forward who successfully gets a job with the employer. Some agencies get paid on a fixed-fee basis, and some agencies get paid a fee based on your starting salary.

You don’t have to pay them at all, and you should never use any recruitment agency who asks you for any payment.

Contracting Through An Agency

The role of recruitment agencies in contract placements is a little different. Here, the agency normally gets a percentage (known as the agency’s rate) of the money that the employer’s firm pays for your services. This is normally done by the firm paying the agency, and by you sending invoices to the agency; i.e. you don’t bill the firm directly. It’s always worth finding out what the agency’s rate is, just to make sure that you don’t get ripped off at all.

It used to be almost unheard of for someone to go contracting early in their career, but this is slowly changing. For now, advice about contracting is beyond the scope of this book, but if the industry changes in the future, I’ll do my best to provide advice in a future edition.

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