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November 2006

Debunking Employment Agency Myths

By Elizabeth Lions

Since I began recruiting for the high-tech industry in 2002, I have witnessed many professional recruiters engage in questionable practices. These transgressions have fueled my fire to stand up for job seekers and their rights. I didn't know when I started that I would make a career out of acting as a liaison between technical professionals and businesses. Suffice it to say, I love working with engineers and am considered an advocate.

My observations have led me to conclude that many engineers align themselves with an agency so that they dont have to go through the trouble of finding another full-time job or contract. And more often than not, they do not have a positive, or professional experience with a headhunter. Often, they walk away confused, frustrated and jaded, wondering what on earth went wrong.

The recruitment process should never be that way. It should involve a lot of give and take. My vision has always been that the relationship should be balanced you get a good job and representation, and the agency gets is the privilege of aligning themselves with top talent. You can take your talent anywhere youd like to take it. A good recruiter should realize that they are lucky to have you, but too often recruiters take talent for granted, and the end result is unhappy job seekers.

For years, engineers have shared with me their disappointing experiences with agencies. Coming from an agency background myself, I am able to read between the lines and help interpret what really went on in meetings.

In hopes of providing some insight and clarity on the engineer/recruiter relationship, Id like to share that with you some candid thoughts, based on my experience as a professional recruiter. Following are some common complaints I hear from engineers working with employment agencies, followed by an explanation of what might really be happening behind the scenes.

The agency doesnt call me for work

Often you apply to an ad that states that there is plenty of work and opportunity. You call and set the appointment with the recruiter. You end up filling out applications, taking tests, disclosing references and having a short chat with someone about what kind of work youd like to do. This process chews up two hours of your day. If you are working, you create a reason why you have to be away from work for a period of time, hoping that this agency will be able to find you another job. There is a handshake and you get the sensation that you are left in capable hands. What actually happens is that you dont get a call, and you begin to wonder why. Is your skill set is current? Is there a personal disconnect between you and the recruiter?

Here is reality.

Your information goes into a database which may or may not be worked. This database is full of contact names, information and skill sets (hopefully the database is password-protected and secure, otherwise your personal information might be floating out there in cyber space). When a job comes in, the recruiter is supposed to search the database to find skill sets that match the potential job.

Depending on the computer system an agency is using, your file is likely activated by a check box that sets your status to available or not available for work. If its turned off even if you are available you dont receive a call. Sometimes its a careless clerical error that keeps your application from being considered.

From the standpoint of the agency, recruiters have obligations to fulfill. They must see so many people a day with marketable skill sets. They often have no idea what kinds of orders will be brought in by the account manager, making it difficult to recruit proactively, so they shoot in the dark. If you look good on paper, they will call you in for an interview. Agencies often operate in a reactive manner to orders instead of a proactive manner. A job comes in, and they fill it to those specifications.

Just because you get a promising call for work, it does not mean there is an actual job opening. Its a technique called fishing and its not fair to the candidate. Its an agency's way of stockpiling inventory (i.e., you).

They didnt tell me that I didnt get the job

Few recruiters are comfortable breaking bad news to unsuccessful applicants. Many don't want to get into arguments with job seekers about why they didn't get the job, so they will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile, you are wondering where you are in the process.

Another excuse recruiters make is that they are just too busy to tell you where you stand in the hiring process, and would rather take this time to staff another candidate. The only way to combat this is to call the agency directly and ask for a status update. If you weren't selected for a job, you deserve to know why, and it's their job to deliver the news. If you really want to work with them, give it your best attempt to take control of your hiring process.

"I keep getting a different recruiter every time I sign up"

Playing musical recruiters can be increasingly distressing because you are forced to explain repeatedly who you are and what you are looking for. Consequently, you feel like they're not really listening to you or concerned about your job search, and you will likely have serious doubts about their ability to place you.

According to one reputable employment agency in Portland, Ore., only one out of every 100 recruiters makes it through their first six months on the job.

Recruiting is a sales job. Its not warm and fuzzy, and about finding work for people, like they tell you when you start at an agency. Its a hardcore, commission-based business. If you dont make your sales and place people, they fire you for non-performance. There is no second chance, either you make the budget or you dont, which is one of the reasons why you may not work with the same recruiter again. They may have moved onto greener pastures. Unfortunately, an agency's tight, unforgiving commission structure does not always work to your benefit. People operating with a sword hanging over their heads in this case the recruiters may not act with your best interest in mind.

Good recruiters stay in one place because they have signed non-compete agreements and have developed a book of clients and contacts. To protect yourself, you may want to ask the recruiter you are working with how long they have been in the business.

"The recruiter didnt listen to the type of job I am looking for"

For years, engineers have told me that they went through the interview process with the agency, only to get a call for something that they are not qualified to do or that they have no intention of doing. This common mismatch of skills comes from a variety of system failures. It could be because there arent enough notes in the database to really explain what you are looking for in a job. If the job is low paying, and they cannot find a suitable candidate with those salary requirements, you may receive the call. After all, they are ticking down the list of possibilities. Sometimes this misfire can be attributed to your recruiter's listening skills... or lack thereof.

"They asked me how much money I will take, and Im not sure what to say"

Recruiters want to fill all the jobs that they can. The chances of them coming in low for your salary are slim. Ask for what you are making, plus 10 to 15 percent, and see where the conversation takes you. It doesnt hurt to ask. If salary is not important to you, ask for perks, such as working from home one day a week or flextime.

To further explain how an agency operates, let me explain the business.
There are two sides of the business: contract and direct hire.

Contract is a nickel-and-dime business. The more contract workers you have out in the field, the more money you make. Its based on bill rates and volume. Higher-skilled positions will collect a higher bill rate than lower-skill sets. For example, an engineer will bill out higher than, say, a clerical person. The agency wants to come in at the highest margin for the candidate, so that they can profit. The higher the margin, the more money they make, but there is some wiggle room. There is a spread there that they can work with, and you need to figure out where those numbers are and where you fit into them. Its usually a spread of three to five dollars hourly. Dont be afraid to ask what the job pays before you tell a recruiter how much youll accept. Youll have more bargaining power up front if you lead with that question.

Direct hire business is big chunks of money that come into the agency off of one job posting. In this market, your skill set commands 25 to 30 percent of your annual salary. So, if you make $100,000 a year, the recruiter will make $25,000 to $30,000 to place you.

Here in lies part of the problem. Money is the motivator for these positions, and some recruiters will tell you anything you want to hear about the job. With hefty fees in their pockets, they are not above overselling a position. Be sure that you understand what they job entails and dont be swept away with your ego. Think about the big picture, and whether the job will allow you to enjoy life balance.

"They didnt know anything about the job and when I got there it was not as they described"

This often happens because there is a huge disconnect between the client (the employer) and the recruiter. Agencies typically have two sides to their sales team. One is the outside member, or the business development person, whose job is to shake things up and bring in clients that will pay to find top talent. The other team member is the inside sales person, or recruiter. They rarely get away from their desk to meet clients, see the working environment or really understand in any depth what the job entails. Its not their fault, it's the system. Ask as many questions as you can about the job. After that, go ask their client during an interview. Its totally fair to understand what you are getting into. Afterall, its your career.


Elizabeth Lions is proprietor and president of Solid Staffing, in Portland, Ore., where she works with placing and counseling engineering talent. She can be found online at www.elizabethlions.com. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright 2007 IEEE