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Recruiting through the downturn: how you can still thrive in the most challenging market of your career so far

​​I’ve been in the technology recruitment sector since 1997. Whilst the COVID-19 crisis is by far the most wide-reaching and dramatic crash I’ve experienced in my career, it’s by no means the first. I was recently talking to a colleague about the ‘back to basics’ approach that market inversions such as this require, and it occurred to both of us that some of our best people had been in the sector less than 10 years and never had to deal with a market crash. What does an experienced recruiter do when the only rules they know and rely on are no longer applicable?

The big downturns and their effect on recruitment

2001 saw the dot-com crash, when the bubble that had been created by over-heated investment in the new (!) world of online businesses burst. Then there was the more recent and even more damaging credit crisis of 2009, which defined the last decade. Now the coronavirus crisis is upon us. In each of these cases recruiters have been some of the hardest hit (clearly excluding the current impact on health workers) in terms of day-to-day working practices.

Whilst each of the crashes has been very different, what unites them is their inversion of recruiters’ preferred candidate-driven market into a job-driven one. Recruiters tend to thrive when there’s a war for talent and where ‘the candidate is king’. In these conditions even the best TA teams lean on specialist recruiters to help source hard-to-find skills.

This downturn is classic in that candidates are less of a commodity, as more come onto the market due to businesses putting plans on hold or making cuts. The consequence: supply begins to outweigh demand.

There’s no silver bullet to winning in a market downturn however, there are behaviours which should optimize your chances of success. Here are some tips for how you can thrive in the most challenging market of your career so far:

Seven rules to success in a job-driven market

  • The candidate is still king – You might not be able to generate multiple opportunities for every candidate you work with, or break into a new client with their CV alone. But the market information you can share with a strong candidate will always be your lifeblood, so look after them. Nurture relationships with as many senior candidates as you can – one day soon they could be a hiring manager that you want to work with.

  • Relationships are everything – the client you’ve known and loved for years but isn’t hiring must not be forgotten. Keep on top of your diary and maintain an appropriate level of contact. Think about how you can continue to add value during this time - web events are a great way to do this and customers will be happy to steer you on the topics/content that they’d be interested in

  • Activity is key – You might be facing a rebuild of your desk that’s going to mean you working like you did at the start of your career. What applies then applies now: to identify and win new customers, you’re going to need to cast the net wide.

  • Work smart – Seek out trends where you see hiring in the market. What are those hiring companies selling or doing? Who are their competitors and how do you engage them? Smart also means organised; with all the increased activity this market requires, effective diary management is essential. Use the CRM - it will save you time and ensure you don’t waste all your efforts by missing that crucial call-back when it’s due.

  • Stay hungry – The level of effort needed to generate a new customer, meeting or role in this climate will be higher than you’ve ever experienced before. What’s driving you? Don’t lose sight of that goal. It may have changed radically over the last few months, from a lavish holiday to merely covering your rent, but don’t’ lose sight of what the hard work is for.

  • Celebrate the small wins – You won’t be making placements at the rate you’ve been used to, and you’ll miss that validation. The pressure of that loss will feel intense but the new reality means that every bit of progress is valuable. Every meaningful conversation with a new client or candidate will serve you well in the future. Revise your targets: where you’d previously measure jobs generated, add successful intros to decision-makers who’ll ultimately grow your market when things pick up.

  • Know your stats! – Recruiters often baulk at the dreaded KPI but smart ones know their own conversion ratios and this is crucial in a changing and volatile market. The outputs you relied on when times were good won’t apply now, so when you generate a job, analyse the inputs required to get there. Factor your new ratios into how you plan your day or week, to optimise repeat success.

Challenging periods hone the recruiters craft like nothing else. The hungry recruiter hunkers down, adapts and ultimately emerges on the other side as the best of the best…

There’s a lot at stake when the market throws a curveball such as the one we’re currently experiencing. However, the prize outweighs the challenge, as those who work the hardest and smartest ultimately enter a market with reduced competition and benefit from the ‘sweet-spot’ moment when demand once again starts to outstrip supply. When that happens, there’ll be some serious rewards to reap!

Derek Mackenzie is an Executive Director at Investigo with over 20 years’ experience in technology and change recruitment.