Having got into the obligatory student debt while obtaining my very useful Zoology degree back in 1997, the next obvious step was, of course, to forge a career in recruitment and I was reflecting the other day about what was happening in the country when I took that 1st job with a small agency back in Swansea. Tony Blair had just won the general election & the country was embracing the New Labour mantra that “things can only get better”, apparently failing to read the small print on the back of the packet “warning – may contain illegal wars, an economy built on financial eggshells and the single biggest recession since the Great Depression”. Things did get better, for a while at least, before the economy’s bi-polar disorder presented itself with highs of the boom swiftly followed by the lows of the bust which we’re just, arguably, clawing our way out of now.
But this is what interested me - how much life has changed in that time and the way businesses and individuals have had to evolve to keep up, let alone survive, in one the fastest changing technological and turbulent economical climates we’ve seen in our lifetime. Let’s position it for a moment. Thinking back to that 1st day at work back in 1997, sitting at my desk with an analogue phone, a rolodex and a fax machine. We could smoke in the office. Only the boss had a mobile. I spent my life faxing page after page of CV through to clients never really knowing if it all went through and then spending a couple of days waiting for feedback only to finally get a request through to re-fax it because page 2 was missing. Timesheets for contractors – faxed. Invoices - faxed. Payroll – manual. Advertising – mainly print. The recruitment cycle was a laborious, clunky process. The inefficiencies were endless.
Things were changing though. Email was developing but not everyone had it. Everyone started to build websites (knowing that they needed it for something, apparently) but no-one had a clue what to actually do with them. Job-boards were just emerging. The dot.com bubble was on us, along with the ubiquitous paranoia of the Millennium Bug and the impending Armageddon that went with it. We all fortunately survived though and with the economic conditions gathering pace and technology developing at exponential speed, a business’ success became more and more reliant on it’s ability to adapt and embrace the new technologies emerging. Consultants too. Snooze and you got left behind. Selected out. Consumer life took off. Everyone had mobiles suddenly, PCs, emails flowed. Credit freely available. House prices running away. Life was good. Growth a certainty.
An evolutionary arms race had begun. Survival of the fittest in action. How quickly you found your candidate and got your candidate to market was ever more linked to the technology which was running away with itself. Recruitment agencies had previously sold their services on number of candidates registered with them. Now it was how much they’d invested in their shiny state of the art IT systems and database; the job boards they were signed up to; the speed of service..... These were the selling points of the moment and in this new world came a surge of fresh agencies all wanting to cash in on the buoyant market conditions. Hire yourself a load of graduates with the enthusiasm of youth and at least a basic grasp of recruitment et voila...It was a powerful model. You couldn’t go too far wrong. In those conditions.
The Credit Crunch, when it happened, hit everyone hard. In recruitment terms it of course made trading conditions very difficult. A switch had been turned off overnight it seemed. But again this presented the next level of selection. Those agencies who had built themselves up a profitable business in those boom times but had failed to spot the 2-dimensional flimsiness of the actual service they provided, the knowledge their consultants actually held, the ability to build a relationship with a client that actually had a face and interests outside of the office – suddenly, too, found themselves out in the business cold. “You may have a lovely IT system and huge database but you don’t even know what I look like?” Now database size doesn’t mean anything. Everyone is sitting in front of the same one. It’s called LinkedIn. The level of service, the strength of relationship is now key. Now we’re working from web applications, it doesn’t matter where you are. All your info’s being held in the cloud anyway, wherever that is. The use of social media is growing at the speed enjoyed by email 15 years ago. Clients are building out their own more and more extensive direct sourcing teams, RPO’s are prevalent. The technology available to us is available to them. You can’t survive by providing a good service these days, it has be exceptional. Natural Selection at work again.
The need for an agency will never disappear but the level and way it has to operate at now does not vaguely compare to what was acceptable to many pre-2007. When I think back to how it used to be compared to how it is now, the changes are vast. It is a different world we’re working in and those who have, or intend, to build a business on proper values, proper relationships, know who they are and are keeping a keen eye on what curveball technology is going to throw next will prosper. Those that haven’t quite worked that bit out yet...well, Darwin’s watching you.