Why is IT recruitment so bad?

My current contract is coming towards its natural conclusion which means I’m about to be blessed with that most joyous of experiences – dealing with recruitment agencies. I’m not a huge fan of recruitment agencies but I don’t have a huge amount of choice. For whatever reason, the Australian IT market seems to regard recruiters as necessary; about 75% of permanent placements are found through agencies and about 95% of contracts are placed through agencies.

So we’re in “necessary evil” territory here, especially given that I’m looking for another contract role. On the plus side, when you take into account that recruitment agencies are so central to the IT job market you can rest assured that they’re good at what they do, right? Yeah, right. One of the enduring mysteries of life for me is: why is IT recruitment handled so badly so often?

The first question I’d like to see answered is why use agencies at all. The idea that they’re professionals who are the best at this sort of thing simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. They’re more often than not poorly paid, poorly motivated and with a limited (at best) understanding of what qualifies someone to work in IT. After all, if they knew anything about IT they’d be earning decent money working in IT rather than being in a dead-end recruiting job. The only honest answer I can come up with is nobody at the company who hires the agency can be bothered putting in the work of finding suitable candidates themselves.

So recruitment agencies are a time-saver for HR departments. And I had this crazy idea that who you actually employ might be one of the most important decisions a company could make. I don’t know what else HR departments do to justify their existence. Even the “time saver” response is giving HR departments too much credibility in my book.

I’ve had enough experience to form an alternate theory: recruitment agencies exist to give HR departments plausible deniability. Nobody want to take responsibility for decisions – on the off chance a hire doesn’t work out, the HR department doesn’t want to take the blame. The involvement of an agency gives them the ability to say “it isn’t our fault, the agency said s/he was the best available candidate.” Yeah, god forbid the HR department would actually do their job.

The second question I’d like to see answered is: why are candidates so often measured against some cookie cutter template of requirements? Yes, there has to be some sort of baseline for competence but setting a series of arbitrary measures (x years experience in discipline y) is again replacing actually doing your job with a “plausible deniability” safety net.  Anyone with any significant experience in IT who’s willing to be honest knows that a checklist approach is often no help at all in identifying suitable candidates and if you enforce the “ticks in boxes” approach arbitrarily you’re in very real danger of excluding some very good potential recruits.

So why does this approach persist?  Again, my cynical mind tell me that it’s to allow an escape route for an HR department that doesn’t want to take responsibility for their job.  “But he had 10 years experience with Ruby on Rails – that was heaps more than anyone else, he should have been great.”  Using a wishlist of attributes as a starting point is fine but refusing to think beyond the boundaries it sets is a recipe for disaster.  Occasionally when I end up in an interview where they are obsessing over experience in a particular area (especially if it’s something as nebulous as a methodology) I try to point out the shortcomings in their thinking.  Not in the hope of changing their minds, I do it for fun.

I am a strong believer in many of the hiring principles espoused by Joel Spolsky (he’s just published version 3.0 of his Guerilla Guide to Interviewing) which can be summarised as “hire someone who’s intelligent and knows how to get things done.”  When I try to illustrate the benefits of this approach to someone insisting on five years experience with use case methodology, I do it by pointing out where their strict requirement could turn around and bite them.  It goes a little like this…

“Say you are down to two people, one with five years use case experience and one without the requisite experience but they’re smart, flexible and know how to get things done.  It seems like you should go with ‘Ms. Five Years’ but the problem is use cases are done in very different ways in different workplaces and she may be totally locked into her version of use case methodology which conflicts with yours.  You end up wasting a huge amount of time arguing on the right way to execute.  On the other hand, Mr Smart and Flexible is far more open to working with you to get the results you want without obsessing over how the methodology is executed.  So, many years experience doesn’t necessarily mean the best result for you.”

Another obvious (to me) point that these obsessive types don’t seem to think of is you can have ten years “experience” with something and still suck.  Experience alone is not a measurement of competence, let alone excellence.  Someone might be a better programmer straight out of university than someone who’s spent half their lifetime coasting along.  Pointing out these flaws in the recruiting approach can be a lot of fun.  Not because you get to achieve some breakthrough that turns the whole recruiting process on its head but because you get to watch as the drone’s eyes glaze over because you’ve introduced enough cognitive dissonance to make their brains shut down.

Life would be much simpler if the recruitment pitch went: “We’re going to need you to successfully complete this sort of task in this sort of timeframe to this level of competence.  We’ll check with your references about your previous performance and what sort of person you are.  In the interview we’re going to ask you to complete the following tasks to try and get a handle on your competence.  If that all goes well and we think we could stand working with you then you might just have yourself a job.”

But I don’t expect a massive turnaround in this area any time soon.  I’m occasionally guilty of being an optimist but I’m not stupid.

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40 Comments

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40 responses to “Why is IT recruitment so bad?

  1. jk

    In almost any situation where you have commodities (labor) and demand for them (jobs), you’re going to find a middleman whose going to insert themselves into the deal. The unusual thing (well, somewhat) is that in IT, it’s recruiters, rather than unions, who are doing the negotiating. Recruiters tend to side with the company, but can sometimes switch sides and become “agents” for the workers when the demand for labor is high.

  2. The design sector in my experience is a harder to get into then a pair of jeans that are too small!!! Freelancing is very attractive in the current climate though!!

  3. jk: the very few good agencies can balance between the two but I’ve had too many experiences with scammers who play both sides against each other

    digitalgrey: nice metaphor :)

  4. Goran

    And I had this crazy idea that who you actually employ might be one of the most important decisions a company could make. I don’t know what else HR departments do to justify their existence.

    Erm… They mostly deal with the daily professional life of employees (example: holiday planning etc), not actual employee seeking?

    WRT the responsibility of hiringetc. What sort of organizations (especially for a contract work) give that responsibility to HR departments at all!? I mean, HR department can only have some sort of profile (and not even understand what stuff in the profile means) and act on that. Actual selection can be made only by the people in the departments where the new hire should go. Responsibility is on the departments. Are you suggesting that only HR has a say? That is not likely to me. I have never taken a job (nor had an offer) where I talked to people in HR only.

  5. Salaamat,
    Really excellent points Mr. Angry. The IT market in the US is also flooded w/ recruting agencies. I always wondered what couches HR departments take their naps on. It’s crazy.

    The question I have for you is this: Could someone sidestep the whole agency thing if they incorporate their own company and present themselves? My contract is ending soon too; and I was mulling over this idea.

    I hope you don’t mind me picking your (awesome) brain on this :)

  6. Didn’t read it all, but up to the point where you said HR depts are unable or unwilling to correctly procure good employees.

    It could also be a symptom of very poorly skilled but apparently qualified persons flooding a market, willing to take poor pay, as they have little faith in their own abilities.

    I do not worry though, realise what you are worth, and be confident, and sod how everyone else does their hiring.

  7. Don

    The industry moves so fast, that it is impossible to expect HR to know and update what are the “in” skills and understand their impact upon IT. I have been coding for six years and I don’t know myself what is the difference between architect and analyst :). Add to that c#, unix, ruby and asp.net and php, I am sure HR guy would be in space by now. In my company architects are nothing more than coders with x years of experience in a language. Similary analysts don’t do any “analysis”.

    Agencies are there because their people are supposed to constantly update themselves in specific field area. So when someone says I have 2 yrs with corn and bash, they know that the person is not talking about a fight in the corn field.

  8. Husker

    Currently the requirements to a “software developer” in general are very different. It depends so much on your team, your corporate culture, the projects you are working on…

    No one can deny responsibility for that. I agree with Joel Spolsky and Mr. Angry, the team must speak to the new recruit (after filtering the worst out for time saving, but not too much). I had a good experience in making a short introduction into a current project and then face the candidate with some trouble you’ve experienced before with it. And then, just let him try to solve.

    It doesn’t matter if it is correct or if his solution is better or worse, actually you’ll find out if the candidate is able to find ways how to continue on the problem. But actually this makes more confidence than any schematic test with right or wrong answers.

    Husker

  9. I agree and share the anger.

    Those forms piss me off so much I get disencouraged the second the interviewer says “okay, you’ll be receiving in your inbox a form to fill in…sort of “competence” summary, if you will”…well I woun’t damn you! it’s your job as the interviewer to fill in that damn form during the interview, not my home work. at least have the decency to create amongst yourselves a common document, so 1 size fits all, oh, wait “common standard” is that too much IT mumbo-jumbo for you higly-specialized IT recruiters? sooorry…

    It’s the same all over I guess…I’m in europe and that happens too. People always compalin about searching for a new job… I don’t mind searching, it’s just the mind-numbing interviews that get to me. “we have over 300 consultants out there”, “we dont’ want someone to just do the job, we want commitment and dedication”. and my roboticized replies are just as self-destructing: “I left because I neeeded a challenge”…”in 5 years time? hummm…maybe starting my own business”, “what I expect from a recruiter is trust”…

    I had my first real “technical interview” about a month ago… for 2 hours I was pounded with questions about system administration (windows and unix), protocols, whats this, whats that… Other people said it was stressful, I honestly loved it.

    anyway, good luck with that.

  10. dmatriz

    The crux is recuriment follows a pattern as similiar as Guassian curve. A boom once to follow a steep decline soon… :)

  11. At my old job, you basically didn’t have a hope in hell of getting hired unless you were a blood relative of/and/or sleeping with someone who was already working there, regardless of how good you were. “Incompetent with good connections” trumped “competent with no connections” ev-e-ry time.

    what, me bitter? impossible…

  12. i bloody hate recruitment agencies, but unfortunately there are a neccessary evil

  13. Johnx

    If you can’t beat em, join em. Every time I get a call from one of these guys I think about how sweet a deal it is for them and ponder the idea. I mean I think I could learn the networking and I definitely have done my share of hiring developers and should be able to match the job to the candidate fairly well. Consider the fact that if you place two developers at or around your own salary level you can gross a year’s pay out of the deal in some cases.

  14. I believe IT recruitment is bad because it’s an employers market right now. What I mean by that is there are more people looking for jobs than there are employers. My husband worked for a major IT Recruiting company since 1997. In the beginning it was all about the consultant. They bent over backwards for him. He has been thru several IT Recruiters during that time and the level of service has decreased. Not only that, the quality of the contract has declined as well as. That is why he has decided to start his own IT Consulting Company in Chicago called Kingdom Technology Resources – http://www.ktr.com

  15. Goran: you have a generous view of HR – either you work in HR or you’re a model employee :)

    Maliha: It’s definitely possible to go it alone but it’s way more work and I’m lazy. The path I would recommend in going it alone is not to look for advertised vacant positions (although some companies do advertise directly) but think of who you want to work for an approach them directly with a letter stating why you’re the perfect candidate for them. This approach can work really well.

    print: I agree that low-level workers will always keep low-level recruiters in work and vice-versa!

    Don: I don’t expect them to be experts but I expect a little more effort than I generally see. Loved the corn and bash line too!

    Husker: in a perfect world, everyone would do it!

    Samurai: here, they love the Key Selection Criteria (KSC) – they think they’re accomplishing something if you tick off a list of requisites.

    dmatriz: I think the current boom here has a year or two to run, I plan on having settled in a niche before then :)

    defrost: nepotism is another wonderful recruitment tool

    serendipity: a good summary of my view

    John: owning an agency can be a sweet deal, a cut from each job. I’d hate to be the grunt level recruiter though.

  16. Can a “recruiter” get in on this topic? Its a global problem which Mr Angry has pointed out. It applies in many job functions, but IT seems to be the top. Why? Because IT jobs can be fully quantified into a skills checklist. If you leave out the importance of EQ (emotional intelligence), which too many recruiters (either agencies or client-side HR) do, then you are talking about commodities. Some might argue that positions requiring only coding experience might be totally quantifiable – but, even for this, its the age-old question: is it 10 years of experience or 10 x 1 year of experience?

    We have a blog (as part of our overall web strategy), you can look at it. And it will link into our other sites, which you can peruse also.

    Being in SE Asia, our particular practice is not much assistance to the rest of the world. And we are also pushing against a constant tide in the IT segment — IT jobs have been in this position of heavy demand/scarce talent supply since the early days of the late 60′s and 70′s, even the dot.com bust didn’t totally stop it.

    How do I know this? I was trained in the now-considered early days of “EDP” in IBM Assembler/CICS etc and worked thru consulting, and corporate systems positions until I moved out to marketing and finance some years later. Eventually, in the mid-80′s, I became a “recruiter”.

    And so you can ask me….what do clients want? Do they want quality or do they want low talent-acquisition cost? Just 3 days ago, I spoke with a potential client who said that, while talent acquisition cost is important, the candidates must possess quality backgrounds of both skills and EQ…and it was refreshing to finally hear a company say that. Its been years since I heard it.

    As my Organizational Behaviour professor, at one of the very top MBA programs, stressed in his class — and I remember it very well — change will only happen with those who are committed enough to cause it. Management systems and practices may not be good, but they are entrenched. The cycle has to be broken, and that has to start somewhere.

    As a candidate or job seeker, however, its impossible. There are millions more who just want the job. As a recruiter, its the same for most of them, as they are not really qualified or skilled to do it any other way — they are just brokers – like real estate brokers, of life insurance brokers — and they can easily prey on people with a weakness — those who are seeking a job. Isn’t this what the job-boards do, especially those that require the job-seeker to pay to join?

    There are some of us who refuse this kind of body-brokering work. Eventually, a few companies come around and realize that quality people make a quality organization which then can offer a quality product or service. And it really can — these companies are written about all the time. They do not become excellent companies by accident, nor do they become excellent companies just because they have stumbled across a good product.

    So maybe there is a message to job seekers — companies which cannot afford the methods which can attract and select the top talent are perhaps companies who consider their own financial situation before they consider the quality of their product or service. Maybe these companies can’t afford to get the best people, and so prefer to stick with mediocre staff. Or maybe they do not want to make a commitment to the hiring process, or to the employee that they hire. So do you really want to work for this kind of company?

    But until the hiring companies realize (and can afford) to have this enlightenment, it looks like mediocrity will prevail.

  17. Will

    I also am a big fan of Joel..it was exactly what I was thinking about while reading your post. Although I’ve only had a limited experience with recruiters (never took a job through them. the direct method has always worked for me for non-contract positions) I would tend to agree with you. Its a blanket approach that works in other sectors, but it just doesn’t map to a technical IT role.

  18. esnjakarta: awesome feedback, thanks for that.

    Will: yeah, I just wish more recruiters understood that (the good ones do)

  19. To be very un-Recruiter like, I will reply: You are very welcome. Thanks for the forum. Who knows, maybe this will start some kind of revolution.

  20. Pingback: Recruiting great talent. « matteh, a dev junky

  21. esnjakarta: If more recruiters followed your appraoch, I’d have less to complain about! :)

  22. Here are some comments that were attached to the wrong post (by WordPress) along with my replies:

    Stephen Fowler said:

    As an ex recruitment consultant with 20 years worth of experience, I would like to take you up on a few points. Firstly in some ways I agree with you that some consultants have about as much use as a used tea bag. The reason being they generally are taken straight from university and are expected to know how to point someone on the right career path.

    Saying that there are quality consultants out there, you just need to find the right one, they are probably an independent with a number of years of experience. The larger agencies operate like estate agencies, use them for info and work with the consultant that gives you added value.

    In respect to HR you need to realize that recruitment is generally a very small part of their role, as they are involved in many other issues internally. Where I do agree is that they should not be involved in the process at all, that should be down to the department manager and as a result I know that quality candidates have been missed.

    To finish what has ruined this industry is the electronic age, and the ease to send emails as a result that personal contact has almost gone where you could call a manager and say “Bob I have someone here I think you should see.” And that was all it took if you had the respect and experience.

    My Response:
    Some excellent points Steven. I particularly like your point that the loss of the “personal touch” hurts everyone.

    Chuckles said:
    I haven’t had to deal with a recruiter, but reading job postings is driving me crazy. I’ve seen innumerable jobs that require qualifications such as:
    “Strong work ethic”
    “Attention to detail”

    I really wonder why phrases like these are even included. If they post an ad for another job at the firm, and don’t include these phrases, does that mean that they’re explicitly looking for someone who is a slacker, and is sloppy in their work?

    what a bunch of B.S. …

    My Response:
    Right on! Stating the bleeding obvious makes people think they’re doing their job but really, they just look foolish.

    Gordon J Milne said:

    I agree with Stephen Fowler regarding HR.

    One of the companies in the city I live in has an HR department that believes itself to be the bees knees because it “handles” over 450 people. However, it does not mean anything when it comes to the hiring process. Their HR department is relegated to the mechanics of the hiring process (i.e. inviting people for interview and sending out job offers). They are not trusted to “find” people.

    I once made the mistake of registering with their online job site once. A few months later I was invited by them (via a recruiter) to come in for an interview. The day before the interview I got an e-mail from them telling me that they could not offer me anything.

    What had happened was that my online expression of interest had expired and I had received an automatically generated e-mail. The interview I had just been invited to was still on.

    Sounds chaotic, does it not?

    As for recruiters, they tend to get a lot better when the talent market is small and the demand high. At that point it becomes worth their time to cultivate the candidate. It was like this back in 2000 but totally changed by 2002. I get the impression it is swinging back to a candidate focus again.

    If you work from contract to contract instead of looking for a permanent position, recruiters are bound to become a way of life. The good ones are worth cultivating and keeping in touch with. It has taken me a long time to realise this. I keep in touch tow recruiters a few times a year, and they keep in touch with me. I have no intention of leaving my current job but it is handy to have someone to look to if things change.

    My Response:
    Yep, I have certainly foun that life is much easier if you find someone of quality and stick with them.

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  24. Alan Shutko

    “Attention to detail” is an interesting thing. My peers and I put it on our requirements because it’s very, very easy to test. Here’s the test: if the resume has a bunch of misspelled words, the candidate lacks attention to detail. If the sentences are grammatically poor at best, impossible to understand at worse, the candidate does not have “good communication skills”.

    It may seem like an obvious qualification. It may seem like B.S. It may seem like any candidate could claim these virtues. Sadly, that is not the case.

  25. Alan: I absolutely agree. Being lazy on a job application/resume is a very strong indicator of a lack of attention to detail. If a job applicant can’t put in the effort to impress before they get a job, what faith can you have in them after they get a job?

  26. gwenhwyfaer

    defrostindoors: so how did *you* get that job? :)

  27. That’s a personal question! ;)

  28. ann

    good blog. im wondering also why i am unemployed, i am an IT grad. shifting to medical course but finding out i cant afford it. blah :/

  29. it depends on the market ann, plus the first job is always the hardest to get. I promise it gets easier after that.

  30. Dear Mr. Angry,
    you’re definitively right.
    I feel frustrated when sending resumes in US trying to find a proper job offer. I’m far away (in Italy), I feel I am flexible and smart and rapid-learner, but you can’t show those things on a resume, and usually employers don’t look for that.
    What a mess.

    Best,

  31. Yeah, international moves are tough – I have a friend trying to do that now. Maybe you can find a local agency that specialises in US placements.

  32. I totally agree with what you say here. I’ve been a consultant for 15 yrs and one thing I dont understand is why should technical people’s careers lie in hands of non-technical people that dont even understand the context of the given role & its responsibilities. I think IT Recruting is an art, a science that depends on the field experience. One doesnt hold the authority to staff a project without understanding what the project is all about and different aspects of using the desired skills.

    This is what prompted me to create a knowledge-based staffing service and I’m in the middle of writing my material. Check my website at the end of month for updates. At the same time, any comments would be welcome and good luck with your career.

    Raj Ashtaputre
    http://www.axiom-llc.com

  33. Thanks Raj, I think the issue is nobody much cares about our careers so they don’t care how professionally recruitment is handles.

  34. In Australia, a lot of Government departments will only work with select recruitment firms. If only these recruitment firms are scored for their performance, we might see better recruiting practices.

  35. I’ve been a software developer for 15 years, and have seen the hiring situation change over the years to become almost entirely recruiter-driven. Although all of my peers agree that this is a significant problem in the industry, they also think that “it’s a necessary evil” and “that’s just the way the business is”.

    I disagree. There is something we can do to change the situation, and that is to dessiminate the information that recruiters currently control. I’ve recently started up a website dedicated to collecting and distributing the type of information that I think we need in order to be able to circumvent the middlemen, to be able to search directly for companies that we would love to work for and to be able to present ourselves directly to them: http://www.whereco.com.

  36. Pingback: Why online recruitment sites mostly suck

  37. UK Coder

    It’s the same in the UK.

    Worst thing is any monkey can setup an employment agency – there’s no qualifications, very little financing (a phone), no knowledge of the ‘work’ area needed.

    I think the only requirement is to be a complete c**t and think you can phone people up (at their place of work) and try get them to work for someone else.

    My specialism is audio (and my entire CV, public profiles, etc. show this – type my real name into google and you’ll find this out) – so why would I want to do graphics programming?

    Worst thing is they seem to have started ‘stalking’ people on social networking sites – Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

    Bah!

  38. just be careful with some recruitmet agencies because some of them are scammers too ::

  39. i like it jobs because it is a high paying job and you work in an air conditioned office ‘.`

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