I became a freelancer back in 1992, before MS Windows had conquered the world and gas lamps were just beginning to disappear from the cobbled streets of England.
I stumbled into freelancing by accident really, wooed by a recruitment agent who waved the promise of a large amount of money at me because I had at the time a specialist skill that was in short supply and (relatively) high demand.
That agent was excellent. He knew his clients well, and had worked hard, not only to build a good relationship with them, but also to understand their business and their business needs.
I worked through no other agency for the next five years, and in the following years I worked with other agents who had a similar modus operandi.
Skip forward a decade or so and there has been a dramatic step-change in the way recruiters work, and not for the better. The true skills of a recruiting agent seem to have disappeared, to be replaced by little more than the ability to do a word search on the agency’s database, which in turn generates an automated email, usually starting with words to the effect “Please forgive me if this email is inappropriate” (it usually is) and usually ending with “If you know anyone suitable for this role please let me know.” (They would call it networking, I call it doing their job for them).
There is no relationship with client or candidate in this activity. There is no understanding of the client’s business or business needs, other than an ability to spout parrot-fashion from the company’s web site or the job spec. Many recruiters who contact me do not even understand the words they are saying.
I’ve lost count of the number who have called me about programme management and confidently asserted that “You need a Microsoft Project qualification” when the job spec had asked for MSP.
There is no attempt to match the candidates’ aspirations or requirements with this approach. On more than one occasion I’ve had a recruiter on the phone utterly astonished that I’m not about to up sticks and move to another part of the country – or even another country – purely so they can earn brownie points and commission.
Of course, there are still some good recruiters out there – the one who placed me in my current role was old-school and gave great service to me and the client alike – but so many of them are straight from university with no concept of the job being about more than matching words and firing off emails.
The other thing they do, of course, is invite you for coffee. I’d love to believe that this was a bid to get to know candidates better, but, having drunk lakes of coffee in the company of gauche twenty-somethings, I can tell you it isn’t. It’s nothing more than a box-ticking exercise for new recruits. The theory might be good but the practice is mind-numbingly time wasting. They seem not to understand the purpose of the meeting; they’ve just been told at work it’s something they must do.
I’ve yet to meet a recruitment agent under (at least) 30 who can empathise with the career and personal needs of someone my age and who has the ability to ask probing questions to understand what I offer. Mind you, it’s not just the newly graduated who are at it.
Two or three times I’ve given more experienced agents the benefit of the doubt when they have said “Oh no! I’m different. I’m keen to build relationships and understand you and the client to benefit all parties.” Off I go, drink my coffee, give it my best pitch to tell them what I think they need to know, answer their questions and swap business cards, only to never hear from them again.
Now you might think that, having met me they’ve decided I’m best avoided, and of course, I can’t be blameless. I’ve only written approximately 400 versions of my CV since 1992, and I’ve been told by people in their first job “It’s too long” and “It’s too short” in roughly equal measure. I’ve tweaked it, pimped it, preened it, added key words, removed key words and even paid a couple of times to have professional rewrites. I’ve devoted many hours to honing my personal brand via my web site, my LinkedIn profile and Twitter postings, including publishing case studies and a Prezi version of my career history, but perhaps I should have done more.
However, if anyone thinks I haven’t done enough, it begs the questions “How come I’ve been working for the last 23 years since I gave up my permanent role and why are my LinkedIn recommendations so glowing?”
What’s my conclusion? Now more than ever before job sites are a waste of time, and firing off a CV to a recruitment agency is pretty pointless. Work seldom comes to the freelancer, (s)he has to proactively find it, either by maintaining a good professional network or by targeting specific companies.
Just about every role I’ve had for at least the last decade has arisen from my personal network and/or from a decent recruiter taking the trouble to actually read my LinkedIn profile.
Meanwhile, I’m left to lament the almost complete passing of the diligent recruitment agent (diligence in that area now seems to be the exclusive preserve of head hunters) and, even more melancholy, wonder why there were not weekly occurrences of very attractive twenty-somethings saying they’d like to meet for coffee back in the day when I still had hair!
Steve Syder is a Registered Project Professional, a Fellow of the APM and an RPP Assessor. He has in his time implemented Programme and Project Management practices for organisations as diverse as the UK Hydrographic Office, EDS and Orange amongst others. Until recently he was Director of Programme & Project Management at OpenBet, and he has now turned his attention to the structure and governance of the BI function at Tyche Consulting.