Brian Runciman MBCS spoke to Laura Sharrott, HR Business Partner, and Lisa Lynett, Resourcing Partner at Specsavers, about the issues surrounding IT recruitment, skills planning and capability.

Employers and jobseekers are often dissatisfied with recruitment agencies. In your experience why is this?

Lisa: I think that some recruitment agencies probably don’t do themselves justice. The better agencies that companies tend to like to deal with, including Specsavers, are probably those that want to build a long-standing relationship and I think from that they’re able to understand the requirements of the business better and therefore really pin-point the candidate that is really suitable for the business.

I would like the professional agencies, especially from a technical side, to actually understand the role, particularly from a business side and the future aspects of the business and the direction that it’s going.

Laura: Here at Specsavers we’re as much, if not slightly more, about cultural fit and who the person is, what they stand for and how they operate, not necessarily just from what they can offer from a technical perspective. So the agency might send over ten CVs, which technically might match the criteria we’re looking for, but if you haven’t had those upfront conversations about the organisation, the culture, our values, what we believe in, how we want people to be when they work here, then the chances are that none of the candidates will be suitable so that’s why I think investing in time is a two way thing. An employer needs to invest that time and help the agency understand who we are and what it is we’re really looking for.

A CV is just a piece of paper with a list and a statement of what the experience is they’ve had, the stuff they’ve achieved, the skills they’ve gained and what qualifications they might have. I think it’s very difficult for a person to bring to life on a piece of paper the culture and the environments they’ve worked in, who they are as a person and how they can add something to the culture.

A candidate and an agency could get a lot about us as an organisation from our website and ads and from the stuff that we put out in the media so there’s probably a bit of research they could do, but writing in black and white on a piece of paper I think we would struggle to assess cultural fit just from a CV alone.

Lisa: I think that’s part and parcel of having a robust selection process in-house and I think that’s where the agencies can really help because they have built that relationship with those candidates so they know that personality and that behavioural type. If they’re marrying up an understanding of the culture of the business it should be a lot easier for them to bring the two together.

Laura: You can have as robust a selection process as you like, where you have this fantastic relationship with an agency, they really get our culture, they understand what we’re trying to do and the type of person we want working with us, and you can go through all these selection interviews and bring someone in, but they still don’t turn out to be the person that you thought they were through that selection process. I guess that’s what a probation period is - for both parties to understand whether it’s the right fit on both sides; the selection process is a crucial part of that process.

Lisa: If we, as a business, are very clear on what we want from a technical perspective and a competency perspective you have a good foundation. If you are then reiterating that back to the agency it gives a better chance for the agency to find that right candidate.

What about future capability needs?

Laura: If they really know the organisation and they’ve taken the time to build that relationship with us, they actually might be able to influence us in terms of what we might need. They might come across a fantastic candidate who they think, from a cultural fit perspective, will be absolutely spot-on and the type of person who is going to bring something different to Specsavers even though they might not tick every single box on our job description. That’s where I think, when you have this good foundation or relationship, they can influence us. They know what we’ve got, what we’re looking for.

The technical side can be trained, it can be taught, you can do qualifications, you can up-skill people - but it’s difficult to change someone’s personality or the way they operate. So having that solid relationship with an agency, having mutual trust and respect and understanding, can sometimes change what we’re looking for. Or maybe we take a slightly different approach as an employer and we trust their view and their opinion and we look at the person and they actually might be a high flyer; I think that relationship is very important.

Lisa: From an IT perspective, I think we have to have a really good robust preferred suppliers list (PSL). There are a lot of agencies out there and I think they’re all clamouring for the same thing, which is to be on everybody’s PSL.

Other parts of the business are probably a little more flexible, but I think, certainly with IT, because of the candidate market and the types of roles that we’re recruiting for, it’s important for us to have an established relationship that we can build and evolve. Taking those agencies with us on that journey is where we do evolve; it’s important for us to keep sharing knowledge and experience from a market perspective and from them and I think they can really influence us.

Laura: As an organisation, I think as we move forward, we’re thinking about Oracle skills, digital skills and two or three years ago that probably wasn’t even on our radar. So I think agencies who have a good understanding of the changes in the industry market place, future trends, who can almost be one step ahead of us, can help us identify some of the gaps that we might have in our skill set. They can start planning with us.

Lisa: We have our own internal resourcing team so, in effect, we’re taking out a third party supplier from that process; we hire directly ourselves. We’ve managed to get our agency usage down to four per cent and that obviously is a big cost saving. But I think, for Specsavers, we would never be without agencies.

Research that we’ve done recently indicates that some of our agency hirers haven’t had a great understanding of our culture. I think when you’re working with an agency on an executive search basis they can eat, sleep and breathe Specsavers and I think that would probably get a more positive outcome.

Where would you not use an internal hiring team?

Laura: With some really techy skills, to improve the candidate experience you have to talk in the same technical language as the candidate. You sometimes need that translator, which is where you need to be a bit flexible around your PSL or maybe go off your PSL.

If you’ve got a really niche technical role that you need to fill, you need to find the right agency to help you do that and to also help translate between the candidate and the organisation ‘what does that really mean, what are you really looking for?’ A direct resourcing team would probably not be able to do that quite so effectively as a niche specialist agency, so I think the candidate experience, from that perspective, is quite important.

What can be improved? What role do you think BCS can play?

Laura: Helping partnerships between organisations and agencies. I don’t know what that might look like, but events where you bring employers and agencies together and maybe facilitate mutual discussions around the challenges that we’re all facing. Because fundamentally we’re all trying to achieve the same thing, which is to place great candidates in great organisations and for them to have the same performance.

BCS sets clear standards around roles, performance and frameworks around capability. We use the SFIAplus framework, for example, we’re implementing that now. So BCS has definitely got a lot of knowledge and experience it could bring to those conversations.

Lisa: I’ve been in the candidate market before where I’ve seen a job and I want to apply for the job and I know they have an internal recruitment team, but there’s just no other way than to email them - there’s no contact number, you try to get the switchboard and you can’t get through, so you give up. The agency route is not dissimilar - you apply for the role, you have a conversation with the consultant, they sound very energetic about it and they never come back.

You’re very aware about the real feelings of people you’re dealing with so when they apply, have the decency to go back and outline clearly some constructive feedback because for them they need to understand what that is to enable them move forward.

Laura: I think it’s about remembering, whether you’re an agency or whether you’re resourcing directly, that you are representing a brand and you will leave an impression with that candidate, they will then talk about that.

Lisa: The agencies that I’ve had more success with are boutique agencies rather than your larger agencies that have got an office in every city. What I think they get right is the fact that everybody is just as important as the last person and actually the relationship is better, they get time to spend with you and they really want to build that relationship and you actually see it, what they say they do.

Laura: If we can find agencies that can mirror our culture around behaving and partnering with us, we are more likely to want to build that relationship with them.

Lisa: Sometimes when you’re reviewing your PSL and you have 20 agencies sat in front of you, you can pretty much know verbatim what each of them are going to say; what I think sometimes gets missed is that personal touch. That’s where boutique agencies actually do get it.

Is IT recruitment broken?

Laura: I don’t think IT recruitment is broken, I think we’re just in a changing world and I think more organisations are potentially going down a direct hire route because it’s more cost effective.

If agencies can find a way to somehow link into that, I think it does come down to building a relationship for the future and helping us plan and understand where our gaps and our needs are and how they can help us achieve our goal. If they can add the value in that space I don’t think it’s broken, I think it just needs to move on.

Lisa: It’s really trying to understand how companies operate, what their processes are internally and how you can use that to your advantage to help the business.

Laura: I don’t think we’re talking about anything new, I think these problems were probably there ten years ago. I think it’s just regrouping and understanding the needs of the business.

Watch the full interview