Good recruiters versus body shops

September 2015

Four identical businessmenThere is mistrust in IT recruitment. With at least three perspectives to take into account - agency, employer and candidate - could it be contributing to the demise of the IT department? Brian Runciman MBCS looks at some of the issues.

When I was reading Quora to get some ideas for this piece I came across a comment about what makes a good agency: ‘Actually taking care to learn what’s best for the candidate and the employer and making the match.’ Sounds easy doesn’t it?

But another commenter succinctly summed up one of the problems with using ‘specialist’ recruiters. The gentleman in question had been in computing as a programmer since 1981. He reports being asked: ‘You’ve got 20+ years of SunOS, HPUX, Ultrix, Linux and BSD. Do you know Unix?’

Although not in the IT sector, mentions this issue in a post on spotting a poor recruitment agency. They pose the question: ‘Is your consultant less than well informed?’ They go on: ‘Then why are they a recruitment consultant? Recruitment is a high pressure sector in which competition is fierce.

If consultants don’t appear to be knowledgeable about a job sector or specific positions they’re not doing their job properly, which can indicate that the recruitment agency has substandard training programmes or just plain poor standards when it comes to performance. If they’re not doing their best, you’re not getting the best opportunity to find employment.’


The triumvirate of agency, employer and candidate all have needs and can offer reciprocal benefits if they are brought together in an effective way.

A good IT recruitment agency provides a valuable service. Like any middle-man, their job is to bring a buyer (the employer) and a seller (a candidate and their skills) together. When the employer’s need has been correctly assessed and the candidate’s skills accurately matched everyone benefits - and gets their mortgage paid!

Of course a candidate’s pressure is by definition more immediate, which means they have to pursue as many options as possible. A good summing up of the candidate perspective comes from the Code Rant blog by Mike Hadlow: ‘If you can make a direct contract with the client, so much the better.

Don’t worry about feeling underhand, agencies do this to each other all the time, it’s part of the game. Failing a direct contact, the next step is to email your CV to the agency. Remember they’ll be trying to match keywords, so it’s worth customising your CV to the job advert. Make sure as many keywords as possible match those in the advert, remembering of course that you might have to back up your claims in an interview.’


Contractor UK has a very thought-provoking list of ten things the unscrupulous agency may do. Many unwary contractors, and even some very wary ones, have been caught out. For example, a simple request for references could be a fishing exercise to get the names and phone numbers of your old bosses.

A very common experience is going for a posted job that doesn’t seem to exist. Another bit of fishing so an agency can boost its CV pool and database. A lot of people anecdotally have had that experience, although it’s not unique to IT of course.

A problem many candidates relay about working with agencies is poor communication. After an interview you want feedback - good as well as bad. In practice communication is quick when a candidate has been successful, but ponderous to non-existent otherwise.

Contractor UK’s point number ten is worth reporting in full, because it’s about the thorny issue of remuneration: ‘Once they’ve got you a job, they may say that they weren’t able to get you the rate that you wanted - that the client will only pay five per cent or 10 per cent less. This is rubbish. They told the company what your rate was initially and the company accepted it.

The agency is now just trying to help themselves to an extra bit of commission for a job that is safely in their pockets. Don’t fall for it. Tell them that the client can forget it and see how quickly the agent changes tack. They don’t want to lose surefire money.’

In the comments on the Code Rant blog mentioned above, a poacher turned gamekeeper makes a pertinent comment on this kind of practice: ‘As a recruiter that has worked agency and in-house... I would never work with an agency if they were not transparent with their rates. Equally, now having set up my own agency again, I would not expect a client or contractor to work with me if I did not disclose the mark-up or margin.’

Of course there are reputable agencies, and this item is not intended as a comment on all agencies. But it also seems clear that recruitment practice is in poor health.

The Association for Project Management recommend the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) as the professional member-based body that provides standard to the recruitment industry. But they also acknowledge: ‘As with many industries some agencies operate higher professional standards
than others.’

Skills gap

The recruitment agency problem is brought into even more stark focus by the oft-reported IT skills gap. UK PLC really needs recruiters, employers and candidates to benefit each other. At the end of last year I hosted a video debate for BCS on the IT skills gap. The panel - Chris Shaw from Intel; Sara Hill from Capability Jane and Philip Black from Emergn - are all enthusiastic about addressing the issues.

Initial discussion was around the question of buying or building talent. Chris identified this as one of Intel’s dilemmas. Historically they have looked predominantly at building talent, recruiting college graduates with an intern pipeline to then building their skills internally with the organisation, including exposing them to different departments to help build their careers.

He said, however, that there is an argument for some buying in of talent because you can’t necessarily build at the pace required to address organisational gaps. So some buying in key talent can drive your organisation’s development faster. Intel has done that in areas such as user experience design.

Chris said: ‘I would still love to build as much talent as I can within the organisation but I’d say it’s probably now in the 90/10 mix of build versus buy, maybe even shifting to 80/20.’

In his own career Philip Black did a computer science degree, but found that the most valuable part of it was the year he spent in industry - seeing what the world really wanted.

‘Yes there was a lot of theory,’ he said, ‘I had to learn about programming languages and databases and all of those sorts of interesting things. But actually it’s the world of work, it’s the politics that happen in the work place, how do you get on well, how do you build teams.’

And surely that is where agencies, employers and candidates come together.


Image: iStock/139980851

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    Manoranjan Das wrote on 17th Sep 2015

    A very true representation of the industry. The challenge is technical recruitment companies have very limited understanding of technology and they do not invest in technology learning.

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