Fast Track Recruitment

Attrition. What is it good for?

Posted by Mitch on 27th June 2019



The process of reducing something’s strength or effectiveness through sustained attack or pressure.

Wearing down, wearing away, weakening, debilitating, enfeebling.

Apparently, nearly half of all new recruits into the agency recruitment sector leave within their first 6 months, according to a recent CIPD report.

Typical responses to why this is so high on a recent LinkedIn post, included things like “it’s a tough job”, “not enough training”, “an overly competitive work environment”, “mis-selling the job”, “poor management” and “weak selection processes” and all of them have some validity.

The problem is, when addressed individually, none of these responses are likely to lead to a solution to the issue. But let’s first take a look at one of those reasons that I think is close to the root of the real problem.

The job is difficult…

I’ve been in this industry for 30 years and when I first stumbled into it back in the pre-Internet age, the job was relatively straightforward – although I didn’t feel that it was at the time. The reality is that being an agency recruiter is more difficult today than it’s ever been.

The democratisation of candidate information (job boards, LinkedIn, etc..) along with the amplification from social media and the rise of corporate inhouse recruitment teams have all made the job of being a 360 degree recruiter (a term I hate by the way) a lot harder.

Because of all these things, many agencies have become more niche in the types of jobs they fill which has driven hiring companies to become more narrow-minded in the types of candidates they deem suitable to fill their jobs.

The proliferation of job advertising channels pushing hastily assembled job ads (and I’m being kind by calling them ads) means prospective candidates are becoming more jaded by the prospect of any job potentially being better than the one they’re in.

And the increased (and narrower) competition from other agencies working on the same vacancies and the fact that more of these jobs are being filled by the client themselves, all contribute to a job function that is more fractured and unpredictable than it’s ever been.

When the going gets tough…

Normally, when market conditions get more complex and tougher to navigate, the suppliers to that market will typically raise their standards to meet those new challenges. But not, it would seem, in the world of recruitment.

If I notice any behaviour pattern in the recruitment industry, it is that it likes to play the numbers game. Whether it’s a steady stream of badly worded job ads, thousands of poorly researched ‘job alert’ emails (often referred to by everyone else as “spam”) or 50 cold calls to companies every week, all of it speaks to a collective instinct that is unquestionably quantitative rather than qualitative.

Interestingly, while we’re on the numbers theme, there are more recruitment agencies now than ever before too.

Think about that one for a moment.

There are fewer available candidates than ever before, inhouse recruitment has taken away a lot of vacancies agencies used to fill and yet the number of recruitment agencies has increased?

That would make more sense to me if those new agencies (most of whom I assume are people who used to work for other agencies) broke away to start their own businesses because they wanted to “do things differently”. Some are, but they are in a massive minority. Most are just doing the same thing, in the same way, with the same clients.

To me, that’s a bit like buying a new PC and installing Windows Vista.

Or in other words, a new business with lots of great ideals being run by the same outdated operating system.

And that outdated operating system ladies and gentlemen, is called contingency recruitment.

If supplier standards are going to improve, it’s going to take more than better managers and better selection processes. It’s also not going to improve by providing more training so recruiters can get marginally better at doing the things that most candidates and clients have become increasingly frustrated by.

Contingency recruiting is a legacy system…

The only way I can see that industry standards are going to improve is if all of the experienced recruiters out there start moving away from earning most of their money on contingency. By that I mean that they shouldn’t have to earn more than around 30% of their fees from working on ‘success only’.

And that means convincing most of their best clients to only use them and give them the platform to be able to deliver a service that most clients and candidates do want.

What clients want is better quality candidates and some kind of service guarantee.

The best kind of service guarantee a recruiter can give a client is the assurance that they will deliver the best possible candidates and that they will definitely fill their vacancy. That would be music to the ears of most hiring managers – and all they need to do to get it is to commit to one agency.

Because when a client commits to one agency supplier per vacancy, what they’re creating is the platform and the scope for the agency to do everything necessary to guarantee they’ll fill the job. That usually means superior job marketing and meaningful candidate screening/assessment – neither of which are currently happening – at least not in enough numbers for people to notice.

It isn’t happening because agencies are too busy only filling 20% of all the vacancies they work on to be able to do any of it as well as they could. It’s that numbers thing again.

All candidates want is greater transparency. That usually translates into more open and authentic job marketing and meaningful feedback on their application and any interviews they attend.

That isn’t happening either because the recruiters are still too busy only placing around 1 in 20 candidates into the jobs they’ve pitched them via a job ad, email or phone call.

Numbers again. It always comes back to the fucking numbers.

Saying No…

I’ve sometimes been accused of being something of a militant when it comes to the debate between retained and contingency. I’m not, but I’ve yet to hear a rational explanation as to why a competent recruiter with many years experience and knowledge of a particular niche or sector would not be able to comfortably fill every single job they worked on in that niche.

All they would need to do to reach that state of nirvana would be to:

1. Sell the idea to the client.
2. Be selective with those that say “yes”.

That 2nd point is important.

Selling retained is much easier than you think.

It just requires some forethought and patience. But what is a little harder is politely saying “no” to those companies who don’t give the recruiter a robust job brief, a realistic expectation of the types of candidates they can attract and the scope to put out better quality job marketing. Recruiters aren’t known for their ability to say “no” to work – especially retained work.

But if you produce more income from fewer clients, the quality of the actual recruitment work goes up, as does the reputation of the agency along with the quality of their internal hiring processes and training needs.

And if all of those things go up, so too should the calibre of trainees hired by these agencies – because they’ll be learning the job (for the 1st year at least) supporting a recruiter who is achieving close to a 100% fill rate.

Those trainees can then spend their 2nd and 3rd years cutting their teeth on contingency before being taught how to slowly migrate their perm desk towards retained. The business they generate on contingency will be useful retained leads for the senior recruiters.

There’s your career expectations, job satisfaction and staff attrition problems at least partly solved. I don’t know what to do about the “poor management” part of the puzzle.

Same quantity, better quality…

When a recruiter has to work for free competing with several other agencies (and in some cases with the actual client as well), they will look for ways to make that daunting task a little easier.

Unsurprisingly, that means playing the numbers game, otherwise known as working on as many jobs as possible to increase the odds the recruiter will hit or beat target.

It’s impossible to consistently deliver a quality service when you’re competing with several other agencies all doing the same things, usually just as badly, which ironically just makes each of their jobs incrementally harder.

Recruiters who get good at playing the numbers game and quickly build a perm desk to say, £250K per year, can’t do that for ever by spot-trading candidates on the fringes of other people’s recruitment processes. They will at some point, between 3 and 6 years probably, burn out.

And where do burnt-out agency recruiters go? Into management usually. Or, if they’ve saved enough of that “big biller” money, they go inhouse. Or worse, into recruitment training.

So, if you wouldn’t run your new PC on Windows Vista, why would you expect a recruitment model that worked pre-Internet, to still work when the Internet has totally changed the trading landscape?

So there’s my answer to the recruiter attrition problem. Make the job easier to do, attract better applicants and make the environment less competitive.

Should people’s careers be distilled down to a spot-trading activity where “deals” are announced by ringing a bell and celebrated by going on piss-ups to Ibiza?

I’ll leave you to answer that before deciding what to do next.


By J on Thursday, 27 June 2019

The more years I do in this industry, the broader my experience levels from SME agency, to corporate agency and inhouse in multiple sectors proves to me that many recruitment MD’s have a very narrow skill set. And that leaves them best suited to run small lifestyle businesses that plateau around their capacity to manage, 10-30 staff max.

Lack of strategic leadership is the true driver of attrition.

The ones that grow are the ones willing to relinquish some control and hire at senior level to augment the skills they lack. How often do we see recruiters relinquish control over anything? Or even admit they might be out of their depth and way beyond their comfort zone? That would be to admit weakness.  Fake it till you make it is the order of the day.

I define strategic leadership as highly intelligent and high energy individuals surrounding themselves with subject matter experts that provide them with the accurate/truthful information they need to make strategic decisions. That isn’t what I have seen within the recruitment industry. Quite the opposite. I have seen sunshine get blown up backsides, yes men, the cult of personality and short termism race to the bottom

Apart from a small number conspicuous exceptions, the industry isn’t geared up to develop the skills needed to grow tomorrows business leaders.

Attrition will stay the same. And despite all the new toys and tech, so will service levels.

I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

By Mitch on Wednesday, 03 July 2019

Jon, does better strategic leadership make the job of being a contingency recruiter any easier?

I’m not so sure.

Unless part of that strategic leadership involved them moving away from contingency. Then I’m a bit more sure.

By Darren on Friday, 05 July 2019

Excellent work fella.

By K.Joseph Brown on Thursday, 22 August 2019

“.. why would you expect a recruitment model that worked pre-Internet, to still work when the Internet has totally changed the trading landscape?” 

Pal you straight ahead nailed it!

And I say we need more Militants like you on point.

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