Recently there have been a fair few blog posts and articles published on various recruitment sites that discuss the changing nature of recruitment. In summary, what many of them are saying is that recruitment, as we know it, is dying. The cause is the growth of Web 2.0; the socialization of the web means that everyone has a digital footprint, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, blogs, specialist online communities, emails etc. As a result it is getting easier and easier to find people, so sourcing is simple and companies are increasingly doing it themselves. This viewpoint has three core arguments: that everyone is online; that companies are increasingly sourcing hires through direct applications; and that there is no longer any such thing as a ‘passive’ candidate.

Whilst I broadly agree with this, I think it is worth injecting a note of caution. Web 2.0 has made huge changes to the way we do recruitment, just as Web 1.0 did, but I think that the role of the recruiter will continue for some time yet, and here’s why:

Everyone’s online

Facebook has over 1 billion users, Twitter has around 200 million ‘regular’ users, and LinkedIn over 200 million users. There’s many other social applications that can claim between 10 and 100 million users. This lends a strong argument to those who claim that everyone is online. LinkedIn is a useful example because its primary purpose is to be a professional networking tool; the number of UK LinkedIn accounts is around 12 million, and according to census data the “working population” of the UK is around 38 million. We can reasonably assume that most LinkedIn members are within the working population (i.e. between 16-59 for women, or 16-64 for men), suggesting that almost a third of the working population is visible on a professional, socialized service. For those not on LinkedIn, it seems inevitable that they have a presence somewhere else, e.g. Twitter and Facebook.

However, this argument makes certain assumptions about how we use social media, e.g. a high level of engagement, and that we provide rich, useful data, such as a fully completed profile on LinkedIn, a Twitter bio that lists our occupation etc. Even a quick search shows this is not the case; having a profile or account is not the same as using it. I know several people on LinkedIn who haven’t updated their account in several years, even after switching jobs, and recently someone accepted a connection request I sent almost 2 years ago. Web 2.0 has made it easier to find people, but not everyone, and not everyone is easily visible online. Sourcing is not dead, it just needs new tactics.

Companies are sourcing directly

A key claim here is that organisations are able to source more and more candidates directly, thanks to increased visibility of vacancies. Recruiters know that, in general, there are plenty of direct applicants out there, which is why many agencies still use job boards as one way of advertising roles. But, as the old saying goes, quality is better than quantity. It is rare to get a great candidate from an advert. When recruiting for Software Developer roles, I found around 90% of respondents were non-EU without a Visa hoping to get sponsorship to come and work in the UK, and therefore ineligible to be considered (as few clients are legally able to sponsor). For contingency recruiting, job boards are worth the investment for the occasional strong applicant they bring in, but an agency cannot solely rely on them.

As a result, direct applicants need to be sourced in different, more creative and flexible ways. Posting jobs on LinkedIn and Twitter is a great way to find good candidates, as is hosting events such as networking events, user group meetings, sponsoring conferences etc. Some large firms are able to do this to great effect; one of the most successful large companies I know in terms of recruitment strategies has brought most of their recruitment in-house by creating a specialist, 35-strong recruitment team. I recently spoke to one of the senior people in the team, who informed me that they now hire 90% directly, compared to less than 30% before the team was put in place. However, it is only large companies that can afford to do this. A 2011 UK government survey found that SMEs are the lifeblood of the country, representing 99.9% of all businesses, covering 59% of the workforce. 99% of companies have less than 50 employees. These are companies where, if there is an HR department, it is likely to be 1 or 2 HR generalists, with no specialist sourcing knowledge. Sure, some might be very good at recruiting, but a lot won’t be, and in my experience a lot aren’t. It’s easy to overestimate the changing nature of direct hires when looking at large companies, but bear in mind that they are a minority of companies with a minority of the workforce.

There’s no such thing as passive

This argument essentially relies on the old adage, ‘every man has his price’. Gone are the days of the career ladder, now it is almost expected that people change employers every 2-3 years. Even if someone hasn’t put their CV up somewhere, they will consider any new opportunity that is presented to them.

This takes a somewhat unitarist approach to candidate motivation. Motivation is incredibly hard to define; whilst there are trends (e.g. money and ‘meaningful work’ tend to top motivators in surveys) an individual’s motivation for staying or leaving is just that – individual. You cannot assume that if you have a great, well-paid role, everyone will want it. I do agree that, if a ‘passive’ candidate pursues an opportunity, he is likely to start considering other options. However this perspective assumes that candidates ultimately have no loyalty and are solely motivated by self-interest, which simply isn’t true – we all know people who you couldn’t pry out of their job with a crowbar!

To conclude, the way a Recruiter works is changing, and will continue to do so, just as is the case with every other job. However, if you look at the three arguments here, you can see that the core aspects of a recruiter’s role remain the same:

  1. Source candidates using innovative means – especially those who aren’t well-represented online,
  2. Filter and qualify candidates to find the ‘best’ – which becomes even more important the more candidates there are,
  3. Sell, sell, sell – the more opportunities a candidate has, the more likely it is he will take the one that is best sold to him.

To me, that doesn’t look all that different to recruitment as I know it. Strategies and the external environment may change, but the fundamentals remain the same.

Andrew Fairley has recently completed an MA in Management with The York Management School, focusing on strategy, innovation, HR, and organisational behaviour, and has just begun a PhD investigating the UK internet startup industry. Prior to this, he spent 2 years as a Recruitment Consultant, working with clients from SMEs to blue-chips, sourcing IT staff.  You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.