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My colleagues, Margret Street office, Sydney early 1992

After my morning presentation at APSCo Engage last week I was in conversation with a recruiter a couple of decades younger than me.

This recruiter made some astute observations about my presentation and then asked me what I thought were the biggest changes in agency recruitment over my career.

My on-the-sport answer was incomplete. Having reflected on the question since here is my considered answer:

  • Technology: Index cards as my database, print ads in Saturday’s classified Positions Vacant section, resumes faxed or couriered to clients, and a corded phone that sat on my desk were the realities of my life as a rookie recruiter. The tech breakthrough that truly made a difference was SEEK. Taking a job, writing a job ad, posting that ad, and receiving applications all within a few hours, rather than a few days was a giant leap forward of such a magnitude it’s hard for anybody who wasn’t around at that time (1997) to truly appreciate how huge this change was. Sending resumes via email, rather than by fax or bike courier, was a close second in terms of speeding up the recruitment process (although as a temp recruiter I mostly filled jobs over the phone without the client viewing a resume). Although the advent of the mobile phone and the commercialisation of the worldwide web were both significant it was the combination of the smartphone and cloud technology, that dramatically increased the possibilities for where, and how, the work of an agency recruiter was undertaken.
  • Access to information: Pre-internet candidates relied almost entirely on recruiters for information about employers and employers relied almost entirely on recruiters for information about candidates. There was no company website, no LinkedIn, no Glassdoor and no Google. Photocopying brochures and job descriptions to give, or post, to candidates was how recruiters helped candidates prepare for interviews.
  • Work attire: I wore a suit and tie for every day of my life as an agency recruiter and leader (apart from the occasional marketing day or conference). My first two employers did not permit female employees to wear pants (suit or no suit). These days I suspect many male recruiters under 30 have never worn a tie to work (and some may not even own one) and many female employees only ever wear pants to the office.
  • Work location: Every day of my 14 years as a recruiter I worked at my desk in an office. How could I have done my job without access to my (manual) files and my desktop computer?
  • HR departments: For the first five or six years of my agency recruitment life I dealt directly with hiring managers. Only very large companies could justify an HR department (called Personnel Departments until the Human Resources makeover began in the mid-1990s) and very few HR employees had recruitment responsibilities. Internal recruitment positions, let alone recruitment teams or recruitment departments didn’t start to become commonplace until I was nearly a decade into my recruitment career. Now it’s almost the opposite – dealing directly with a hiring manager, without any HR involvement at all, is so uncommon as to be noteworthy, if it ever happens at all.
  • Compliance – I was a temp recruiter for 12 years and the only two compliance issues I concerned myself with were right-to-work and the relevant award. Laws specific to OH & S, privacy, anti-discrimination, competition, labour licensing, and the like, were either not legal issues relevant to my job or were no yet obligations of any employer.
  • Diversity: There was plenty of diversity within my temps. As a temp accounting recruiter in the Sydney CBD, I placed accounting staff covering a full range of ages, ethnicities, nationalities and ‘Australian experience’. The lack of diversity was in the ranks of the recruiters who populated agency desks in the early 1990s. Not so much a lack of age or gender diversity (although certain agencies were known to never hire anybody client-facing above a certain age) it was ethnicity and colour where I saw little evidence of diversity. Joyce Gin was the only Sydney agency recruiter I met in the early 1990s who didn’t look like every other agency recruiter I knew. Thankfully those days are long gone and it’s a real joy for me, every time I run by Rookie Recruiter Training Program, to note how the ethnic-origin profile of the participants much more closely reflects the ethnic diversity of Australia’s current population.
  • Break-out spaces in offices – I worked in eight different offices across four employers, two countries, and four cities in my 14 years as an agency recruiter yet I never had access to a break- out space at work. Most of those eight offices had kitchens and decent facilities but I never had a dedicated space for eating my lunch or taking any sort of break. When I see the completely refurbished Sydney office of people2people it’s hard to comprehend that the same job I started more than three decades ago is conducted from these premises.

As to whether the job of an agency recruiter is harder or easier than it was three decades ago I would say it’s harder for two main reasons.

Firstly, the elevated immediacy, transparency, and accountability of social media, review sites, and the internet generally, has raised both client and candidate expectations of recruiters, compared to thirty years ago.

Secondly, competition is so much greater now. As much as other agency recruiters provide consistent and increased competition, it’s more the many alternative hiring channels available to employers, such as job boards, Linkedin, internal recruiters, offshoring, gig platforms, Statement of Work consultancies, and the like, that make life far more challenging for agency recruiters compared to when I started out over three decades ago.

Australian employers in 1989 only had five choices if they wanted to hire an employee: run an ad in the paper, post a sign out the front of their premises, ask their employees for referrals, call the CES (Gen Y and Millennials – ask your parents), or call an agency recruiter.

It was a different era – and I loved it.

Related blogs

30 years ago: Landing my first job in recruitment and surviving my first two weeks

Compliance ignorance in recruitment: do you know what you’re really risking?

How Mitre 10, campus life and London made the recruiter in me


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Ross – its definitely changed! I’m glad (except for my age) that my career has straddled the pre-tech and post-tech recruitment world and the dramatic differences.
One of the great post-tech challenges is the very high volume of (often totally unsuitable) applicants for most roles (current market aside). This is a downside by-product of the Seek’s of the world where there is zero cost in both time & effort to apply for a role.
Pre-tech, we took pride and care in literally responding, by personalised letter, to every applicant as to why they’ weren’t being shortlisted with actual (as opposed to generic) reasons.
The volume of applicants now typically only allows a generic ‘rejection’. Sad but true.

Ross Clennett

Yes, so true, James. The impact of the ease of applying has, since I stopped recruiting, multiplied the volume of unsuitable candidates by a factor of 4 or 5, I suspect.

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