The Future of Contingent Search

article by Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett

The traditional contingent search business model is a risky one in that it is incredibly susceptible to macroeconomics, technological innovation, and population demographics. While many industries can balance their product and service portfolios to survive the most brutal application of the laws of supply and demand, many smaller contingent search providers ride a one-trick pony. In 1999, contingent search providers were riding waves of success that made those on the North Shore of Maui look tame. Search commissions were rising steadily, exceeding 45% in some markets, newbies to the profession were pulling down six-figure incomes, and the influx of job orders seemed unending.

Then 2001 hit, and one contingent firm after another cut back, laying off thousands. Now that double-digit employee growth is once again a challenge for most companies, you would think that the glory days of contingent search are back. But, as many firms will attest, they aren’t.

Revenue Is There, But Not From the Same Sources

While industry revenue is forecasted to grow from 10.4% in 2005 to 11.6% in 2006, the industry is deriving the greatest percentage of newly booked revenue from value-added services, namely temporary or contract staffing and professional services. More companies are relying on contingent workforces than ever before. It is estimated that in 2006, as many as two-fifths of newly created jobs are first offered on a temporary basis. That’s a fourfold increase in the growth of contract labor in just 10 years. While the job orders being placed with traditional contingent agencies aren’t drying up, the increased use of contingent labor and a confluence of technology driving candidate visibility is forcing such firms to change or die. With the opportunity to maintain minimum placement volume needed to sustain a business in jeopardy, many contingent search providers are increasing the scope of value-added services they offer, and are finding clients more receptive than ever. The contingent search industry has long been one that defined success too early, in that it never sought out opportunities to extend the value of its services beyond the initial placement transaction.

This lack of prior industry development has made the industry ripe for a series of progressive, qualitative transition cycles. Early leaders embracing this transition are already blurring the lines between temporary staffing, contingent staffing, retained staffing, professional services, and training. With this transition firms like Adecco and Kelly, which had few urban competitors, today have thousands, ranging from local companies of one to foreign companies of thousands.

The Confluence of Technology Driving Candidate Visibility

Traditional contingent search firms take advantage of their ability to find candidates who have not been found by companies or who have been overlooked. It is, for the most part, a low-volume, high-margin business. However, the confluence of numerous technologies that service the recruiting function and the proliferation of the Internet have made a majority of the world’s workforce more visible to corporations and, in the process, eroded the value proposition contingent search providers once banked on. In this new era, contingent search professionals are finding it a lot harder to find a candidate who:

  • Doesn’t appear on a lock-out list (a list of the agencies’ other clients or strategic partners of the client organization);
  • Hasn’t already been introduced to the company via the employee referral program; or
  • Doesn’t already appear in one of a multitude of databases that employers have purchased access to; or
  • Hasn’t already applied directly to the company sometime in the past four years; or
  • Presents a background so stellar that companies don’t balk at paying search fees.

In short, the inventory of talent that contingent search providers can trade upon for permanent placement is in extremely short supply.

New Services on the Horizon

As stated earlier, those agencies embracing change are finding more ways to extend the value inside the organization. The most common extension is, of course, the move into supporting temporary labor. While many large service providers like Randstad and Kelly have the market economics to secure the largest companies in a metropolitan area, a number of small- and medium-sized firms desperately need help leveraging contingent staff. In addition to temporary staffing, a number of other potential services are on the horizon, some that many large organizations should consider taking advantage of. Those we find most interesting include:

Outsourced Referral Program Management

Employee referral programs are quickly becoming the predominate source of hire inside most organizations. Those firms that lead their industries in hires attributed to employee referral can attest that providing world-class customer service to both referees and referrals is essential to maintaining program momentum. Unfortunately, most HR organizations are not adept at even spelling world-class customer service, let alone delivering it. For years, HR organizations have focused on containing costs and enabling self-service, two objectives that don’t always drive customer satisfaction. Contingent search firms, on the other hand, have built their businesses around customer service, servicing not only the client but the candidate as well. By outsourcing the management of the employee referral program to a trusted search provider, the client organization could gain several key benefits, including:

  • The search provider could more easily ramp up and down the human resources attached to the client employee referral program to maintain pre-established customer service standards.
  • Under a split-type agreement, the search provider could provide referrals with additional placement services should the client organization opt not to hire, thereby creating a revenue source to self-fund the employee referral program.
  • The search provider could provide more advanced analytics regarding the success or failure of the employee referral program because traditionally agencies have been more adept than HR functions have been at applying metrics internally.
  • The search provider could leverage economies of scale and build internal staffing proficiencies in marketing and sales skills to support the employee referral program that would not make sense for small- and medium-sized firms to invest in.

External Brand Assessment

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While most lock-out list scenarios prevent companies from using an agency to raid another employer, they don’t prevent organizations from hiring services to help identify and understand their position in the market as employers. Because contingent search providers have a proven ability to blueprint a competing talent organization, target specific talent, and establish contact with said talent, it makes sense to leverage that ability to identify and gauge an employer’s reputation in specific talent markets. Professional recruiters may be more adept at getting an honest perception than market researchers because they have a proven ability to keep talent talking. Under such a scenario, search providers would:

  • Build contact lists of target talent in competing organizations.
  • Establish relationships with said talent over time.
  • Use the established relationship to gather research on how the client is perceived in key areas by the target talent.
  • Aggregate the research and report back to the client perceptions that limit the client’s ability to attract said talent.

Competitive Landscape Mapping

Nearly every contingent staffing professional can tell stories about when it introduced a candidate to a client who came from a competitor whom the client was unaware of. While companies like to think that their marketing teams are adept at identifying potential competitors, staffing professionals often do a much better job at mapping who-competes-against-whom for customers, and especially for employees. They are more adept at recognizing industries that hire compatible talent, and much more adept at identifying new entrants to the talent market. Client organizations can use contingent staffing firms to build competitive talent landscape maps as a precursor to organizational benchmarking initiatives. Maps can help insure that organizations have a realistic picture of who is after what talent in a specific geography, and what each player’s strengths and weaknesses are.

Recruiter Training

While the visibility of candidates may have improved, the ability of the typical corporate recruiter to acquire said candidates has not. Most corporate recruiters are phone averse, and seem to think that proactively contacting any potential candidate before they have applied to you is an ethics violation! As such, a number of contingent search firms have started offering training seminars and certification programs that help prepare recruiters to be successful in the role of corporate recruiter. Some aspects of these training programs focus on sourcing techniques, while others focus on how to engage candidates and deal with the all too common objections. A number of Fortune 200 companies now rely heavily on recruiters who have undergone said training. Under this service, contingent search providers:

  • Recruit entry-level recruiters onto their payroll.
  • Train the recruiters in full life-cycle recruiting or a life-cycle specialty, depending on client needs.
  • Provide the newly trained recruiters with on-the-job experience for a minimum period of time.
  • Contract out or place the new recruiters with client organizations and guarantee their on-the-job performances for a set period of time.

Vendor Management

Another service that is growing in popularity among traditional contingent agencies is vendor management. Many corporations are horrible at managing the multitude of services that support the staffing function and could not optimize the deployment of searches or resources if the future of their staffing function depended on it. Despite years of challenges and a host of software products that have sprung up to do the job, most companies still need help. Because agencies are generally better at using metrics internally and have a profit incentive to use resources wisely, outsourcing vendor management to a contingent staffing vendor again makes sense. They can leverage the same metrics that they use internally for assigning recruiters to job orders to assign subcontractors to accounts. Because their profits are tied to helping you maximize both the efficiency and effectiveness of your staffing efforts, you build in accountability to a corporate function that traditionally hasn’t been held accountable.


Contingent search firms have existed for years and will continue to exist for years to come. But like all industries, the contingent staffing industry is not subject to life as we have known it forever. It too must evolve – now more than ever. The position of search firms is one that lends organizations a great deal of power to identify what does and does not make sense to do internally. In short, it gives organizations the strength needed to force trusted search providers to become mini-recruitment process outsourcers. Are you progressive enough to leverage your partners?

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “The Future of Contingent Search

  1. Dr. Sullivan and I Finally agree on Something!!! Alert the Press!

    Actually that is a very good article and there is a lot of truth in this..
    Recruiters do need to provide extra value and worth to their clients.
    Performing substandard work, presenting the same data and information as the internal recruiters and their competitors will provide the Same ole, same ole results.

    Clients are getting Particular, pickier and smarter, (personally I think because not too smart recruiters tend to teach smart employers to be smarter than they are).

    Our clients are being very selective on who they want to work for, they demand quality, Not quantity. They want us to provide a value for their dollar. Not for us to duplicate their efforts. Don’t blame them!

    Dr. Sullivan, good article!
    By the way naps has a great interactive Industry Timeline.. Really Awesome

  2. John, your comment about inventory issues reminded of a comment of a contingency recruiter customer of ours: ‘My client pays us contingency based $30k fee, but often when we contact our network for leads their employees have alredy contacted the same people! These employees hear about these jobs 2-3 weeks before us and stand to earn a $5k employee referral reward…’

    IF the employee was enabled to share the reward with referrer, guess who gets the lead: A contingency recruiter offering profound thanks for leads or B. employee effectively offering $2,500 thank you gesture…?

    Seriously, IDC estimates that 3rd party recruiters generate $8 billion in fees,and perhaps fill 1 million jobs? We estimate that corporate America pays out same amount in empoyee referral rewards to employees who together fill 30% to 40% of all external hires? The math is interesting.

  3. I can assure you that contingent firms will continue to survive as long at the individuals work for these firms are bright and leading edge and doing that little extra something that the Kelly and Adeccos and Manpowers clearly do not have. There is no benefit to a company to use large service company like these when in most cases their staff cannot deliver on specialized searches.

    As for the search firms well this is another story altogether. I oersonally feel that the days of the search firm are numbered. A lot of companies do not really need the services of an executive search firm unless this is a very strategic or confidential search that requires a Global mandate. Why do certain companies use them is beyond my comprehension when in fact companies such as BEA and Conagra are using Zoom Info to get names and contacts of executive teams at competitive companies.

    Who needs an executive search firm when this information is public and you no longer have to work with a search firm and hand over $60,000 to some polished guy wearing a $2000 dollar suit in works in an opulate office……. working in a urban city?

    One thing is clear the environment has become very competitive with executive search firms cannibalizing our market and going after the mid level market which they use to frown upon many years ago.

    Most people would prefer working with the contingent firms especially those firms that are candidate friendly over any search firm that treats the midlevel and senior level candidates like numbers… In some cases so would the companies that are looking for flexibility……..


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