The Living Death of the Contract Recruiter

As the business community sheds recruiters from full-time positions, many organizations bring on contract recruiters to use when required and dump when not required. I am here to help you to avoid making one of life’s more miserable career decisions: becoming a contact recruiter. Here’s the advice:

Do not ever become a contract recruiter.

Allow me to repeat. (The gravity of the situation bears repeating, and you just might thank me some day.) Do not ever become a contract recruiter.

Now let me tell you why.

The allure of contract recruiting can be seductive. It offers variety, oftentimes far more cash, and the ability to take control of one’s life and career. Incorporate in Delaware, anoint yourself as President, and off you go. The reasons to jump into this situation have broad appeal … to the recruiter who has grown bored, to the recruiter who is between jobs, or to the recruiter who fancies themselves as a visionary who wants to change the world. (Count me in that last category, and, by the way, you will change nothing. Zero.) A few quick illusionary examples for your consideration:

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  • You can now work when you want to work and play when you want to play — all while avoiding the corporate politics. (Work half the year, lunch with LaBron James, the other half. Sounds like fun?)
  • You can act as a consultant and have access to senior-level management on talent acquisition strategy. (Finally, people who will see your brilliance.)
  • You can supercharge your career by being in a number of organizations over a short time, do great things, and bring all of this to your next full-time gig. (Finally, a shot at the big recruiting jobs!)

It sounds lovely, but the downside of this career move far outweighs the upside. So let me give you five reasons why contract recruiting is almost surely a bad thing for you.

  1. Unrealistic Expectations. Contract recruiters are usually brought in at the very last moment (translation — way too late) and are expected to go at breakneck speed and hire a number of hard-to-find people with minimal tools. Good recruiting takes time, and there are few shortcuts. Hire 12 to 14 software/IT types in four weeks? This is dumb.
  1. Recruiting as Magic. The demands placed upon contract recruiters can be astonishing. The expectations and level of desperation from hiring managers who absolutely hate the HR/recruiting function at said client lie with you and they expect miracles. The expectation of miracles by either you or the client is a poor strategy.
  1. Call Your Network. Call my network? Do you think that contract recruiters come into an organization with a virtual rolodex of people who we can simply dial up and tell them to come and join us in this new and wonderful place? We are recruiters, not magicians. As an aside, almost all clients are astonished that the best and the brightest do not want to stand in line to work at their company. When the time comes to sit down with the client and tell them that they are not viewed well in the industry, use old technology, or have a product that is not sexy, let’s just say it will not be a very good day for you.
  1. You Have No Relationships. Making hires takes some fundamental knowledge of the organization as well as the people who you can count on to help to make this happen. When you contract, you go into the organization cold and are devoid of said relationships. This lack of organizational grease only slows down your results as key people vacation/travel and job descriptions endlessly change. Candidates seethe as they wait for an offer, and hiring managers are not too pleased either. (Can you feel the love yet?)
  1. Billing, Marketing, Benefits, etc. You alone are responsible for your next gig. You alone must do the marketing, the billing, and the collecting. You are also responsible for the taxes and enhanced insurance required to run your own shop. This can be expensive, time-consuming, and very frustrating. You seldom have any of the benefits you are used to, like health care or a paid day off. Finance pays slowly, as you are now just a vendor. If you have a family or a mortgage, this is not a way to live.

With few exceptions, most organizations that go from hiring one contractor to hiring another are places that neither value nor understand the role recruiting plays in building great organizations. Simply put, they do not get it. If you try to explain it, their eyes glaze over. Their manpower planning is poor. They see recruiting as an unpleasant expense as opposed to an investment. This is often why they need contractors — because they have neither the brains nor the foresight to value those individuals who find the employees they need to be successful. All of this creates a wretched situation that pleases no one and often leads to much angst.

If you ever choose this road be sure it is absolutely necessary, stay for the shortest possible time and get back to a full-time gig, because doing this for a career is a very bad deal.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


38 Comments on “The Living Death of the Contract Recruiter

  1. A part of me is thinking you’re trying to scare off the competition.
    Wait. I’m wrong.
    You’re just trying to avoid competition in the future.


    Maureen Sharib
    Phone Sourcer
    513 899 9628

  2. I find this article to be quite cynical and narrow minded. I agree with Maureen – has to be more behind it – and I am surprised that ERE finds this article to be valuable enough to print…we all experience the unrealistic Hiring Managers – thats Recruiting……

    Janet Shuman
    National Recruiter
    (also since 1985)

  3. Interesting article…..if it was written 10 years ago. The contracting world has changed immensely since then and companies now realize the value of hiring true professional contractors.

  4. I agree with Howard,

    every point he made is dead on, I have worked contracts before and they are a ahortsighted and impossible/unrealisitc stop gap measure with the companies that employ them/us

    It’s a a recruiting strategy that places no value on what we do/provide,


  5. Howard while I respect your opinion and the fact that you are entitled to it, I believe you are generalizing.I have contracted many times in addition to maintaining my search business and it has proven very rewarding.I have been treated as a professional who can make a valuable contribution. There has been great value in working with different cultures and different products and industries.I have been able to prove the adage that if you know how to source and recruit you can be successful in different industries and environments.

  6. I think you have successfully identified some of the common pitfalls in engaging contract recruiters. The best contract recruiters and vendors though set realistic expectations and properly frame the contract engagement to achieve mutually agreed upon outputs. This essential in any contract engagement – recruitment included.

    The angle you have chosen for this article made for interesting reading and definitely got me thinking. Thanks for sharing. Shane

  7. Contract recruiters who know what they are doing can set their own stage with the client company and make a lot of $$. Always ask for a six month – one year contract with 60 days notice for either side. While building CareerXroads I was a contractor for three major companies and learned a ton while at one earning more $$ than the VP of Staffing.
    Great gig if you manage it well.
    Mark Mehler

  8. A lot depends on the recruiter and the situation the company is in and the calibre of recruiters they currently have.

    So whilst I think the article makes some valid points, it is a bit of a sweeping generalisation.

  9. No, Howard. I respectfully disagree. Why you should be a Contract Recruiter is that (except in times of great economic distress) you get to choose your clients. To paraphrase SNL’s Garrett Morris (aka Chico Escuela), “Contract Recruiting been berry, berry good to me.”

  10. It’s an individual choice and there is no validity to a sweeping generalization in my opinion. I could never work a factory job on an assembly line and could write an article on the horrors of doing so….but I have friends that wouldn’t do anything but. I have found it to be either a choice of necessity (short term), or a lifestyle choice that is embraced by those who, like my assembly friends….would have things no other way. Because of that, and my respect for their choice (and they do have choices by the way) I feel this article is way off base.

  11. Howard,

    Always wants to post controversy, good idea. While he has a few points, I think he’s limited in his thinking.

    Considering\, at this point in the economy, many firms are doing contract-to-p;arm, for many positions. Including recruiting.

    It can be a way to get in the company, really look around, and see if it’s a good place to call home.

    Agreed companies should hire recruiters perm. But very good recruiting costs to hire, and saves millions. Unfortunately most companies do not realize that yet.

    Mark, CareerXroads I love the study you guys have done, if I remember right. Submit 40 or so resumes,so dead on, some way off. The resumes that were way off got further down the road than the perfect fit. This is a good example of why good recruiting pays for itself.


    Is Howard just disappointed with the other recruiters @ the company he is at

    Just askin’

  12. This article seems better placed on someone’s blog vs the lead article of the day for

    Being a consultant is hard, doesn’t matter if it’s a recruiter, an IT Project manager or a freelance marketing person coming in to build a comms plan. You are a hired gun and there is no organization where everything is all nice and neatly laid out when you start. Otherwise their FTE staff could handle.

    Howard – always enjoy your articles but this one could have been better thought out and less generalization of our beloved function.

  13. I couldn’t disagree with you more – my experience contracting in the Silicon Valley has been nothing but positive – many other recruiters I know feel the same – the contract to hire option here in the valley is also very strong…I think many companies want the flexibility of trying before they buy, as opposed to putting unrealistic expectations on a recruiter –

  14. I simple search with the keywords ‘contract recruiter’ on a major job site came back with 21,000 hits of potential contract roles in the US alone. To further reduce the search, I wanted to see all contract roles over 80k in compensation and the number of hits came back to approximately 11k. Almost half of the contract gigs out there came back over 80k. For the keyword ‘recruiter’, I got 78,000 jobs that turned tup. Again, this is just under one simple ‘keyword search’ on major site. Numbers never lie.

  15. This article is rotten! I’ve had great experiences as both a full time and contract recruiter, and the information in here seems to obviously stem from the author’s bad experience, as it definitely doesn’t speak for all of us great recruiters with great networks. The problems described happen to corporate recruiters as well (expecting magic etc) and depend on the company you work for. Contract recruiting is fantastic for building your network as a recruiter, whether you do it independently or through an agency (where you DO get benefits), as it gives you exposure to a variety of companies/cultures/styles which ultimately makes you a more powerful recruiter – you know who will work at what type of company MUCH more than if you’ve only been recruiting for one company your entire career.

  16. To contract recruit or not to contract recruit: that isn’t the (first) question. If sage Anthony Byrne was right, candidates move fundamentally for four primary reasons: money, security, advancement, environment. As seasoned recruiters, we attempt to understand those candidate hot buttons and communicate candidate motivations to the line managers we serve (along with KSA’s, motivation, fit, interest, etc.) When we as recruiting leaders consider contract recruiting opportunities, what rises to the top of our hit parade?


    I’ve worked in both primary and contractual situations where environments were rich with hosts (and fellow business builders) who vest for success. And I’ve labored a la full time exempt in household name primary companies who were not “employers of choice” for reasons which became obvious over time. All of those negative corporate symptoms are well documented by Howard. In hindsight, I’ve stumbled into discovering some of those symptoms that I may have uncovered through an extra mile of due diligence in advance of walking the aisle to marry the corporation.

    Hindsight as foresight: has anyone reversed engineered these? Call me!

    My litmus test question isn’t “to contract recruit or to not contract recruit.” (Thank you for the posting the storm warnings Howard. They are most valuable in assessing passage to potential tierra del fuego.)

    My numero uno cascade questions regarding “to contract recruit or not to contract recruit” goes like this:

    Is the environment in this organization:
    A)worthy to attract the level of talent this organization wishes to engage?
    B)worthy of the ethic I employ in engaging that level of talent?
    C)robust with the methods, processes, tools, and standards I need in order to engage that talent?
    D)realistic in what “getting to yes” looks like financially for those they wish to attract?
    E)realistic enough to not expect us to bring both hat and rabbit(s) on day one (and possibly on day two)?
    F) cognizant that, in the words of Don Ramer, “recruiting as if people mattered” is a winning value proposition for organizations, candidates, hiring managers, and recruiters.

    There are plenty of recruiting opportunities, both contract and primary, that don’t overtly include in their menus or briefings the warning signs Howard so aptly describes here. Oh that the adage “for the wisdom to know the difference” would go before us as we decide which islands we vote ourselves on, or in advance, off of.

    Many of us like you, Howard have been sold a bill of goods by organizations with leaders and hiring managers who appear innocent as doves. We discovered in time that they are but dens of vipers. The good news, as I see it now, is that we are no longer there. And in the process of being there, we’ve brought some good and talented people into those environments and they foment change. Others attempted to get squeezed into molds that, like us, caused us to vote with our feet.

    May your storm warnings Howard only better serve to remind us that our brand goes before our service.

  17. I have to be another to disagree with this article. With that being said, most of what was said is true, but not just for Contract Recruiters, but for Recruiting in general. You are expected to fill the role of a Recruiting Consultant. That is not an easy position, but that is what you are getting paid the big bucks for, if it was easy, they would not have to pay you much. I don’t think you can learn more or faster than being a Contract Recruiter. You see things done very well, and things done not so well. So when you move on to the next contract and they want to try the same thing, you can let them know your experience with it.
    Yes, clients often have unrealistic expectations, most do not have the best tools available, they usually do not want to pay what it costs to hire the best candidates, etc. But this is the life of a Recruiter, whether you are a contractor or an in-house Recruiter. And as was said earlier, at least as a contractor, you get to pick your client. If all of that is more than you want to work with, I understand, then just don’t be a Recruiter.

  18. I disagree. These seem like generalized scare tactics to me. I’m currently a contract recruiter at and its been an amazing experience.

    I’ve been a “regular” corporate recruiter in the past. When comparing the roles, I can say, without exception, that my experiences haven’t been what you’ve described.

    In this economy, I think its smart for recruiters to keep their options open and their skills fresh. Contract recruiting projects make these things possible.



  19. Howard! You know I love you but I couldn’t disagree with you more. Contract recruiting isn’t for everyone but it is for me. I’m on my 3rd contract in about 9 years with zero down time. I’m a contract recruiter but my clients just think of me as an employee. Of course my experience isn’t typical.

  20. Dear Howard,

    An interesting article after 7 months. 🙂
    Liked the way you think about.
    I see the article includes your own experience also, so you strongly recommend why not to be contracted one.

    Unfortunately being contracted has bocome more usual nowadays and i think everyone will taste it


  21. I agree with Howard. I have been a contractor for the past year and half, and did OK last year, but this year I have been out for 5.5 months. I am starting a full time gig next Monday and I am happy to get out of contracting.

    I liked the idea of contracting but the inconsistency, is what got me and having a family I wanted a more stable work environment.

    But I found that employers are putting unrealistic demands on contract recruiters and they do think we can preform magic.

    I also find that a number of companies I spoke to want to pay an entry level rate but want a senior level professional. I get the impression that this thinking is more prevalent now then a few years back.

  22. Howard,
    I worked as a contract recruiter out of necessity, not choice, and I have to agree with you in some, but not all, of your assessments.
    For me, the reasons you listed for taking that path were the same: I could expand my exposure to different industries, I was hoping to become picked up as an actual FTE, and my resume would not have all that dead space because I was unemployed for long stretches at a time while waiting for an FTE role to come along. It certainly was NOT because I was going to be paid significantly more. I simply couldn’t be a beggar AND a chooser.
    I did not have as much trouble with unrealistic expectations from clients or most of the other downsides you describe. I chose my assignments wisely and really listened to their recruiting needs before signing up but over time it really hurt not to have or afford insurance, and paid time off.
    Like Doug Cohen just said in your comments section, there is a prevalence of companies that want to pay like $15/hr for more senior level professional work. It’s very insulting. These days, it’s a very lucky break to find contract work in the $25 to $30/hr range. This is also true for contract positions that are filled using agencies.
    True senior level recruiting jobs at companies that actually value the role of the recruiter are not that easy to come by; however they do exist. The other caveat is that even when one finds them, they may have no interest in converting the recruiter to FTE status, even if that was an option on the table from the beginning. I would therefore recommend that if one really has to go the contract route, that you make sure you can truly live on the compensation.
    For contract recruiters who totally slam this article as inaccurate and are having success pulling in major money, count your lucky stars. Life is always different strokes for different folk but I definitely think Howard’s comments are not unfounded!

  23. Howard your article was written like an angry Baby Boomer. Your article is great advice for those that want to become Government Recruiters.

    With all of the high unemployment in the US, the massive corporate offshoring of recruiting roles, and not to mention the ever growing business of RPO’s as we know it today…you are actually encouraging your readers to run for cover in corporate recruiting jobs.

    You said:

    “Unrealistic Expectations. Contract recruiters are usually brought in the last minute…”

    Ha! What about the Corporate Recruiter that has 30+ Open reqs on his plate and no matter how hard they work. Don’t they have to meet unrealistic expectations too?

    By the time they realize the shortage of recruiting firepower, they try to fix it with contract recruiters. And it does seem last minute as you indicated. But, it’s always been this way!!

    By the way aren’t you a recruiting “consultant”?

  24. Ahh yes…

    So many comments, so little time. A few comments back to my favs. (In good fun of course. Do not sue me unless it is absolutely necessary)

    Janet Shuman, I thank God that ERE has an astute arbiter of what belongs and what does not. What did we ever do without you?

    Mark Lally afrees. What does he know that so many of you don’t?

    Mark Mehler, as you know, I am a fan but it is not all that easy to do as you outline. If you do not agree to terms, they just find another person. Good points but not always that easy to nail down.

    Mitch Sullivan, whilst, I do the best I can, much of what I write are sweeping generalizations as we have different climates and experiences in different parts of the country.

    Scott Schoneman, wait till you read the next article. It smokes but I do appreciate your comments. I never mind when people disagree as a dialogue is a good thing.

    Moteeb Malik, I love your comment. I have no idea as to what it means but I still love it. Did I miss the boat on your thoughts? As an aside, Do you really mean that “numbers never lie?” Are you serious? My friend Moteeb, numbers lie up and down the street every day.

    My fav comment so far is from the charming Aimee Fahey who says that this article is “rotten.” Rotten? Amy baby, that is cold. I look forward to reading the body of work you have created.

    John Amodeo, my dear friend who came to my house last week just to spend 20 minutes before he went back to Alaska, you need start your drinking AFTER you write, not before.

    David Hafernik, I am so happy that you have yet another reason to disagree. Up until your comment, I did not have enough grief. Thanks a lot. Now I know how Sullivan feels.

    Doug Cohen, good to have you weigh in with a bit of your reality. Always good to hear from you.

    Rosetta Bernasko, I understand. I suspect that life gets better but it seems to happen in slow and strange ways.

    Michael Glenn, Ha to you! The question is, what is the diff between a “consultant” and a “contractor.” As an aside, I never said that Corp Recruits do not have the same issues.

  25. Not everyone is skilled enough to succeed as a contract recruiter, which is why really good Contract Recruiters make BIG BUCKS. When you are a contract recruiter you need to employ all of your management, consulting and problem solving skills. Whenever I have taken perm jobs my income has dropped by up to 50% but you trade the money for job security and a desire to stick around for more than 6 months with a terrific product / company / team of fantastic people.

    I highly recommend all ambitious recruiters to give contract recruiting a shot but of course it may not end up being something that fits your personality. It is worth taking the plunge at least once to see what it’s all about.

  26. Howard,

    Nice replies, I always enjoy a good back-and-forth.

    Here’s a solution to both your post and many of the replies, including mine.

    If companies want to quality and drive of contract recruiters, in-house….pay them appropriately.

    I can show very successful examples of where this has succeeded in corporate America.

    To your post, yes it would be wonderful if we could all be in-house, doing great work, adding value to the firm, and everyone wins. But…… can’t get a rock star for $5.00. Eddie Van Halen is expensive, and in demand, as are many professionals in various industries and disciplines.

    If a company is proactive, forward thinking and just a bit open minded to try something that will:

    1> Save them $$$$$
    2> Make them additional $$$$$, depending on how it is evaluated
    3> Help expand the business.

    Build an internal team and comp them appropriately. If you do this you will be amazed at the short, and long-term success you will have.

    Again, this will take a senior management team with vision, just a bit of courage, and the knowledge that after doing it they will save, $ millions, yes, $ millions.

    And they will look like rock stars, themselves, to their executive managers

  27. @ Howard: Good for you for writing something that provides so many comments. ERE was getting a bit dull.

    @ Wade B, David H: Well-said.

    @ Rosetta; You’ve gotta move someplace else. Those are HORRIBLE rates. (BTW: I think what we do should be paid at leat $50/hr, and if the task isn’t worth that, it should be no-sourced, through-sourced, or out-sourced for well under $10/hr.)

    @ Alan: “If a company is proactive, forward thinking and just a bit open minded…” You ARE talking about companies in early-21st Century America, right?


    Keith “Still CR’ing After All These Years” Halperin

  28. Howard,

    Your personalized reply to each of your editorial reviewers is so high touch and consistent with your approach to candidates. Bravo! And fyi, I’m not back in Anchorage: in your instructions on getting back to Logan, you told me to go east once I reach West Concord. Since I absorb/adhere to every word you say, Logan is still not in sight and the people at Hertz are getting pretty miffed.

    Directional insights always appreciated (but rarely requested)

    John (somewhere near Myrtle Beach, SC)

  29. Howard,
    I’m with Paul on this one – I love reading any point of view when it is as well-written, funny and truth-telling as this one is!
    I’m with a boutique contingency fee recruiting firm, and we all go through the same things whether internal or external. One of my long term clients going through acquisitions wants to work out a deal (through our co) to have me recruit exclusively for them on a contract recruiter basis when they ramp up. I appreciate everyone’s tips and suggestions!

  30. Interesting comments. Quick observation. Majority of recruiters contracting or in FTE corporate jobs are either not very good, not very ambitious or not very experienced.

    There are folks out there that are the polar opposite of the above line, but the above line encapsulates the problem of companies or individuals commoditizing the recruiting profession.

    What happens to your day if the internet fails? If they reaction is “I’m dead in the water” you probably fall into the bucket as part of the problem.

    So good and bad contractors, good and bad contracts, good and bad companies and good and bad people. So do your diligence and avoid the bottom of the barrel scrapers, hold your standards high, make good decisions and happy hunting.

  31. I’m way late for my meatloaf at the commenting line but I have to agree with you Howard my friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t contract again but I know without a doubt to expect almost everything you mentioned. As each commenter pointed out, there are things to consider (anyone with common sense knows there are things to consider); but let’s face it, contract recruiting can be amazing although most of the time it’s a bath tub full of blood. You’ll always be a guru Howard! I think what’s-her-name bartender at Bamboo is wondering where we’ve been. Let’s do lunch!

  32. Another issue that occurred to me is that when you are a contract recruiter it is extremely difficult to get time off for vacations. You are under extreme pressure to help a company that has been behind their own hiring deadlines for months before they brought you on board and as a contractor you worry the relationship may not withstand a 1-2 week vacation (they may find a replacement for you before you get back) so I have very rarely if ever taken more than a couple of days off when on a contract. And since you don’t know if the contract will get extended or end you just hold out to take that vacation when the contract is over.

    Still I love it. It’s too late for me Howard. I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush. 😉

    Follow me on Twitter: @tiffsterr

  33. Ryan, I think that bartender has her eye on you. Lunch it is. (Bring money.)

    Tiffany, as long as you are having fun!

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