Why This Recession Has Been So Tough on Recruiters

This recession has been merciless to recruiters. I don’t have any statistics, but anecdotal evidence indicates that thousands of recruiters have been laid off and that hundreds of recruiting agencies have closed their doors.

Sometimes the recruiters who been laid off have just been unlucky enough to have worked for an organization that is failing or in an industry that has been strongly affected by the recession. Yet, others have been laid off partly because of performance or attitude. Many recruiters remain tactical, and fail to grasp how strategic their function is to a firm. Many have remained working for leaders and organizations that do not appreciate how much they could contribute to the success of the business. And even fewer have become leaders who take command of the recruiting process and forge a function that competes effectively against other organizations and consistently supplies their organization with quality talent without relying on the use of extraordinary measures.

In my many years in the profession I have only known a handful of these people. Most corporate recruiters become recruiters by accident and leave the profession for some other HR or related field after a short stay. Their stay is a roller coaster of half-completed technology implementations, high staff turnover, muddled objectives, and often leaves a legacy of unhappy hiring managers. To achieve even the simplest objectives, they have to use outside resources, employ a large number of recruiters, or seek to outsource the function.

Unfortunately HR has not positioned the recruitment function as strategic, nor has HR realized that the role of talent manager, aka recruiting and development leader, is emerging as one of the most potentially needed (and influential) professions within the organization.

Generally, those recruiters who lead the effort to supply scarce talent are filled with bad habits and uncertainty that create a revolving door of leadership and produce lackluster results.

To change this and move toward a position of respect and strategic leverage, recruiting leaders should examine their own behaviors and thoughts and see if they reflect any of the habits I list below. If so, now is the time to change.

Bad habit 1: Arrogance about yesterday’s tools and techniques
Yesterday’s successes probably will not be repeated by using the same techniques or technologies. Over-reliance on techniques like cold calling, telephone screening, and resume reviewing are examples of methods that have seen their heyday but are still widely championed and loved. I frequently talk with recruiters who swear that the old ways are the only ways — the best ways — and insist that everything from interactive websites to LinkedIn are just fads.

Tomorrow belongs to recruiters who embrace such emerging practices as social networking, video interviewing, online assessment, and candidate relationship management. Recruiters experimenting with virtual communities and with building online relationships already have a advantage over the recruiter who is tied to geography and to face-to-face meetings. Labor markets are not confined to single countries, work can increasingly be done anywhere, and recruiting is a virtual, global game.

Bad habit 2: Filling requisitions instead of meeting business objectives
Most recruiters are obsessed with filling slots. That is what they have been taught to do without regard to need or effectiveness. They have a hard time discussing the value of positions with hiring managers who often regard the recruiter as little more than a clerk trusted to filter piles of resumes that are supposed to magically be arriving each day because of the organization’s prominence or brand. They are given requisition to fill and they dutifully go forth and do so — even if it is a poorly defined job or one that might be done by someone with a different skill set.

Recruiters who have the respect of the organization’s leadership have to be brave enough and well-enough informed about current issues and business needs to engage in meaningful conversation with a hiring manager. They have to be equipped with knowledge about the organization’s strategic business objectives, the needs of the hiring manager, and the state of the talent marketplace. They need to present numbers and data and make a case for hiring the competencies and skills that will be most effective in meeting the business needs of the organization.

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In short, they need to act as a resource and consultant to hiring authorities and show a deep knowledge and understanding of the needs of the business. And, on top of this, they then need to be able to fill the position from a talent community they have built in anticipation of the need.

Bad habit 3: Failing to build new competencies
The emerging competencies for recruiters include the ability to engage people in conversation using virtual tools, the ability to collaborate virtually on projects, to influence hiring managers, and build targeted marketing strategies. These are totally different skills from those that dominated the profession a decade ago. In fact, over 80% of the skills that made a recruiter successful in 1997 are of little value today. For example, interviewing skills, cold calling, and reviewing and screening resumes are not critical skills. Even less understandable are the recruiters who are competent at interviewing and who then focus on getting even better at it instead of on developing skills that might be more useful. It is very easy to rely on the competencies that made us successful and not notice that times change as do the skills we need.

Far more important are the ability to write a blog, influence a candidate, and identify the value proposition of an offer.

Bad habit 4: Functional Shortsightedness
More and more of the most strategic recruiters I run into have a background in disciplines such as marketing, sales, and operations. Fewer are coming out of traditional HR disciplines. And an elite handful is morphing into talent managers — people who can understand and integrate recruiting with employee development, competency analysis, performance management, and succession planning. These recruiters are not afraid to try out new approaches, nor are they afraid to experiment and leverage technology. The most innovative websites and process improvements are emerging from recruiting leaders who have no training as recruiters and who have recently entered the field. They are writing exciting blogs, using search engine optimization techniques, and experimenting with interactive websites and tools.

The recession may be tough on recruiters, but it is also forging a new breed of talent expert. Recruiting inside organizations is evolving into talent management and the focus will be on ensuring that the organization has the critical talent it needs to achieve business goals. The talent manager will need to be able to run scenarios, produce numbers, and show where the best talent comes from whether it is developed internally, hired from inside or brought in from outside.

Out of every recession have come new ideas, new functions, and exciting change. Recruiting is at the forefront of many of the changes and for a small number of you it will be an invigorating time of learning new skills and adopting new techniques, habits, and technologies.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


16 Comments on “Why This Recession Has Been So Tough on Recruiters

  1. Kevin,

    Your article describes the symptoms of a much larger problem. Most organizations have failed to plan, which we all know leads to plan to fail. Strategic Workforce Planning is not a one time event, it is a continual process, which requires recruiting expertise and understanding of where the business is currently, where it is going and the talent demands in relation to the labor market. Those businesses that plan to be in business when the economy recovers, need to start acting like it.

    Good article, hopefully, it opens some interesting responses.

    Best Regards,

    Steve Deighton

  2. Kevin,

    This is a great article. From embracing emerging technologies, to focused recruiting on quality candidates and relevant talent; you’ve hit the nail right on the head once again. Your closing remarks are nice because it is refreshing to hear some optimism that can come out of this recession. You mention leveraging technology and engaging candidates, in your opinion what are some of the new and best ways of doing this?

    Thanks again,


  3. I don’t think it would be inappropriate to call the percentage loss in the recruiting industry 80% and above.
    If this be so, what do you think the future of recruiting looks like given that we’re about to start over with a pretty (clean?) sheet? Let’s step it out – starting with the fresh recruit that will be attracted to the industry.

  4. Good piece, I would be interested to know how to use this new technology to become bettre connected. I have a good understanding of strategy and how important relating business objectives to hiring should be but I am short on ‘tech’ skills. Any advice?

  5. Great Article Kevin (As usual)…

    My firm (boutique) is doing good during this downturn. (Conservative/Saved $/Resources=Did not get “too” greedy)

    What people need to come to grips with is, this is a SALES/RESULTS job (recruiter), (Not a practitioner or talent aquisitioner (blah!) = Academic words! Can we PLEASE lose the academic job titles already??)

    My take away from this downturn is if you don’t operate your recruiting desk like a “battle field” in a all out “WAR FOR TOP TALENT”, sadly you will be “forced” to the sidelines.. This industry (recruiting) is NOT for everyone, so we just need to support and embrace what this business is…. SALES/RESULTS!

    My Family/Friends pray daily for those who are struggling in there careers at present across the globe! (If you are ever in Temecula, CA let’s go drink some WINE!)


  6. Thank you, Kevin. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my article on the Recruiting Project Manager, (https://staging.ere.net/2009/07/09/the-recruiting-project-manager/), I also believe that the recruiting “profession” is do for a sea change, with many/most traditional, low-touch functions being eliminated, automated,or outsourced. There will probably be an increasing disaggregation of recruiting salaries, with lots of people making under $30,000/yr. (mainly overseas), a relative few making over $100,000/yr. (those who can close well or add strategic value as a Recruiting Project Manager), and not too many in between.


    Keith Halperin keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

  7. IMO the article starts out by talking about all recruiters including 3rd parties going out of business and out of jobs, then pretty much talks exclusively about corporate recruiters and what they need to do to be successful, not really addressing why agencies are going out of business.

    I believe corporate and 3rd parties must work differently with us 3rd parties adjusting to what corporate recruiters are doing. The key is finding the talent a company or client company wants to hire that they can’t find. It’s clear that a 3rd party agency using all these same Internet technologies and tools corporate recruiters are ultimately only accomplishing uncovering and competing for the exact same candidates the corporate recruiters do since they’re using the same tools and technologies they are. And how many corporate recruiters are going to work with 3rd parties for long when competing over the same candidates with them? If corporate recruiters are going to be all over the Internet, then as a 3rd party I want to be all over the telephone finding “invisible” candidates they otherwise wouldn’t have found.

    One final thing. This recession has been extremely brutal. Finding serious clients with an urgency/interest in hiring and employed passive candidates with an urgency/interest in seriously considering other opportunities finding a match is rare. I refuse to generally blame recruiters for failure in thie employment environment. When there’s little to no urgency combined with a broken business cycle where a serious hiring and payment process typically taking 1-2 months now takes 3-6 months even excellent recruiters are forced out of the business unable to outlast and survive the subsequent cash flow crunch having their own family/personal bills to pay. There’s only so long an individual recruiter can financially hold their breath. This economy is bigger than all of us. And all we control is what we do and say–not the actual results of our effort. I believe for most the effort has been there. But trying to swim across an ocean against the tide of this economic magnitude means an awful lot of superb swimmers will succumb and drown–out of no fault of their own.

    Just my 30 years of 3rd party recruiting five cents…….

  8. Great article Kevin. I agree with the concept and almost everything! A small note, I still like the phone screen. Regardless of how I find my candidates (Linked In, Facebook, or good old fashion cold calling) I always tie in a phone screen. I like to use it to measure etiquette, communication, and professionalism. Nothing new to offer but I recommend a combination of tried practices and innovative strategy to be the best! Thanks for the article, I enjoy readinig your pieces.

    Craig Goldstein (A Canadian Perspective)

  9. As many of my RPO/agency connections know; the transition of recruiting to technology, relationship development and consultative approach has been in the works over the past decade, with RPO one of the prime examples. We also are seeing a change in the agency space from traditional roles to a single client relationship or point of contact and a shared service that operates as the support to that contact. Usually the single source point is closely connected to the client while the shared service employment is more connected to personal performance and less on the type of employment status. RPO is great example of this.

    My only concern in this transition is when succesful agencies are focusing so heavily in sales and client relationships that some have a tendency to forget about their contract and employee labor that made them so successful. Having seen this first hand in Wisconsin; I feel this is not intentional but sales pressure eventually forces these issues that adversely affect the business especially when labor has control in the market. Although I know this isn’t commonplace, I’m hearing about this situation again after it occured back in 2001-2003.

    I hope this is minimal, but there are signs this is present.

  10. Kevin, it is so refreshing to see articles such as this. Still in the dark are so many people in our industry. People seem to have missed the quiet shift and evolution of the recruiting industry over the past 12 months.

    We are in what I refer to as recruiting 2.0, much aligned with the advances in technology, the advent of social marketing and the importance of self branding.

    The worst thing is seeing many good people in the industry get washed out this past year. Even worse is hearing stories about the firms who think that the panacea lies in pushing their people to do the same things that have not been working three times as hard and expect a different result. It’s really mind-boggling.

    Keep up the good articles!

    Happy Hunting!

    Philip Newman

  11. Kevin,

    I was laid off last year from a niche recruiting firm and had to rethink my life and career going forward. If the jobs just aren’t there now, recruiters have to look to other industries.

    There are, in fact, other fields where the qualities of an executive or senior recruiter translate well. The skills of organization, interviewing techniques, the right questions, grooming, keeping on track and a genuine desire to help people are well-rewarded.

    Contact me via email if you are interested in more information.

    Jill Sanborne

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