Staffing agencies: do they have a future?

I used to work for a staffing agency. A good one at that. One that tried hard to recruit good consultants, who, on the whole, tried hard to do a good job finding the right people for their clients. But I always had the feeling that I was nothing more than a middle man. I didn’t really add much value other than to do the donkey work the client could have done themselves if they had access to our database. My job was really a glorified cv sifter, searching through tons and tons of candidate profiles to find a good one to match to the job. Forget all the tosh of adding value by matching candidates to the right culture of the company or the speel about forensic screening of the candidate to ensure they’ve got the exact skill set requested by the client. The real value of all recruitment agencies is the database of resumes they have. A company will use an agency because it knows they’re likely to have relevant candidates tucked away somewhere on that precious database and more often than not these days, the agency is the option of last resort. Let’s face it, recruitment agencies have been a bit like funeral directors: you just know that at some stage you’re going to need one but you’d rather not. Well that’s been universally true in years gone by: almost all companies at some stage were likely to have to turn to an agency for some type of hire but is it true any more? I mean, do you really need them and do they have a future?

The reason agencies have survived for so long is not because they added huge amounts of value to the hiring process but there was a total lack of cost effective alternatives available to the client. Take for example a company that 15 years ago wanted to hire a Sales Manager on £30k. They basically had 2 options:

1. Advertise - risky, lots of responses = lots of work, all the money paid upfront and typically quite a lot.

2. Agency - usually a bit more expensive than advertising but they do the filtering, no hire = no fee. Probably a £5k fee.

So which did companies tend to choose? The agency route most of the time. The risk free proposition was usually the deciding factor. Who could refuse a no hire / no fee proposition.

So what’s changed? Well it’s one magic word: the internet. Actually that’s 2 words but you get the gist.

When job boards first started to appear in the late 1990s recruitment agencies got nervous. Very nervous. They didn’t know whether they were going to be a friend or a foe. As it turned out they have really been a friend (at least initially). Yes they tempted away some clients who preferred to try their luck (and no doubt some succeeded) by advertising for £50 rather than the £5k fee at an agency but……and it’s a big but, agencies suddenly had access to an incredibly cheap source of candidates. No need for vastly expensive trade magazine advertising just make up a load of iffy jobs and place them on multiple job boards, collate the cvs into the cv database so that when a real job gets sent to them….voila: ‘We have the perfect candidate’…. and the cost of sourcing was only a few quid per candidate. Alternatively it might actually be a real job the agency is working on but (without the client’s permission) it’s then advertised as….’Our client is….’  on a job board with suitable cvs simply mailed to the client. The expression money for old rope springs to mind. Agency profits can at least be maintained under that model with such a low cost base. 

So if all the big agency guns are still around and still making money (albeit without much growth over the last 10 years) why hasn’t the emergence of job boards hit agencies much harder? Many predicted this was the game changer all the clients had long hoped for. No more having to spend a fortune on agencies as at last there was a cheaper way to source your talent. Well the reason is that using a single job board in isolation just isn’t very effective for the vast majority of users. It wasn’t very effective 10 years ago and it still isn’t very effective. Why? Well firstly there are now too many job boards. The available pool of active job seekers is spread too thinly and employer jobs are simply not being spotted by such a diverse audience as they look on other job boards where the perfect job may not be listed. Secondly job boards are often saturated with too many jobs making the ones posted by direct employers difficult to find. Thirdly, at best job boards really only attract the very active job seeker not the vast majority who are gainfully employed and not proactively looking. From our own calculations, using 1 job board in isolation now has about a 10% success rate across the spectrum of roles a company might have. The figure is likely to be larger, the more well known the company is and vice versa.

So given that agencies were clearly making money before the recession and are still making money now it’s surely an open and shut case that agencies will always be with us. Well perhaps but now (as opposed to just 5 years ago) there are many different business models emerging that are more efficient than the traditional recruitment agency approach
and they might just make life very difficult for the average agency. 

If you think about how an agency/client relationship works you realise just how inefficient it is as a business model. The client sends the consultant a job and the consultant must then go away and search their database for candidates, typically stopping to ask for referrals from candidates on the way. They phone dozens of candidates with only a few going to be interested and then proceed to arrange all the interviews and offers themselves……and to cap it all off probably 80% of the jobs they work on they don’t fill and thus earn no fee for. Now that’s a very time consuming process, invariably done by hand that often results in no payment. Is it any wonder they have to charge so much?

Prior to the internet, agencies held a virtual monopoly in recruitment because there was no meaningful way for an employer and potential employee to be made aware of each other’s situation (1 looking for a job, the other looking to hire them) without spending significant sums of money up front. But now there are ways, and worryingly for agencies, there are lots of them. So let’s look at 5 new things that are likely to cause the agencies a few problems.

Applicant tracking systems:

One of the reasons that a direct employer used an agency was because advertising could be a headache with the sheer volume of cvs that were submitted (often in the post) causing an administrative nightmare. Each one had to be logged somewhere, acknowledged, sent to the line manager etc etc. Now an Applicant Tracking System can do that all for you.

10 years ago they barely existed. 5 years ago they were the preserve of only the biggest companies but now any employer can use a free applicant tracking system and not have to pay a penny for it.  Yup……completely free (but not many people know about that).

So why is an ATS bad news for an agency? Well 4 reasons, firstly it’s now possible for an employer to list their current vacancies on their careers site which is powered by the ATS and update it instantly. The result: direct hires. The candidate can simply visit the employers website, open up the careers section and apply direct. Secondly, potential candidates can register for job alerts and get vacancies emailed out the instant the employer starts to recruit. The result: direct hires. Thirdly, it’s a doddle for the employer to save cvs submitted to previous jobs who might be suitable for future vacancies building the talent banks that were the agencies usp. A quick search of their own talent bank/resume database and they can find matching candidates or ask for referrals. The result again…….direct hires. Finally, if they did want to advertise roles why do you now need an agency to do all the donkey work sifting and handling cvs? You don’t. The free recruitment software will do it for you.


Previously there was no way for a direct employer to do any of this much to the relief of the agencies. But not any more. Nestle managed to reduce their dependence on agencies between 2001 - 2006 from 80% of hires to jut 29% and this during a period of candidate shortages. I wouldn’t mind betting it’s even lower now.

‘Ah yes’

I hear you say, 

‘but Nestle and other major corporates have a huge brand awareness with candidates actively coming to their site. An advantage that SMEs don’t have so agencies will still be needed by SMEs.’

Well, maybe but I’m not so sure. So let’s look at what else is out there to help SMEs get their hires direct.

Social media

Everyone keeps talking about it, but the internet now makes it easy to connect with people and crucially get your vacancies published. You can get vacancies onto blogs, Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, Google + and not have to spend a penny. Have a look at this e-book on recruiting for more ideas on how to do it. Once again, whereas previously an employer could only really use an agency to fill that £30k Sales Manager role, now they can get it published on multiple websites for nothing as well as proactively finding the right people who’ve put their profile out there on the internet via searches on Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook. All of this keeps chipping away at what used to be safe agency territory.

In addition the job seeker, once so reliant on an agency finding them the job, can search their own contacts on Linkedin or use tools like Branchout to connect to employers via their own friends on Facebook.

Job boards, free job boards and cv databases

When you think about it, a recruitment agency is really just a cv database searched on your behalf by a recruitment consultant. Before the internet there was no real way for the average company to be able to access a pool of job applicants - both active and passive. Now there is. Just about every job board now offers companies direct access to literally millions of cvs via their own database. The search mechanisms are pretty good and whilst it’s true to say that there is often a lot of dross on them, there are definitely some real nuggets to be found particularly if you’re prepared to look at candidates who logged a cv quite a while ago. This is worrying for recruitment agencies because whereas previously agencies could genuinely lay claim to being able to provide access to both passive and active candidates and job boards could only really attract active candidates (hence low success rates), now the employer can attract active candidates via an advert on a job board and search for less active job seekers via the job board’s cv database again lessening the need for turning to an agency.  So why would you pay £5k for that Sales Manager when more than likely the very same cv is sitting on a job board’s cv database somewhere which you can pick up for a lot less than £5k.

Pricing remains an issue with too many job boards making it very hard for the SME market to afford it but that will surely change as ‘pay for a day’s access’ becomes more standard. In the future more and more companies will be able to afford to get access to these huge repositories of cvs and inevitably more and more jobs will be filled directly.

Job boards were meant to kill off agencies but that hasn’t happened…..doesn’t mean it can’t happen though. An improved user experience, more realistic pricing via an increasing deployment of a cost per hire model, better understanding of how to attract candidates, all of this will mean they will only get cheaper and better at helping employers fill their jobs. Don’t forget the ever growing list of free job boards out there as well. We’ve given a few examples in this e-book but a quick Google search will bring up plenty. Why pay an agency when you can find someone for free? Sure, free job boards will never fill every vacancy and you’d be very lucky if you make more than a handful of hires from them but that could still be quite a bit of money saved in agency fees.

Before the recession, not everyone had easy access to the internet. Even now not everyone has a computer at home but year on year the availability of cheap and easy access the internet is increasing. Be it phone, tablet or computer the web is everywhere. Within 10 years all TVs will offer 1 click access to the web so when a TV advert appears promoting say Jobsite or Totaljobs, as they are doing now, a couple of clicks and you’ll be through to the job board without having to leave the comfort of your armchair where jobs can be applied for during the TV advert break crucially tapping into the curious but not necessarily active job seeking market. This internet ubiquity means more people viewing direct employer jobs on job boards, more people posting profiles to Linkedin and cvs onto cv databases, searching employers’ careers sites directly, picking up links to jobs via social media references…………all of this is getting easier and easier to do each year and will surely increase the number of direct hires made.

Job search engines

The likes of Indeed and Simply Hired and other job search engines have developed an interesting niche. Essentially you can post your jobs onto them free of charge and candidates can search and apply. If you want to make your jobs more visible, just sponsor certain key words such as ‘Sales Manager’ and more job seekers will see it. They work on the same principle as Google. So if you don’t hire someone for free you could hire someone for just a few $$$$ and then stop the advert as soon as you’ve found someone. 

At present very few SMEs synchronise their career pages to these sites which is a shame as they’re potentially missing out on free candidates. Over time, this process will become the norm where almost all companies send their jobs to these search engines free of charge the moment they are added to their own corporate careers page. Once again slowly chipping away at the need to use an agency.

New recruitment agency models:

Models have developed such as the so called fixed fee recruiters who guarantee to post your vacancy for you onto multiple job boards. True, the adverts don’t exactly look great because they rarely mention the client name but for a fee of £500 - £600, getting it posted onto all the big generalist boards does increases your chances of filling the job as opposed to just using 1. So suddenly using multiple job boards is an attractive proposition as well as financially viable. 

None of these 5 new approaches will in themselves, be the killer app that puts agencies out of business. But each one just chips away that little bit more at the pie the agencies used to feed on. The combination of all 5 factors means that fewer and fewer jobs will need to be sent to agencies and with a shrinking pool to drink from………..a lot of agencies could die of thirst. (1 too many dodgy mixed metaphors there).

I’ve painted a pretty depressing picture for the future of recruitment agencies. Unquestionably the number of employer jobs that need agency assistance will continue to go down but will agencies one day disappear?

In a word: no…….but (and it’s an elephant in the room sized but), the days of easy placements, fat fees and big bonuses are long gone.

It’s clear that in 2007, the last year of economic growth prior to the downturn, despite nearly 10 years of job boards, recruitment agencies were very busy indeed. A cursory glance at the accounts of any floated agency in that year (and preceding ones) will demonstrate that. It is obvious that in times of economic boom, the so called war for talent and competition for the best people means that almost all companies are going to need to use agencies to varying degrees to fill some jobs. Only agencies are likely to be able to do the unpaid (i.e. non retained) headhunting that is required to identify, tempt and then place a candidate who wasn’t actively looking  though it seems highly unlikely the industry will ever return to the buoyant times of just 4 years agowhere agencies had more jobs than candidates. In the future agency usage will closely correlate to the size of the company. The bigger and more well known the employer the more likely it will be that they can source candidates directly for the 5 reasons stated above and the fact that they will have the resources needed to do what recruitment agencies do i.e. search cv databases, Linkedin, Facebook etc as they develop their own in house agency function. Agencies will typically have to make do with working the SME market as they mainly do now. But in times of economic hardship (now) agency usage will drop to the point where many will go out of business with the pool of available candidates large enough to allow almost all employers, of whatever size, to hire without recourse to the traditional agency.

So here’s what’s likely to happen in the next 10 years:

1. The large, well known direct employer brands (see Nesle example above and also Panasonic) will recruit almost exclusively without needing to use traditional no hire = no fee agencies.

2. Even in prosperous times, there will be far fewer direct employer jobs available than say 4 years ago meaning that the agencies will have to fight it out almost exclusively in the SME market.

3. Margins via lower fees will be cut. Expect agencies to have to work at 5 - 10%, not 15 - 20% as they used to do.

4. As average placement fees drop, bonuses will be harder to come by making it far less attractive to talented consultants to stay in the industry. 

5. Agencies will diversify away from purely resume senders to adapt their service offering.

If you look at what some agencies are beginning to do you realise that they’re starting to see the trend as well. It’s adapt or (possibly) die and not just for those servicing the public sector. They must surely adapt to move away from merely senders of cvs which direct employers are often now able to access themselves (for much less or nothing at all) and move towards providing services that the client might struggle to do themselves. The agency of the future will likely earn little if anything from placing people and may use it as a loss leader to get into companies to sell in higher margin work with some morphing into a wider HR consulting firm providing payroll for temps (and not even necessarily supplying the candidates, just the payroll administration). Like Hays they might also move towards supplying redundancy and retraining services for companies laying people off as well. But the most obvious area for them to move towards will be a kind of dedicated RPO service. With companies increasingly streamlining headcount as much as possible and outsourcing non core activities like payroll, IT and facilities management, increasingly recruitment will be outsourced even for the smallest of companies. More and more RPO vendors will appear, typically developed from within the larger agencies. Instead of offering the traditional pay per hire model the agency will work exclusively for the employer trying to source candidates from anywhere, effectively operating on a retainer basis and like a typical RPO agreement, the more ‘direct hires’ they can make the more they’ll earn. 

In 10 years time the traditional recruitment agency as we know it now will still exist but will be smaller in size than the average agency now and typically the consultants will be much more niche focusing on the employment black spots that direct employers find hard to fill but with fees coming in at less than 10% it’s questionable if many of the agencies of today will still be operating in 2021.

Views: 12849

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on May 30, 2012 at 7:36pm


Wow there is so much going on here I'm not sure where to start... but let me say this. As a corporate recruiter who averages 30 reqs at a time I am telling you recruiting is so much more than what you're claiming here. I work with a couple of agencies and the reason I gladly pay their fees is because the value they provide comes in the way they 1. Identify 2. Qualify 3. Prep 4. Present and 5. Close the candidates they send me. One agency sent me a one candidate each for four different positions and every single one got hired. That's a heck of a lot more work than just sifting through resumes and frankly not many agencies (or recruiters) are that good at it. The ones that are will survive and thrive long past your expiration date.

Comment by Bill Schultz on May 30, 2012 at 8:13pm

Right Amy- not to mention "evangelize...'

Lots of words but...just another doomsayer- "Nostrastaffus"

Comment by Sandra McCartt on May 30, 2012 at 9:46pm

Oh crap, if i had a nickle for every time i have heard this same clap trap for the last 35 years i could afford to work for all the clients i work for free of charge and eat bon bons.  The fatal flaw in this whole diatribe is "CV senders".  First kiddo, before you write the manifesto of doom you gotta know what a real recruiter does.  The sling it against the wall types have come and gone so many times that they should name themselves "mixmaster employment agency.  there is a whole new wave of them called cyber this or cyber that who build databases and sling it out there.  That would not be recruiting.  That would be drop shippers of interesting but for the most part useless resumes.  The fact that even that is working is a comment on how and why the recruiting industry is booming.

It seems to me that every person i have seen write one of these "Agency, Third party recruiting is dead or dying" are for the most part those who never quite figured out what a recruiter was supposed to do in the first place.  Spent their days making mindless cold calls and digging through databases.  Lord what a boring indoor sport that must be

The funny thing to me is that the dropouts and those who have lost their mojo in third party recruiting have been writing these things for over three decades that i know of and it hasn't happened yet.  There is nothing on my horizon to predict this dire end unless the Mayan calander is correct and the gravitational pull reverses.  If that happens i will change my business model to "rock finder" and will be out finding rocks to place with people so they can hold their butts to the ground.  There is always something new to recruit for if one knows what a recruiter really does.

Wanna buy a duck?


Comment by Amy Ala Miller on May 30, 2012 at 11:08pm
How about a chicken?

Lol Bill... Nostrastaffus :)
Comment by Suzanne Carter on May 31, 2012 at 6:24am

Well said, Amy ....

I totally agree with you: recruiting is so much more!

Comment by Suzanne Carter on May 31, 2012 at 6:26am

Love your response Sandra!  "There is always something new to recruit for if one knows what a recruiter really does." <--- AMEN!

Comment by Rebecca Price on May 31, 2012 at 7:27am

I love it when people that are 'Anti recruiter's' get on their high horse, it surely makes for an interesting read! but i have to say i'm sure all the people that have found their perfect role through recruitment agencies would disagree! I have recently had a role with a very large retailer that was incredibly sensitive and NDA's had to be signed all over the place, how would that company have recruited the person we placed without using an agency, because they certainly couldn't have advertised the role otherwise their competitors would have been all over their plans!!??!! We had to specifically headhunt that candiate and it all fell in to place lovely - we may be seen as the spawn of the devil and classed in the same category as estate agents (for the record my husband is an estate agent) but we are only doing our job, a job that can inolve long hours to supply the service to your clients - who also appreciate us when their back is up against the wall when they have not only deadlines themselves to meet but roles to recruit for to help them meet these deadlines - catch 22! A company needs great employees to be able to hit their organisational targets and recruiting good employees is a key factor in this. As a good recruiter who knows their industry they should be able to 'Sift' as you put it through CV's relatively quickly to see if that person woudl have the necessary skills and experience for the role and then engage into communication about the suitable roles. If you know your client, the industry you are recruiting in you should not be just a 'CV sifter' but a knowledgeable skilled consultant providing a service. I sometimes feel that the bad feeling towards recruiters is from those that just couldn't hack it and see the money that can be earned (when you are a skilled knowledgable consultant) and perhaps may have a left a bitter taste in their mouths.............

Comment by Jennifer Johnston on May 31, 2012 at 7:39am

Generally I agree, agenices have to adapt to the changing times just like any other business do. However, as much as we all wonder how CV slinging agencies seem to still do well, the point is they are and probably will do in the future. Why? Clients recognise that if they continue to dirve the fees down, it makes far more sense to 'outsource' a large part of their recruitment rather than building a large inhouse model and because of the low fees they don't seem to mind the fact that the quality might be a bit lower.

Two, we all know that just posting  a job or sending someone an inmail on LinkedIn doesn't really bring very much. Will internal recuriters have time to spend hours on various platforms to really build excellent talent pools? Again does the cost for companies of adding to their headcount versus outsourcing it to agencies always make sense? Why do recruiters often have the best talent? Because we can offer the candidate something the client can't....we will approach many clients to find them the right job! With all that said, I do agree that the business is changing but I can't imagine any people more adaptable than good recruiters.

Comment by bill josephson on May 31, 2012 at 8:21am

Interesting piece, Nick.  I believe the responses you've received, and will receive, reflect our own individual experience prisms.

Since beginning recruiting in 1980 I don't recall anyone seriously saying, till the last 15 years with the commercial use of the Internet, 3rd party recruiting was going to become obsolete--I never believed that.  The first time was exactly what you mentioned, Monster like Internet job boards.  Next was I/T offshore outsourcing where long term major clients of mine in investment/financial services, banking, and insurance maintained a static I/T budget with incrementally increasing percentages mandatory spent overseas--specifically Bangalore, India.  A $100 Million I/T budget with a mandatory 20% spent in India in 2002, 30% in India in 2003, 40% in India in 2004.  They could hire 5 Indians per American worker.  Hiring managers telling me they no longer had a US staff--they had 40 people reporting to them, all overseas in India.


Then came ths social media which is still evolving but putting a crimp in my model which has always been to source and phone recruit direct competitor invisible/passive candidate.  Incrementally more and more of them becoming "visible" to my clients.  In a poor jobs economy with more people actively looking and pressure for companies to cut costs they more often go it alone expecting their internal recruiter to go find people directly saving money, using a third party recruiter as last resort.  Thus the jobs received today are not just tough, but impossible to fill meaning a poor likelihood of success.

I could keep going, but I believe you understand where I'm coming from.  I've worked opposite of the way of my clients so as to not uncover the same candidates they have.  Over the phone.  Helping one Corporate America company find people out of their direct competitors.  Candidates they were reluctant to directly recruit out of fear of being sued for piracy, harassment, or retribution by the company itself.  They were on the Internet.  My mission was to find people they couldn't.  However, now often they can so politely say there's no budget for recruiting, or a case for authorization will be made if they're unsuccessful, or call them in 6 months as they have an array of internal recruiters mostly getting the job done. 

I was excoriated here about a month ago for suggesting our market relevance was in question.  What role are we performing a company can't more and more do on its own?  What's our future?  Hadn't asked that question till, really 10 years ago.  But it's like offshore outsourcing.  If it hasn't impacted you because your clients haven't dried up, yet, it's all foolish folly thinking blasting with bravado the "losers" who're "embarrassing to the recruiting profession" for giving it a thought.

I want to thank you for offering the truth as you see it.  Perhaps your critics are right, and you'll be proven wrong.  My mission today is searching for niches where I'm relevant.  Finding candidates my client can't.  Getting that star performer out of Liberty Mutual Insurance for MetLife.  Unless MetLife can access and directly recruit that individual, themselves. 

I appreciate your vision as I sense your prognostication is likely valid based on my day to day intensive phone recruiting model--even if not what I'd like to hear. 

Comment by Brian K. Johnston on May 31, 2012 at 9:04am

"The ones that are will survive and thrive long past your expiration date." (Amy get's it)    I own my staffing firm, so I am business owner/entrepreneur 1st, and a recruiter 2nd.   If you have a business mindset, you understand the power of leverage, and the more leverage you have, the more influence you have on your own destiny.  The bottom line there are AMAZING recruiters in this world, some work in-house, some work the agent side... Some are motivated by $ and some are not...


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