Recruitment has 5 Years to Live:

It’s Time to put it out of its Misery

The days of the desk-bound agency recruiter are coming to an end.

7/10/2018 update: for more commentary on bullshit jobs, take a look at my latest short essay: Of Note… № 6: (TINY) ETHICS.


Recruitment is broken.

Few other professions can manifest such visceral and universal ire from the general population, and there is, within the industry itself, a peculiar and uncomfortable mix of insecurity and self-loathing, paired with self-assured posturing. (The amount of nervous energy in any agency bullpen could rival that of the first middle school dance mixer of the season.)

There’s good reason for this:

First, recruitment is the home of the lost. Nobody grows up wanting to join the ranks of cold calling, email spamming, flesh-peddling middlemen. There is, thankfully, no university degree in recruitment. Most, like myself, have degrees in the liberal arts, or no degree at all. In fact, for all the attention the industry pays to every bullet point on the resumes of others, I know personally of recruiters who claim to have a degree, having never set foot in a university classroom.

This is all to say there’s a very low barrier to entry for joining the ranks. If you can dial a phone, and can take a reasonably inoffensive LinkedIn profile picture, you’re in, no sweat. For this reason, recruiters are numerous, with a great deal of variance in their level of education, industry knowledge, and dedication to the craft.

Second, inexperience is baked into the agency model — amateurism is systemic to recruitment. I actually chalk this up to one of the more redeeming aspects of the industry, namely entrepreneurialism.

Nearly all small to mid-size agencies were founded by successful ex-recruiters, who, realizing they were giving most of their commissions to some other entrepreneur, struck out on their own, and hung a shingle up with a plan to keep as big a piece of the pie as possible, likely with no other operational business experience to speak of.

This leads to the industry-wide practice of filling the agency’s ranks with cheap new grads, still too green to negotiate a decent base salary, and too naive to question a Byzantine commission plan, built to favor the house. These new recruiters are quickly trained (if at all), given a phone, a premium account on LinkedIn, and not much else. In the absence of meaningful standards, they’re relentlessly monitored on desk-bound activities like number of cold calls, spam emails and LinkedIn messages.

Burnout rates are high, as you might imagine. The work is hard, terribly thankless, and the competition is legion. Often the only way to differentiate yourself is by working extremely long hours, grinding away and stalking candidates on LinkedIn, GitHub, Facebook, or anywhere you can find an email address.

Those that weather the storm can make a good living, and by building their professional networks, can corner small pockets of a given industry, and can come to expect incomes similar to those in the legal and engineering professions. Around this time, these folks start to look at breaking free of the agency, and starting their own. Wash, rinse, repeat.

This model, as anyone who has dealt with an agency recruiter in the last decade will likely attest, does not make for a pleasant arrangement. On the candidate side, recruiters are often criticized at length for their lack of subject matter expertise, low empathy, and poor follow-through. On the client side, the most frequent complaints cite a heavy-handed sales approach, and lack of focus and understanding of the assignment.

This is the result of a pervasive quantity-over-quality ethos, which has earned recruiters as a whole an oft-deserved reputation as unprincipled charlatans. The need for talent is fundamental to the success of any business, but the sad truth is that the very people desperately needed in the industry — those who understand the importance of building lasting relationships, and who wish to understand the intrinsic motivations behind the decisions of people on both sides of the table — are pushed out to make room for short term gains.

This will all change.

Mark your calendars. I predict recruitment as we know it will be dead in 5 years’ time, and not a moment too soon. The transactional part of the job — scouring LinkedIn and other databases for relevant candidates; the rote collection and logging of contact info and notes on salary requirements, and other mundane data; and the comparison of said data to a job description will be taken over entirely by A.I., through a combination of natural language processing and machine learning. This cheaper, more reliable option will quickly replace the new grad hire, which, as the base of the pyramid, hails the end of the agency as we know it. The 50-person agency will soon be able to do the work with 5 people.

This change will also lead to a drastic shift away from the fee structures that prevail today, the worst of which, for both the agency and the client, is contingency billing (payment only upon hire), which is the product of mutual laziness.

With no skin in the game, businesses often phone-in regurgitated, meaningless job descriptions, spraying them around to a handful of vendors with little additional instruction. In return, they’re treated to a bevy of poorly screened resumes, because at this stage, the recruiter is working for free. In the absence of a committed relationship between the client and one agency, the barrage of resumes will relentlessly continue in an effort to beat the competition to the punch — that is until something shinier comes along, and steals what little focus there was to begin with.

This way of doing business cultivates an adversarial relationship between businesses and those perceived as supplicant vendors, ever-knocking at the door to hock their wares. It also releases recruiters from any sense of accountability to the client’s current project, let alone their future success. It will be one of the first casualties of the revolution, and it should not be mourned.

Between movement to a subscription- or project-based pricing model, and A.I. taking over the majority of the transactional work of the recruiter, most agencies that made a mint as contingency firms will wither and die, unable to adapt to a more consultative approach.

The connectors who can focus on the bit that machines aren’t well-suited for (creative and critical thinking, and human relationship building) will be the winners of the next decade, because the fact remains that companies need talent, and vetting is a specialized and resource-hungry process. The way forward is to leverage technology to handle anything that, quite simply, isn’t human. Follow that with a genuine sensibility, and an impulse to be a good citizen who makes connections where they make sense, and we’ll be on the right track.

I’ve personally helped hundreds of people find their next job, and I can honestly say I don’t read resumes, or job descriptions. I meet people for coffee or better still, beers, before I make introductions. I don’t feel the need to monetize every meeting, or even every placement.

I’m so certain this is the direction we’re headed, that I’ve started hosting monthly meetups of no more than a dozen people, carefully selected from my own network of startup founders, venture capitalists, and creative types. We meet casually for drinks — no name badges, no agenda, no keynote speech. They almost always extend into dinner, and further conversation over drinks.

In between the jokes, and the casual pitching, deals are made. Ideas are shared, execs and advisors come on-board, investors open their wallets. I don’t see a dime from these meetings, but I like to think that I’m the guy they’ll call when they need someone who understands their company, or their career aspirations. It’s a long game, and it’s beautiful, because it’s about people, and creating something from nothing. It’s also the future.

Recruiting is dying. Connecting is the way forward.