IT Recruitment: The spam approach

Jun 24, 2008

Most IT recruitment (the area I mention simply because it’s the one that I have the most direct experience of) resembles spam. Recruitment agencies try to get as many CVs out as possible to as many companies as possible, and candidates also try to get their CV out to as many agencies as possible and, in turn, ensure that their CV is seen by as many prospective employers as possible. All sides want to have maximum choice, though arguably employers are in a better position to be picky than some employees are, although this is always dependent on situation.

The problem here is that employees will tend to try to cram as many ‘keywords’ as possible into their CVs, in an effort to match as many jobs as possible. After all, it’s better to match too many jobs than too few, right? And it’s always possible to turn down a job if it isn’t quite right, so there’s a strong incentive to list some skills that you don’t really have in the hope that it gets you a foot in the door. In the best case this might enable some positive chance encounters to occur – perhaps a PHP developer listing Java amongst his skills might actually persuade his (new) employer to take up PHP – but the worst case is that people are put forward for jobs which they are totally unsuited for. The recruitment agency needs only to care about whether they can get someone – anyone! - into the job, which means trying to make candidates look as good as possible by burnishing their CVs. <!–break–> Employers have a slightly different aim. They do want to see a wide field of potential recruits in many cases, but they are fundamentally more concerned with quality than quantity, and see quantity as only a means to the end of finding the right employee. However, determining quality can be hard, and employers might be tempted to do this by specifying a very long list of required skills, some of which will be of only tiny relevance to the job as a whole. We’ve all seen the gigantic laundry lists of IT/development skills which are so commonplace and so exhaustive that they easily could be (and probably are) simply copy-and-pasted by both parties in the recruitment process.

The problem here is a lack of weighting. Employers putting down a list of required skills often do not prioritise. They want a Java developer, so they certainly put 'Java’ down. They might list a few other related technologies, like J2EE, Spring, Hibernate and so forth, or Linux, MySQL, XML and so forth. But are any of these really important? Will the developer even really be using Spring? Sure, knowing what Spring is is a good sign in a Java developer, but it’s not a core skill. If the developer is merely aware of it, he might not put it down as a skill, even if he could learn it in a very short space of time. What the company really wants is a kick-ass Java developer who can work without too much oversight, but what they’ve ended up asking for is a walking software engineering encyclopedia. This process forces the potential recruits to pretend to be just that – this is doubly unfortunate as such a pretence is quite easy to maintain. It’s not hard to blind people with science when you know a bit of technical jargon (I think I’m doing pretty well in this example for someone who has never written a line of Java).

And why not do this? There’s no cost to simply listing as many buzz-words as you can think of, for either side. And therein lies the problem. A better system would force both sides to rank the skills they require – perhaps allocating a value to each, from a limited pool of available value, e.g. a percentage. That way, candidates can make claims about what their strongest skills are, and companies can place emphasis on the skills that they really need. There may even be circumstances where it’s better to list one skill with a rating of 100% if that’s what you really want to be doing in your job (or what you really want from your recruit). This would more accurately represent a 'marketplace’ of skills, because it would be clear what skills are in demand and which are in supply.

To genuinely place the right people with the right companies, recruitment agencies need to think about the needs of both parties, and consider a wide range of variables in their assessment. When I was recruited for my current job, the process was handled by Psycuity, who did an excellent job in doing both aptitude and personality testing. Once a company is in a position where they have identified their candidates, this approach is perfect, and I’d highly recommend it. But where companies are at an earlier stage, just wanting to ensure that the right candidates know about the job, and the candidates want to make sure that they’re considered for the right roles, most ordinary recruitment companies fall down. As a whole, the IT recruitment industry is barely functional, and is in need of some shaking up. Psycuity’s approach certainly goes a long way, compared with the practices I have observed before, but perhaps there’s potential for things to be even better? Having heard plenty of IT recruitment horror stories, I’d say that there’s certainly a need for it.