Headhunters shake up a candidate-short market

At a glance, it seems conditions are ripe for active recruitment to take hold of the Australian IT industry. As skilled professionals bask in an opportunity-rich environment, recruiters are fast coming to terms with new laws of the jungle: poach, or get poached from.

The technology industry has taken off at such speeds that a once-overfull workforce is now barely meeting the demand for skilled staff. Employers are faced with the challenge of attracting and retaining employees, while a recent influx of the notoriously fickle Generation Y is pushing employee loyalty to an all-time low.

With a nationwide scarcity of IT staff in full force, active recruitment has become an increasingly attractive prospect for IT hubs such as electronics vendor Altium Limited.

"With the current IT skills shortage, we are increasingly exploring less traditional ways to find people and to ensure those people are a great match for Altium," said Kerri-Ann Wilson, the Sydney-based company's Chief People Officer.

"When companies like Altium require IT staff that possesses a very specific and hard-to-find skill set, then active headhunting can be an effective way to find the right talent."

The battle-worn concept of headhunting certainly has caused its fair share of debate over the years. Proponents view the method as an effective way of recruiting staff with the skills and experience to match a particular position. Challengers argue that headhunters risk too much time to account for the low success rate associated with their passive job-seeking targets.

And active recruiting services don't come cheaply either. As Duncan Thomson, General Manager of FiniteIT Recruitment Solutions explains, active recruitment can be a long process with costs involved along each step of the way.

"The recruitment term for 'headhunting' is 'search' which is more generally used to fill senior/executive roles, or to source hard to find niche skill sets," said Thomson, adding that search comprised only one of several methods the recruitment agency employs to source candidates.

FiniteIT's search contracts would normally involve an initial "retainer fee" of about one-third of the total cost of the contract. This would allow the agency to take a comprehensive brief on the position and what it would offer to potential candidates.

The second step of the process involves market research with a view to eventually producing a shortlist of candidates to approach. On production of the shortlist, the recruitment agency collects a further one-third of the total fee, with the final third being charged upon placement and commencement of a successful candidate.

It is only in the final stages of matching a potential employee to a company that the company's details are actually revealed to a candidate, Thomson said.

"The merits of this type of approach to the client is that it normally remains a very private process, requires a trust in the search consultant's ability and is normally a very thorough, targeted and methodical exercise for both client and consultant," he said.

"However, depending on the seniority of the role or the scarceness of availability of the skill-set in demand, it can take anything up to three months to carry out a search assignment, and does involve a non refundable fee paid up front with no absolute guarantee of eventual success."

Headhunting, or being hunted, may not always be the best option for everyone, Thomson said. While some candidates may feel flattered by unsolicited approaches from headhunters, others may find it a distraction, and can be offended in cases where the consultant has not done their homework sufficiently on their individual background and skills, or adopted the wrong approach.

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But even without the guarantee of eventual success, no effort is wasted effort to Altium's Wilson, who views even failed attempts at active recruitment as investments that may pay off in the long run.

"While headhunting means that you are often contacting people who may be very happy in their job, it's still a great opportunity for us to make a potential future employee aware of the unique Altium offering," she said.

"That person, who is happy in their job today, may be ready to move in 12 month's time, and then you want them to remember the unique benefits offered by working at Altium and the positive experience they have already had with the company."

Get hunted

Passive job seekers stand a greater chance of being headhunted if they have a high profile in the industry, and are accessible via a good professional network, FiniteIT's Thomson said.

"The higher the individual's public profile and contacts network, the easier it will be for them to appear within the researched industry candidate long list," he said, mentioning industry publications, the Internet, and media announcements as avenues for publicity.

Meanwhile, Altium's Wilson encourages professionals to take a more active approach to shaping their careers.

"If people are interested in working at Altium we encourage them to get in touch with us directly," she said. "There is no need to wait for a tap on the shoulder or to see a specific job advertised."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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