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How technology is putting candidates in the driver’s seat

NOTE: As a futurist I was recently invited to present at an upcoming recruitment conference. After meeting with the organising committee to discuss what I might talk about, I was uninvited as they felt my presentation was too confronting. This is what I wanted to say.

When the first employment agency was created in the late 1670s, an entrepreneur wanted the British Government to embrace the concept. When it didn’t, he opened it himself – for a short while.

By the start of the 20th century however, the idea that specialist agencies could help employers find staff was well established in most developed countries and is now worth perhaps $11billion in Australia.

Until the 1980s the Australian labour market was, on one dimension at least, very homogeneous; most jobs were full-time, permanent positions with incumbents working a five day week. Since deregulation of the broader economy in general and employment and labour relations more specifically, working patterns and employer and employee expectations have become much more diverse.

First, working patterns

With the rapid rise in part-time, shift and contract employment as well as flexi-time and rostered days off, less than 10 per cent of Australians now work 9-5, Monday to Friday.

In an industry where small businesses are the norm, recruiters have been challenged to continue to provide profitable models of service delivery in a 24/7 world while the sector has had to change the way they work and charge for what they do.

There are a number of factors driving changes in employer and employee expectations, but principal among these has been technological change.

New technology ‘hollowing out the middle’

The first to feel the pinch were middle management, those in roles which had previously been secure because they were gatekeepers for key information – until computers became ubiquitous.

Next were the ‘middle-men’ who had populated all sorts of supply chains and had the dominant access to supplier, client and customer information – until the internet.

The net made it easier, and cheaper, for employers to advertise their personnel needs themselves and, for the larger ones at least, made it easier to process potential recruits internally.

Advances in artificial intelligence also made it easier for automated systems to manage some aspects of the selection process, though savvy recruiters with good relationships with their clients have always argued that nothing can replace the scrutiny of face-to-face human interaction.

The internet also made it easier for candidates to submit applications for any role they were even vaguely interested in.

What has changed even more profoundly in recent years are the expectations of both employers and employees of each other.

The most nuanced analysis of this trend suggests that technology will not entirely replace most jobs; rather it will increase the expectation that humans will need to effectively interact with technology in order to get the job done. This is one reason there is now so much focus on encouraging young people to study STEM (science technology, engineering and math) subjects.

This analysis falls short, however, for two reasons.

First because it doesn’t understand fundamental changes in what employers expect of those who work for them (including their agents) and; second because it fails to properly consider the role of jobs in people’s lives. Understanding both of these will be crucial determinants of success for future recruitment agencies.

I worked at the Ford Motor Company in the early 1980s at a time when the human brain was the most sophisticated car assembly computer. Human beings and their brains, however, were unpredictable and hence Ford engineers did their best to reduce the variability in every assembly action - this was characterised at the time as ‘parking your brain at the door’.

When computer technology eventually became sophisticated enough to be introduced to the assembly plant it came with at least one significant additional benefit – its actions were completely predictable, the spot welder did exactly the same thing every time.

Today’s employer recognises the limitations of entirely predictable technology and (for key roles at least) increasingly values the creativity and innovation that comes with human unpredictability.

But too much unpredictability is still undesirable, so selection of the right human for the job is more important than ever.

Properly understanding the motivations and aspirations of Millennials is key to harnessing their skills. The best recruiters once prided themselves in bringing to the client not just a credible CV but a candidate whose personal proclivities were well understood.

For as long as anyone can remember, a good job provided meaning at work and money to enjoy life outside work.

But this conception of a good life is being challenged. Too many jobs are having much of the meaning removed, and wage increases have failed over the past decade to keep up with the cost of living.

Today’s young people already expect to work in many more jobs than their parents, they also expect to work more flexibly than any previous generation and they expect to be more entrepreneurial.

Their reasons for taking on a job may not be immediately obvious, nor will their reasons for declining an offer or leaving their employer. Their decisions will be less based on extrinsic factors (salary, the size of the office etc) and more on things what matters to them personally.

Candidates are increasingly engaging career development professionals and life coaches, among others to help them determine their own career trajectory.

Which raises the questions: what services are these agents providing which recruiters could and should be?

It is clear that this is now a candidate-driven market and candidates are the ones recruiters will need to focus on building relationships with, not just clients.

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