Reflections on the recruitment industry

In each edition, we profile pioneers of the recruitment industry and look at how the sector has changed – for the good and bad. In the first of the series we speak to Joan Page (nee May) who shares her reflections of recruitment in the 1960s and 70s and the battles she took on.

If there was any doubt about how much society and the recruitment sector have changed in the past 50 years, you need only look at what was very much an informal and unspoken hiring practice through the 1960s and into the ’70s – hiring in your own image.

Joan Page – known to many in recruitment as Joan May – said the practice of employers showing overt bias towards people who went to the same university as they did, who were from the same ethnic and socio-economic background, right down to similar haircuts, was pretty standard back then.

“Hiring people who looked like you, who were like you, was very common in the 1960s and 1970s,” she said. “So if you looked like the recruiter you had a good chance of getting the job.

“My agency was Premier and I remember one of my very first conferences in Melbourne where Geoff Slade pointed to some of my staff and said ‘you can always pick a Premier girl’ because they all looked like me. They all had the same look, same ethnic background and probably the same education.

“It’s just how business was done. You could almost pick who someone’s employees were simply by looking at the reflection they were of their boss.”

When Page started in the recruitment sector in Australia in 1966, society was different, the sector was different and the ways business was done were different. Page, who was the founding President of the Institute of Personnel Consultants from 1978 to 1981 and founded and managed Premier Staff Selection in Sydney for almost 30 years from 1968, said fundamental to the job then, as now, was the relationship developed between the consultant and the client.

These were the days before faxes, and even before electric typewriters were common. Computer technology was not even dreamt of outside of organisations such as NASA. “I started in recruitment when I returned to Australia after travelling in the UK and having been interviewed by some recruitment firms while I was over there doing temp work,” Page who has now retired to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast explained.

“It was exactly the kind of job I wanted because no two days were the same; no two hours were the same and there was so much variety in what we did and I really liked meeting a lot of different people.”

So different were operational strategies back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that Joan tells the story of a couple of architects who were clients strolling into her office one day wanting a site architect. “They asked me if I had anyone in mind and when I said I did, the client said he was a friend of his current employer and would I mind if he handled it himself and would phone the candidate’s boss directly and ask to borrow him for a while. They still paid my fee, because that’s how business was done then,” she said.

Page, who is clearly one to pick her battles, also went in to bat for herself when the government in the early 1980s announced an amnesty on companies that hadn’t been paying payroll tax for subcontractors.

“I was one of the few who was paying the payroll tax and I felt discriminated against because I had been doing the right thing and paying my taxes only for other companies to be given a break,” she said. “It took a while but I ended up getting all the payroll tax I had paid for subcontractors refunded. I remember the amount was $69,000 and there was such a thrill getting that money back because I knew I had been in the right.”

Page said while technology had been a major disruptor for the industry, she said the biggest change she experienced in the industry was the introduction of the Anti- Discrimination Act in 1977. “There was certainly discrimination both before and after the Act was introduced,” she said. “I had one client who would not employ women if they were of menopausal age.”

Since leaving the recruitment sector in 1990, Page and her husband have owned four art galleries and she now describes herself as being “happily retired”. She says working with artists is very much akin to working with temp staff; instead of finding them jobs, you are selling their work. “It is necessary to treat both with respect and pay them on time,” she said.

And perhaps the biggest difference between her recruitment career and gallery career, is that gallery owners certainly don’t look to hire artists in their own image!

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