Here, in the first part of a two-part investigation, Roisin Woolnough looks at how the recruitment process works, the levels of...

Here, in the first part of a two-part investigation, Roisin Woolnough looks at how the recruitment process works, the levels of service provided by agencies, what can go wrong and how to address the problem

If there is one thing that really annoys Dave Francis about IT recruitment agents, it is their understanding of technology. "The average recruiter has no idea of what they are dealing with as soon as the subject goes beyond a certain level of complexity.

"My mobile used to ring more than 50 times a day, with typically only one call which had any relevance whatsoever. I don't understand how it is possible to sell something you don't understand," he says.

Francis, formerly a contractor specialising in Oracle, became so fed up with the UK IT recruitment scene that he went abroad, contracting in Holland and Germany. He returned to the UK last year and, having spent most of his time since then unemployed, is so fed up that he is leaving the industry to pursue a career in lecturing.

It might sound like a bitter tale, but Francis is by no means the only ITer to become disillusioned by the recruitment process. Xtra! has received scores of complaints from readers about the service they have experienced from recruitment agencies.

The number one gripe among ITers who have had negative experiences is consultants' lack of understanding of what differentiates skills from one another, and which complement each other.

Paul Wanstall, a Cics (Customer Information Control System) programmer who is about to start work for Norwich Union, has spent several years in the contract market. He says recruitment agents do not look beyond Cics, and tend to lump any positions with that acronym in the same bracket.

"They look at the job spec and see Cics, look at my CV and see Cics, so then they phone up and say we have a job just right for you," he explains. "It could be a Cics applications programmer, a DB2 systems programmer with Cics or - the funniest one - a Cisco support programmer."

When a consultant possesses an inadequate understanding of IT skills it can result in them putting candidates forward for inappropriate positions, as Wanstall discovered. This means that job seekers and employers soon become frustrated, causing both parties to lose faith in the whole recruitment process.

This lack of knowledge can also have the reverse effect, whereby an agent will not recommend a particular position to a job seeker because they do not have the exact skill set, even if their existing skill set is complementary to that required, and they could potentially do the job very well with a bit of cross-training.

When communications between job seeker and recruitment agency break down, real problems set in. Job seekers and agents need to be in regular contact, with agents giving a comprehensive rundown of what is on offer and how the market is shaping up, and passing on any feedback about unsuccessful applications.

Job seekers often complain that, once they have signed up with an agency, consultants do a disappearing act and do not inform them of their CV's progress or return their calls. "There is almost zero constructive feedback from agents," says Francis. "They don't have the time or the organisational skills to cope with the mass of work which the scattergun approach to recruitment forces them into."

The other major complaint is duplication of jobs, particularly on Web sites. Many ITers are cynical about the vacancies posted on the Web, believing some to have simply been copied from rival sites to make the agency's online offering look more promising. "You will see the same job advertised by multiple agencies," says Wanstall. "I am certain some of these are bogus, with agencies seeing a job advertised and copying it and advertising it themselves."

To avoid dealing with unscrupulous agencies and applying for phantom jobs, job seekers need to make sure they only use reputable agencies that will not indulge in such practices.

However, Wanstall says it is sometimes impossible to know which agencies are held in high regard by employers and have bona fide vacancies.

"In February last year, I applied to an agency for the position with Norwich Union," he says. "I phoned them many times but didn't get an interview. In May, the position was still being advertised, so I applied via another agency. Still no luck. In April this year, the position re-appeared, so I applied via another agency and still no interviews.

"In August, when the Norwich Union position was still being advertised, I decided to apply direct to Norwich Union. I got an interview and started work in October. While at my interview I asked about my previous applications via the recruitment agencies and they said the first time they had seen my details was when I applied directly to them and that they had been trying to recruit someone for quite a while."

This experience has severely damaged Wanstall's faith in recruitment agencies. He recommends that ITers pick their agencies very carefully and consider applying directly to a company when they see a job advertised. "If you pick the wrong agency, you have no chance of getting a job," he warns.

IT's second-hand car salesmen
Steve Richmond, systems engineer at Scottish IT solutions provider Wisdom IT shares his experiences of dealing with recruitment agencies.

My experiences with recruitment agencies have been largely positive, but on the whole I rate them poorly. I and most of the people I speak to regarding this subject think they are comparable to second-hand car salesmen in their ruthlessness and truth-bending abilities.

A couple of colleagues have been sent to interviews which had nothing to do with their skill set - one was sent to a job as a Lotus Notes developer when his skill set was wholly Microsoft.

Another of my colleagues was sent to an interview for a position that had already been filled internally. He believes he was there to make up the numbers and that the recruitment consultant may have promised 10 people but only had five who were suitable.

Recruitment consultants seem to know what the acronyms are, but not necessarily what skills complement each other or what they relate to.

Have your say
Have you come across recruitment agencies that are not up to the job? Or has an agency gone out of its way to help you? E-mail us at [email protected]

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