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When I was young we did all of our recruitment by fax machine…

Pete Fellows is the Managing Director of Fellows and Associates.  He claims he is not arrogant but has written this article that he insisted we publish entirely about himself.  The less said about the statue of him outside our office the better, we don’t remember him ever being a knight on horseback but maybe we weren’t in the office that day.

I began my career in recruitment in February 1998.  This makes me very very old.  Recruitment in the late 1990s was a very different animal to today, so in what is going to be a very self-indulgent article I am going to run through some of my earlier experiences and aim to draw (or at least hint at) some parallels.  I am not sure though, let’s see how we get on.  I reserve the right to the odd tangential passage or two, as this is a personal piece from my own (possibly warped) perspective.

After graduating from university in 1997 and then moving to London I applied to lots of different jobs without, I admit, any clear strategy.  I could now be talking about how cinema management has changed since 1998, how I enjoyed my career as a manager of a fast food restaurant, how I had a successful career in publishing or music retail (dodged a bullet there) or how I had seen massive changes in the financial services sector.  Through this haphazard job application methodology (if it sounded like there was a possibility I could do it, I applied) I eventually secured a job with Manpower PLC which was then the largest recruitment business in the UK (and possibly the largest in the world at that time, I’m not sure on that). 

Manpower, during my first year or so of employment was a company that desperately needed to change.  I am sure they would admit to this themselves (at least I hope so, not wanting to be sued).  A period of unprecedented success had led them to believe that their business model was unstoppable but unfortunately for them that really wasn’t the case.  I worked in a branch initially as a consultant and enjoyed what was an excellent training programme.  The sectors we worked within were pretty broad, given a west London base (covering the Acton/Ealing area broadly speaking) but I had a focus on the recruitment of drivers (that is HGV Class 1/2, couriers, fork lift trucks, etc.).  In a weird sort of way this has some parallels with the IP sector from a recruitment perspective in the sense that it was a market you needed to immerse yourself in, understand relevant legislation (licenses, working time directive, etc.) and that was quite well networked, so a good job with one driver led to others applying for positions. 

So how were things different? Well in my branch, Acton, we were one of the first offices that had a PC for every consultant.  We were also one of the first branches to use Windows (I think it was XP) and have personal rather than branch email addresses.  Prior to this point what had been common as far as I recall was one or two PCs per branch using a DOS based database that managed candidate data and payroll.  There was no way of digitally storing CVs for example, so every branch had considerable paper records.  Quite a lot of business was done using a fax machine.  Seriously fax machines were absolutely crucial.  We actually compared notes on good fax technique.  Whilst some of the differences to how I currently operate are because I operated in a very different sector, one thing that will have changed considerably is the use of email and the internet.  At that stage, being on a high street we got quite a few candidates from walk-ins and word of mouth but we also advertised regularly, in print, in the Metro newspaper, usually in the form of a few lines of text.  One of these adverts which was slightly larger and for customer services representatives for a major retail bank elicited what we estimated to be circa 1500 calls in three days, which was a lot when we only had a core staff of three in branch (although we roped in people from neighbouring branches to help out after the first rather horrific day).  Given the divergence of sources for advertising I cannot imagine any job advert using a single source being this successful at a similar cost in the modern market.  We mostly spoke to clients and candidates over the phone; whilst we used email it was usually to follow up conversations not to initiate them, a pretty significant proportion of CVs were sent via fax.  Given the UK economy was in a relatively good place during that time and Manpower had decent brand awareness we had a good volume of business coming to us, we did spend a fair amount of time on the phone generating new work although this was quite sporadic.  At that time Manpower did not pay commission so there was less incentive for consultants to consistently generate new work, although in many cases this helped support what Manpower undoubtedly did extremely well – provide recruitment services to large national corporate accounts at a massively reduced rate.  Job boards were in their infancy and largely ineffective at that time and we would always call a candidate when we had an a new instruction as it was often the only way to be sure to reach them in a timely fashion (they might not have had regular access to a computer in some instances, perhaps relying on internet cafes. I don’t think I owned my own PC until 2001, which was actually not mine but my girlfriend’s, technically speaking, preferring instead to just borrow a friends or use what I had at work until that point).

Manpower had incredibly stringent reference checking procedures in part as a result of negotiations with some bigger clients but mostly because the company saw this as a massive selling point.  Candidates were reference checked for 5 years in writing (yes usually by fax) and 10 years in some cases on some accounts.  However, it became apparent that this was anti-competitive, that sometimes providing high quality service in some areas was not what clients wanted, still did not stop the odd dodgy person slipping through the cracks (you might find this hard to believe but sometimes people lie, and if they are very good at it, it can be very difficult to detect) and meant that the same candidate seeing two high street agencies in the same day could be working for one of these by the end of the day whilst Manpower spent probably the best part of week, if not longer, getting references in many cases.  They did ultimately relax this, to less time and more phone based checking.  I don’t know where the policy is on this now but I imagine it would have changed further.  Whilst in the case of hiring temporary staff I do see that reference checking can potentially reduce some risks (and can, by taking references actually be a valuable tool in getting new business, which was another reason why a preference for obtaining written rather than phone references was commercially damaging), after all there is liability on behalf of the both the recruitment firm and the company they are working for (which is obviously different to permanent recruitment where the liabilities lie with the new employer beyond some rudimentary eligibility checking) if the benefit of reducing risk is at the price of commercial competitiveness then it probably is worth taking on a bit more risk.

In my first 3 or so months with Manpower I almost talked myself out of a job, I was quite opinionated and did see that some of their practices seemed frankly insane to me at the time.  Whilst I very much doubt a lowly consultant had any influence on corporate policy I had turned things around personally to such an extent that I was a promoted to manage the branch within a year of this and only 14 months after joining in all.  I had to pitch for the job against other applicants (and possibly, although I don’t know this, external applicants as well) but many of the things included in my pitch were some of things I had been criticised for the year before.  The company had changed radically around me in that time and over my time in management invested in more infrastructure, great IT systems and as had always been the case, fantastic training.  There were many recruitment agencies then, and even more now, who do not train consultants at all and simply leave them to their own devices – given the proverbial phone directory and ask them to get on with calling clients.  And certainly for most of the period of 1998 – 2008, recruitment as a sector was on a successful streak and many businesses could afford to hire a number of people and simply see who stuck rather than investing in any of them to give them the best chance.  For what turned out to be the only time in my career to date, I had my own office at Manpower.  Since then, recruitment has gone increasingly open plan, for the most part this is probably a good thing – you tend to feed off the energy and ideas of people around you but there are times when being isolated can have its advantages.

Was recruitment easier then? I’m not sure about that.  There are many more research tools we have access to now that we didn’t then although as there were less advertising channels, advertising in fewer places than one might now could have more of an impact.  But there was possibly more scepticism of the recruitment profession, whilst some clients may still resent paying us fees most see as at least a necessary evil and understand that we add value of some sort.  What I would say is despite their faults I could have not had a better recruitment grounding than working for Manpower.  Much of what I learned then has relevance to what I do now and the fact that they invested in, and then trusted, pretty young people with fairly large pots of money is certainly to their enormous credit.  And if the internet collapses and you need someone to send a perfectly crafted, entertaining fax with a high probability of being read, then I have the skills.

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Fellows and Associates
81 Oxford Street
United Kingdom