At Ventula, our people are at the heart of who we are. We sat down with Jon Hitchenor to learn more about his 35 years in the people business and to discover some of the biggest challenges and opportunities the industry faces as we enter the next decade of recruitment.
Hi Jon, thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. Can you tell us where your career in recruitment started?
I joined a business called Computer People back in 1984 and worked in positions in Cheadle, Edinburgh, and Manchester for over 5 years. I then went on to a position at Rullion in 1989, beginning as a Consultant and quickly moving to Senior Consultant. I then progressed to Sales Manager, Sales Director, and, finally, Managing Director. In my last couple of years, I was overseeing around 15 different managers and a sales team of 160. I was responsible for IT, Engineering, and Business Support Recruitment.
How has the recruitment industry changed over the years?
It has completely transformed! Today, we are facing an onslaught of AI and the reality that people in some roles will be replaced by robots. However, I don’t believe it’s possible to replace top recruiters. Software may be insightful, but it cannot replicate face-to-face communication and trust. In my new business, I have been working with a candidate who I connected with about 4 weeks ago. In that time, we have had 25 conversations and he has three interviews lined up. I don’t think a robot can replace that type of meaningful human interaction or the results it drives.
Another major change is the size and scope of the sector. 35 years ago there were, perhaps, 50 large UK recruiters in IT recruitment; today, that number is more than 2,500. The market has diversified and we are seeing more recruiters occupying niche sectors successfully, such as a sole focus on Business Intelligence or Cyber Security. The industry in terms of total scope of IT recruitment has grown tenfold, and the number of suppliers has increased fiftyfold. This opening up of IT recruitment has seen market shares decline across the board.
What do these changes mean for recruiters?
The changing nature of the recruitment market means it’s never been more important for individual consultants to be subject matter experts. A generalised view can no longer provide clients and candidates with the specialised support they need. Unfortunately, there are some IT recruiters who lack this expertise, and this is often down to poor coaching and development. Having said that, the standard of companies operating across the industry has generally improved during my career and management styles have evolved. The approach today is much more consultative, ‘leading with fear’ has given way to ‘leading with engagement.’ Work-life balance has also become a much greater priority than it was in the past.
Another key shift has been the reduction in negotiating power for mid-size and smaller agencies. Large corporate players have agreed on margins with clients that have cascaded down to smaller agencies and made it difficult to set prices based on individual service. Individual levels of service remain as important now as they were at any time in the past. The value of respect, empathy, and a strong sense of ethics remains constant. This is something that young people coming into recruitment must learn – the art of winning quality business.
Where are the key hubs for IT recruitment?
In the past, even just 5 years ago, IT recruitment was incredibly London-centric. 80% of people in IT roles were employed inside the M25. And while London remains a key hub for tech, places like Manchester are becoming a home for growing start-ups and smaller tech businesses. It is very much a Northern Powerhouse. In the past, we would struggle to attract people to Manchester. Now, we have candidates who are actively seeking to relocate to Manchester as they’ve heard that it’s thriving with lots of opportunities with innovative companies.
What has the biggest impact on the recruitment industry today?
Social media is a huge one. It has leveled the playing field for access to candidates and changed how we communicate with each other. Legislation is also making a big mark on the industry right now – IR35 is transforming the IT contractor market and we may see many skilled candidates moving to permanent roles or choosing to work abroad.
On a company level, finding your USP is extremely important and if you cannot state this succinctly, then clients soon lose interest in your offerings. It is not just enough to offer a service; companies need a poignant message to take to market. Personally, in my new business, this is about leveraging my experience and placing people in an industry that I used to be a manager in - recruit to recruit. Relationships still hold huge sway in recruitment, regardless of size of agency, and a well-connected network will always hold an agency in good stead.
I also think there has been a fundamental change in the way we think about and interact with candidates. The psychological and behavioural aspect of candidate engagement are ideas that recruiters actively consider today. I’m very interested in getting to know the DNA of my candidates, in understanding their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
How has technology changed recruitment?
People talk a lot about the input of tech in recruitment, but technology hasn’t changed recruitment as much as people believe it has. The average billing per desk in the UK is £85,000 per year. 35 years ago, it was in the region of £125,000. Technology has failed to deliver on ROI. People remain at the centre of the recruitment process. What technology does mean is that there are far more ways to find candidates than there ever were in the past but this can make finding ‘golden nugget’ candidates even more complex.
How have you changed over the years to stay ahead in such a competitive industry?
Well, I’m certainly far more knowledgeable today than I was when I started out! This comes with experience and maintaining a genuine interest in the industry and the clients and candidates I connect with. I stay up-to-date with the latest industry blogs and publications and put myself through regular executive and leadership training. I think it’s incredibly important to be a self-motivated learner and this is something that I respect and admire in others. It’s also worth remembering that this is a people business and having a real interest in people goes a long way. I want to get to know who my candidates are, it helps me deliver the best results.
What impact has social media had on recruitment and do you think it is a good thing for the industry?
One of the key impacts of social media is that it has evened out the playing field. Everyone is on LinkedIn and everyone can reach the same candidates. This means that recruiters have to offer something different to stand out from the crowd. Today, your USP isn’t about the database of people you have access to, it’s about how you engage with clients and build relationships. I do find that more experienced candidates rely less heavily on social media and have a more active involvement in their own network. On the whole, I would say it has had a negative impact as it allows average recruiters to gain access to the industry and brings overall standards down. I also feel it is driving a decline in the quality of face-to-face communications in that people can hold a conversation on the telephone or via email but struggle in person.
Thanks for talking with us today Jon, it’s been fascinating speaking with you!
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