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Recruitment Agencies: Good Or Bad?

In all my years in HR, there has always been one issue that has provoked lively debate. Are you better off recruiting in-house or using dedicated recruitment agencies? Do the costs you incur externally guarantee that you get the right calibre of candidate, or do you engage internal time and labour to achieve the same outcomes?

In my personal experience, when I was employing bus drivers in the UK from within the country in the last decade, we had a well-established and experienced team who had a one-stop shop process. We would plan our expected numbers of required staff at the start of each year so that we knew we had a yearlong lifeline. We had skilled interviewers who would assess and interview the candidates. Not only that, but we would conduct driving assessments to see if they had the skills required to drive a bus, with up to 70 people’s lives in their hands. Furthermore, we had to ensure that they were safe and competent.

A Process That Worked

We would then put them through a medical, and when all were satisfied, an offer would be made. They would start their three weeks of bus driver training, before hopefully passing their bus driving test, and then receiving a proper and fair introduction to their new depots. This training allowed the drivers to learn the routes, how to work the ticket machines, how to navigate fare tables, and develop all the other skills that they needed to do a good job. Ideally, this engaging process also made the prospective drivers more likely to enjoy the role – one in which no two days are the same, and where you never know who you are going to meet out on the road.

On reflection, it was a rigorous and professional process with good staff managing their part of the process to ensure that we had the right number of staff to conduct our operational duties. It was great, I liked it, and it worked.

A Change Of Perspective

Then, all of a sudden, fast-forward to 2003, and I found myself in a very different world in Poland, interviewing recruitment agency owners to see how they might be able to find, filter, and offer potential Polish bus drivers the option to be trained to drive buses and eventually sent to drive them in the UK. They would be paid considerably more money than they could ever earn doing the same job in Poland, so there was a strong motivation to be attracted to a new, different, and exciting life where they could significantly support their families back home, as many did. Or indeed, take the big and courageous decision to relocate to the UK and start a new life, taking their families with them, which again, quite a few did.

Not All Agencies Are Worth It

Looking back, my perception was that of the agencies we met, about 20% were very professional and offered a good service at a reasonable price. 40% were average to poor and sought to cut corners by focusing on average candidates. Another 40% were poor; it is as simple as that. No plan, no experience, and they made it all up as they went along. They were to be avoided at all costs, as we discovered the hard way. Examples included us giving deposits upfront to help establish set-up costs, which were never seen again as unscrupulous individuals just pocketed the money and disappeared.

Of course, there are always risks involved, but you need to consider that no one had ever been on this journey before. It was new to everyone, and we had to manage its evolution as best we could. Eventually, we set up a range of good agencies not only across Poland but in other parts of the EU. Good language schools were identified, focusing on the skills needed to be a bus driver. The brave Polish bus drivers who worked hard to learn English, reading, writing, and speaking, put in a lot of hard work to get to the required standard, and many did, which was great.

Training And Onboarding

Three years on, and we had driven three English buses over to Poland and built a bespoke boot camp where the future employees were given in-depth training, including showing them videos of the bus routes they would be driving. There was a special department showing all the technical processes, such as using different ticket machines and recording all the legal data they would need to know. We even made them watch UK TV shows in the local dialects. So if you were going to work in Glasgow, we would show them Billy Connolly comedy videos, so they could get used to the accents and the humour. If you were going to work in London, it was Only Fools and Horses, again for the cockney accents and British humour.

So, are recruitment agencies good or bad? In my experience, both. When you find good, professional, and motivated people managing them, then yes, they can be invaluable. However, when you do not, they can be a nightmare. So, my advice is always to do due diligence, talk to their present customers, and ask the tough questions. After all, if they are professional and decent, they will have nothing to hide.

Author: Austin Birks

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