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How the web has changed recruitment in the SET sector

Traditional talent-sourcing and job-seeking have evolved almost beyond recognition over the past two decades, especially in the SET sector.

Let's say I was fed up with my current freelance sinecure, sorry job, and wanted something more stable. When I first joined the working population a quarter of a century ago, there were a few options. You looked in the newspaper, you spoke to friends, you might visit the job centre. I told you there were few.

If I wanted a change now, however, it's a very different thing. I'm on Twitter and I'm on LinkedIn - if you'd said that two years ago, you might have assumed they were some sort of new drugs. I have a digital footprint and I'm not afraid to use it. Things have altered dramatically, both for the manager and for the potential employee (to whom we'll refer, in deference to years of jargon, as the 'candidate').

The manager now faces a strange breed of interview. Dominic Monkhouse, managing director of PEER 1 Hosting, has been recruiting science/engineering/technology professionals for many years and has noticed a lot of things changing. 'Ten years ago nobody coming in for an interview would have known anything about me,' he says. 'Now they've been on the website, read the blog, been on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn... they know all about me.'

One of the more irritating things for a journalist is when people refer to themselves as if they were the company for which they work - but in this case Monkhouse is choosing his words carefully. Job candidates, the wiser ones, choose their marks carefully and then research them personally. It's not enough for them to understand that PEER 1 is a hosting company: they'll try to find something about which they can engage Monkhouse in genial conversation.

He found it odd at first, but it has its advantages too, because he can play the game the same way. 'I will also look at Facebook and LinkedIn. LinkedIn is like an online CV, you can check whether anyone's got any good references and, of course, see whether you have any common acquaintances - you may not have to wait for a reference.' Given that he believes a common culture is essential to a company, he's quite happy to note that his candidates have checked him out and found he plays rugby and enjoys sailing. 'It's like buying a house - you used to arrive, realise it wasn't for you while you were waiting for the estate agent, but still you'd do the polite thing and look around. Now you can have a look at it on Google Street View, and it's the same with job candidates.'

He admits it also works the other way around and helps weed out a handful of no-hopers. 'We get people in and ask them what they know about the company and sometimes they say, nothing at all, the agency sent us and that's the lot. We wish them well and advise them to do more homework for their next interview.'

Recruitment today is a very different process to how it would have been a couple of decades ago. The IET has been involved in recruitment advertising for much longer than that, and current recruitment media manager Andrew Dingley is well aware of how the SET sector has led the way in the changes of recent years.

'The first job board, as they've now become widely known, was in the IT sector, called JobServe,' he says. 'It was in some ways the mother of all job boards and is the paradigm on which most are based - Monster, TotalJobs, as well as niche boards use the same basic idea.'

The pre-eminence of the sector that we might call e-recruitment was dictated by the demographic. 'SET was the first sector to use the job-board concept because the candidate was likely to be in front of the technology a lot - and also the creators of JobServe were working in the IT sector and had spotted this opportunity in their market,' says Dingley. 'SET candidates are, by definition, early adopters of technology and this is particularly true in the digital environment.'

Things didn't change overnight. Employers who spotted the opportunity during what is now referred to as Web 1.0 would put available jobs on the Web, but would also advertise them in a more traditional manner. This would be about 1998, around which time the online CV database started to take shape in conjunctions with ubiquitous access to the Web and therefore the range of jobs on offer, and, from the employer's point of view, the range of candidates.

Virtual career hunting

And it hasn't all been about social media or email. There have been virtual career fairs in Second Life, comments Dingley, and even games consoles have their place. 'GCHQ has run an award-winning recruitment campaign on the X-Box Live network, seeking to fill predominantly IT and technical roles at graduate and professional level, many of which require specialist skills likely to resonate within the online community, he recalls.

It starts to sound as though the progress over the last couple of decades has been one of disintermediation, in which the agency is made redundant as the recruit gets to talk to the recruiter directly. One of the effects is that the client expects a cheaper service. Lee Knowles, UK regional director of the NES Group, which recruits in the engineering, IT and technical sector, acknowledges that the field is evolving. 'Previously all of the information you needed would have been on your database, you wouldn't have held data on your candidates anywhere else,' he says. 'Now that's only one of the tools you have to use when you're placing someone; there's your Outlook email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn - it all changes how a recruiter engages with both the client and the job candidate.'

Many managers are switched onto the networks available to the savvy jobseeker, he says, and of course the software available to recruiters has been upgraded to cope with these multiple feeds along the way. Something that has changed as a result of all of this is the way in which people put in applications. Sometimes they apply to the same job more than once. 'Ten or 20 years ago people were more dependent on the newspapers, the trade papers and agencies, and the emphasis was on the recruiter to help people get the jobs. It worked at a personal level.' A lot of that can be taken out of the equation now and so, frankly, can the faff of applying. 'We see people who use Monster Board, they use TotalJobs, they watch their target employer's own website.'

And they apply to jobs through all of these media, and they don't have to leave their desks to do so. This leads to an interesting syndrome on occasion, when the same applicant can go for the same job twice or more without realising it. It's on Monster, it's on Total, it takes next to no effort to apply so they just go for it on autopilot. 'There's an expectation that they can just sit and fire off emails and get a job,' says Knowles. Sometimes that's exactly what happens but when it doesn't both employer and candidate will appreciate feedback. This is where the fact that the costs have been driven down doesn't help; although Knowles doesn't say it, you get the feeling that an agency won't be able to provide an old-style follow-up service on a new-style pared-back budget.

Self promotion

From the candidate's point of view, the changes centre around the nearly unbelievable amount of choice of places to publicise their search for a job, although they're well advised not to seem too desperate. That's an obvious comment but it needn't be; the young are very keen on broadcasting whatever they've done, warts and all. 'Generation Y will need to be more aware of their own brand as an employee and how it's affected by the trail of images and comments they leave on social networks,' says the IET's Dingley. 'If you post a picture of yourself drunk at a party on Saturday and a potential employer has seen it before interviewing you for a job on Tuesday, it could make a dramatic difference.' As the generations progress, it becomes clear that the employer will have a trail of digital howlers, which may be equally embarrassing.

Where this particular trail leads is anybody's guess. Google supremo Eric Schmidt predicted earlier this year that people would actually have to invent a new identity for themselves in order to avoid being strung up by their digital past; not that he had a new social network of his own to publicise or anything, but even if he was exaggerating for effect the idea that our digital identity could become digital baggage and eventually a bit of a digital albatross is worth thinking about.

It might be better to think of it as a digital reputation rather than baggage, and Raymond Murray of Roevin Engineering Recruitment takes it seriously. 'Sixty per cent of employers now Google an applicant's name to find out more about their personality and the accuracy of the information they have provided. Social networks such as LinkedIn, Xing and Facebook are being used more and more,' he says. 'Although employers do run some risk in vetting potential recruits via their online footprint, there is no real issue as long as the decisions they make are not based on any legally discriminatory grounds - age, sex, religion etc.

'This all means that recruiters have a much wider pool of sources to discover not only whether applicants have the technical fit, but also the cultural fit for an organisation.' Other recruiters concur. Isabelle Ratinaud from Monster says: 'In terms of the expectations of the candidate it is imperative that they create a consistent online persona as this is the first thing an employer will look for after viewing a CV.'

It's almost as a side thought that one notices we're suddenly talking about everybody as a brand, and it's not just about the avowedly social networks. 'This refers to any online forums where they may be present so ensuring that a candidate's recruitment profile is consistent with profiles on social networking sites, blogs and so on is really key,' she says. 'It might sound slightly egotistical but try searching for yourself and see what comes up. If it's not aligned with the profile you want to project to potential employers then change it to ensure your online profile is consistent and professional.'

In fact, searching for yourself is an excellent idea and everybody should do it before an engagement with an employer, an investor, a journalist or anyone whose opinion will influence others. If there is any misconception out there, any thought that someone with a similar name has done something untoward and could cause confusion, that's how you'll find it - and so will your interviewer. Only you can put them right.

All of this is about form rather than substance, of course, and it's ultimately the quality of the candidate rather than their mastery of any communications medium that will get them a job. It's important, though, that both parties should have an understanding of each other's expectations of the recent technologies and how they will influence the recruitment process.

It's also important to understand that these new networks are only part of the recruitment process. Every time a new medium emerges, it's predicted that it will kill off one or more of the old ones. Dingley doubts it, having seen such predictions too many times. 'Online isn't going to kill the traditional recruitment advertising media,' he says. 'The traditional media has already and will continue to adapt to the extra opportunities the Internet offers.' Indeed, if we'd been writing this article 100 years ago we might have been theorising over whether the radio would kill theatre, or whether the phone would kill the face-to-face meeting.

Recruitment has evolved at an incredible pace over the past couple of decades, with the SET area leading the way; it will be fascinating to watch how it changes in the coming years.

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