IT Recruiting Agencies – Advice for Contract Workers

I read an interesting post on Advogato about IT recruiting agencies (along with an interesting preface about medical treatment for broken ribs).

Their report closely mirrored my experience in many ways. Here are what I consider to be the main points for a job applicant dealing with recruiters:

  1. Ask more than you believe that you are worth – the worst they can do is say “no” (and you will feel like a fool if the agency pays you less than half what the client pays because you didn’t ask for enough).
  2. Put lots of terms in your CV that will work for grep or other searches. A human who reads your CV will know that if you describe 3 years of Linux sys-admin experience that you can do BASH shell scripting and sys-admin work on other versions of Unix. But if a search doesn’t match it then the typical recruiting agent won’t offer you the position. I have idly considered saying things like “Perl (not Pearl) experience” to catch mis-spelled grep operations.
  3. Recruiting agents will frequently demand that you re-write your CV to match a position that they have open, they will say things such as “you claim 3 years of shell scripting and Perl experience but I don’t see that on your CV” and insist that you re-write it to give more emphasis to that area.
  4. Most recruiting agents are compulsive liars and don’t understand computers, you have to deal with the fact that to get most of the better paying positions you need to have an incompetent liar represent you. Avoid the stupid liars though. For example I once refused to deal with an agent who told me about his plans for stealing the CV database from the agency he worked for and selling it to another agency – not because he was shifty in every possible way, but because he was so stupid as to boast about such things immediately after meeting me on a train.
  5. Expect that recruiting agents won’t understand the technology. If you politely and subtly offer to assist them in writing a letter to a client recommending you then they will often accept. Why would they go to the effort of assessing your skills and writing a short letter to the client describing how good you are when you can do that for them? On one particularly amusing occasion I was applying for a position with IBM and the recruiting agent had been supplied with a short quiz of technical skills to assess all applicants – they gave me the answer sheet and asked me to self-assess (I got 100% – but it was an easy test and I would have got the same result anyway).
  6. Some levels of stupidity are so great that you should avoid dealing with the agent (and possibly the agency that employs them). Being unable to view a HTML file is one criteria I have used since 1999 (every OS since about 1998 came with a web browser built in). Another example is an agent who tried to convince me that “.au” is not a valid suffix for an email address (I was applying for a sys-admin job with an ISP). Job adverts that mis-spell terms (such as Perl spelled at Pearl) are also a warning sign.
  7. Gossip is important to your business! Some agencies will pay you what you earn and merely terminate your contract when things go wrong. Other agencies will refuse to pay you when things go bad, or even demand that paid money be returned and threaten legal action. Talk to other contract workers in your region and learn the goss about the bad agencies. Also track agency name changes, when a bad agency changes name don’t be fooled.

When applying for a position advertised by an agency you will ideally start by seeing an advert with a phone number and an email address. The best strategy in that case seems to be to send your CV with a brief cover letter and then about 5 minutes after your mail server sends the message to their mail server you phone them. I found that I got a significantly higher success rate (in terms of having the agent send my CV to the client) if I phoned them when my CV arrived.

Sometimes a fax number is advertised, unless there is some problem that prevents sending a document via email (such as the agency having a broken mail server) then do not FAX them. A faxed document will have to be faxed on to the client and will look bad after the double-fax operation and will prevent the agent from grepping it. Rumor has it that agents will often post fake adverts for the purpose of collecting CVs (so that they can boast to clients

In most situations a recruiting agent should insist on meeting you for an interview before sending your CV to a client. The only exception is if you are applying for a job in another country. Meeting an agent at a restaurant or other public place is not uncommon (often they want to meet you while travelling between other locations and sometimes their main office is not in a good location). I suspect that some agencies start with a “virtual office” and perform all their interviews in public places (this doesn’t mean that they will do a worse job than the more established agencies). If an agent is prepared to recommend you to a client without meeting you then they are not doing their job properly. It used to be that there were enough agencies pretending to do their job that you could ignore the agencies that will recommend any unseen candidate. But now an increasing number of agencies do this and if you want a contract you may have to deal with them.

When an agency has a fancy office keep in mind that they paid for it by taking money from people like you! For contract work a recruiting agent is not your friend, they make their money by getting you to accept less money than the client pays them – the less they pay you the more money they make. A common claim is “we only take a fixed percentage of what the client pays”, but when you ask what that percentage is they refuse to answer – I guess that the fixed percentage is 50% or as close to it as they can manage.

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