Working With a Recruiter? Beware of Generalists Masking Themselves as Specialists

October 26, 2015


On the Argentus blog, we have a relentless focus on Supply Chain, but we also like to talk about issues in the recruitment industry from time to time. So forgive us if we indulge in some inside baseball today (how about those Jays, by the way?) about the recruitment industry and what differentiates some players from others.

We wanted to address an issue that’s popping up with more and more frequency in our conversations with candidates and companies looking to hire, and that’s the difference between generalist and specialist recruiters – and the propensity of the former to carry on as if they’re the latter.

First, a bit of background:

Decades ago, almost all recruitment firms were generalists. Unless they were in the Information Technology (or maybe Engineering) space, recruiters filled whatever jobs companies asked them to fill. As companies saw the value in working with external partners (whether for confidentiality reasons, or for the value of the recruiters’ connections, or simply to take advantage of the division of labour), the industry developed and recruitment companies grew. At the same time, around the mid-80s to early-90s, staffing agencies dedicated to filling a high volume of temporary clerical jobs took off. The 1990s saw a lot of consolidation in the industry as new massive recruitment firms started squeezing smaller staffing agencies out of the market, and this saw the rise of large, multinational firms. These firms capitalized on economies of scale, claiming the ability to fill every kind of role.

As a response, a number of recruiters wishing to work outside the multinationals –often coming from within industries – began specializing as a source of competitive advantage. They cultivated specific subject matter expertise, and often hired people coming out of the industries they recruited for. Instead of promising to fill any kind of role, they built inroads into specific industries. And they started harnessing the power of social media and web content to build networks and credibility in their specific industry.

That’s where we find ourselves today.

However, there’s another recent counter-trend, and that’s the subject of this post:

Namely, there are quite a few generalist firms billing themselves as “specialists” in a particular area because they’ve broken their business down into different subject units. A massive, multinational recruitment firm will have a Supply Chain / Procurement division, an IT division, an accounting division, and others.

All of which is fine.

But it’s a form of opportunism, as the multinational firms attempt to trade on the idea of specializing (with all the access to very specific networks of talent that go along with it), while still being jacks of all trades – trying to have it both ways, in other words. 

There’s a perception that a multinational firm that has a “specialist” division in a certain area is going to have access to more quality candidates within that niche just because they’re bigger. But does that make sense? The top candidates within a specific area aren’t going to go to the biggest generalist firm. They’re going to go to whoever understands that area, and how they can achieve their career goals within that area, the best.

So we figure it’s worth mentioning, just to set the record straight: a generalist firm that’s broken down their business into different units to try and get into the specialist space is not going to present a higher quality of candidates, or a higher quantity of candidates, just because they’re a big firm.

In fact, they’re likely to fall prey to the tendency of a lot of big recruitment firms, and that’s to hand the frontline sourcing of talent to junior employees who aren’t trained to understand the jobs for which they’re recruiting – who don’t have the years of experience recruiting for one thing and one thing only. And the specialized division is still, ultimately, accountable to the wider, generalist business that has obligations to service a plethora of job functions, no matter how much it pays lip service to understanding any particular niche, be it information technology, finance, sales, what have you.

Put it this way: if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

And if a generalist recruitment firm will take a job order in any industry and function from a client, they’re a generalist firm – even if they have sections of their website and specific consultants assigned to particular areas.

At Argentus, we’re unabashed specialists. We focus on Supply Chain and only Supply Chain – to the exclusion of other business. So we’re obviously a bit biased in favour of the specialty firms. But despite this, we think it’s still fair for us to point out the fact that a generalist firm is not going to necessarily be able to find better candidates in a niche area just because they’re bigger. We don’t want to sound bitter, because we’re not.

But there’s a reason multinational firms aren’t truly specialized, and there’s a reason why we are.

Just some food for thought. favicon

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