Predictable Hiring Part 1

In his recent blog, my colleague, Mo Khaleed, pointed out a contradiction within the Data talent space:

It’s kind of ironic that a sector that is full of logical thinking people, and which routinely makes sense of unstructured data, has yet to agree upon and implement standardised job titles.

There’s something else that I think is wholly counter-intuitive about the sector. The way some data leaders (or talent teams working on behalf of data leaders) go about securing wanted talent.

Let’s put it this way – in a world where logic, certainty and fact are key - hiring for data talent is often done in a very unpredictable (and, some might say, illogical!) way.

What do I mean? Let’s start with some definitions.

Firstly, Contingent Recruitment. That’s the “no win/no fee” recruitment model that’s utilised widely.

Next up, the PSL. That’s the Preferred Supplier List. A “who’s who” list of agencies that are “preferred” or “approved” to supply candidates to a certain company.

Talent Pools are the group of people who could, theoretically, fill a particular vacancy.

A Recruiter’s Desk. This is the shorthand given to the portfolio of client opportunities that’s being worked by a recruiter at any one point in time.

Recruitment (or Talent) agencies exist to provide services to their clients – all based on the idea that the solution provided saves at least one of the following: time, resources or money. Trevor Pinder, take a bow.

Say a company needs to hire a Head of Data Science. If they have an experienced, knowledgeable internal talent person they could do this themselves, right?

And many do.

However, the level of experience and sectoral knowledge required to successfully navigate a talent pool like “Data Science Leadership” AND to be able to engage credibly with the talent can sometimes be a bit of a stretch. To get up to speed would take time, would require multiple additional resource, and would cost a shed load of money! Naturally, this is where the agency recruiter comes in.

So, some talent folks outsource the work and get back to doing the zillion and one other things that they are supposed to do that day.
In the first instance, the internal talent person alerts their PSL agencies and tells them that there’s a new vacancy for a Head of Data Science and can they be available for a briefing in the next 24 hours?

Happy days, right?

A bunch of experienced recruiters all competing against each other to provide the best coverage of the market – surely that’s a win for the client, right?

It’s not….and here’s why….

Firstly, not all that PSL will be exclusively data recruiters. Some might be technology recruiters who cover development, project/programme management, Test & QA, architecture, infrastructure AND data. This can prove to be problematic when they start rushing out to talk to the market (and attempt to seduce niche talent on a complex, nuanced role that they perhaps don’t quite understand fully themselves. Ever had someone try to sell something to you when they didn’t know how it worked? Did you buy it?)

Aha! I hear you say – our PSL for data recruitment is made up of niche specialists, though!

OK then, back to definitions – and that idea of Contingent Recruitment. If the only recruiter getting paid for any work is the one that finds the lucky chosen candidate – what about the rest?

Any recruiter working the role (including the successful one!) must mitigate their risks at the beginning of the process (unless they have a crystal ball, they won’t know at the start of the process that they are going to find the successful candidate). Their managers make them mitigate their risks. Their managers’ directors make the managers make them mitigate their risks

Why do they need to “mitigate their risks”? Surely, they can drop everything and focus all their time and energy onto this sweet, fillable, need-to-fill role??

It doesn’t work like that.

That Contingent Recruiter’s Desk can, at any one time, have a dozen roles on it. Sometimes more. Each one prioritized by “how likely am I to fill this?”.

Factors include:

  • Amount of time the vacancy has been live
  • Skills required – easy to find, tougher or near to impossible?
  • Reward package on offer (is it market rate or nowhere close?)
  • Fee involved
  • Size of available Talent Pool
  • Speed/reaction of client – ranging from instant responses to “are you even alive anymore?”
  • Number of competing agencies on PSL

And many, many more factors

The “internal algorithm” that determines priority (where the recruiter’s time, energy, work, and attention is spent) is a finely tuned machine. It’s a matter of pride to an experienced recruiter to have the “nose” to instinctively know when they should switch priorities. And they do because they must. If they spent too much time on any one role, which then proves to be a fruitless effort, they could run the risk of not making a placement.

Reasons why efforts might be fruitless:
  • We’ve changed the spec (sorry!) and all your presented candidates aren’t right any more
  • The role isn’t fully signed off (sorry, again, we fibbed!)
  • Budget has been pulled
  • We’ve had a successful internal applicant (that we hadn’t spoken to before we asked you to go to the external market on our behalf, sorry)
  • We’ve had an external applicant through an agency (even though we promised you exclusivity, sorry again)
  • We’ve had a direct applicant
  • We’ve taken too long to review your CVs and your candidates have gone off elsewhere
  • We’ve taken too long to interview the candidates we liked, and they’ve gone off elsewhere
  • We’ve just ghosted you for no apparent reason and there’s been no communication – none – for weeks now.

Each one of these examples, through no fault of their own, means the agency recruiter working on that vacancy will not make a placement. That’s why they must work on multiple roles at any one time, and that they can never, EVER, put all their eggs into one basket (no matter how important this basket may seem to you, or them)

If the client NEEDS to fill this vacancy and the recruiters who are working it also NEED to fill it, why is everyone’s full attention, time, and resource not 100% focused on it until the job is done?

Pretty illogical, right?

Stay tuned for Part 2…….

Author Bio


As Director of Client Services for MBN Solutions, Rob has spent over two decades at the sharp end of Talent Acquisition practice for the Data sector. During this time, he has partnered with some of the UK’s leading data-driven businesses to deliver best-in-class talent solutions. In addition, working in an advisory capacity, Rob designed, built, and delivered the Data Lab’s MSc Placement Programme, has contributed to forums including Scotland’s AI Strategy and DMA Council and sits on University of Glasgow’s School of Maths & Stats Industrial Advisory Board. A regular data industry blogger and event host, Rob also now hosts a data leadership focussed podcast called Boss’n’Data and has been recognised by Data IQ as one of their 100 most influential Data and Analytics practitioners in UK organisations for two years running