Recruitment Insights

Lessons Through Lockdown

Platform 1 Recruitment Group

Nearly six months ago, I was on a skiing holiday in St. Anton, having a lovely time with family and friends and enjoying everything this Austrian ski resort had to offer. For those who love a bit of après-ski, there is nowhere in the world quite like St. Anton!

In the weeks leading up to my trip, many people felt the coronavirus was simply going to disappear. With the arrival of warm spring weather and the departure for the airport, things seemed pretty normal. Heathrow was packed full of people excited to be getting on a plane; all the shops, bars, and restaurants were open and full, and no one was wearing a face mask. Three hours after takeoff, we were checking into our hotel (a short journey; another reason to like St. Anton), and that feeling couldn’t have been more different.

Austria was quickly becoming the European epicentre of coronavirus, and over the coming days we looked on as St. Anton fell apart around us. Trump announced quarantine for anyone flying to the US from Europe, and immediately, guests scrambled to book early flights home. At breakfast, we listened as hotel reception fielded calls from guests calling to cancel their bookings.

Two days in, and sixty ski instructors were told to pack up and go home, bars and restaurants started closing, and we spoke with many resort employees, fearful that their job was next on the firing line. Unfortunately, for most of them, it was. Within a matter of days, we too were in a taxi heading back to the airport, days earlier than planned. In the taxi, a friend messaged me to tell me St. Anton had been closed and was officially in lockdown.

In the airport lounge, I called Craig, and we agreed I should join our weekly team meeting to talk about what I’d just experienced, as we now knew the UK was only days away from going into lockdown. St. Anton isn’t London, but it was clear the same was about to happen here, so we discussed what lockdown might mean for our clients, our candidates, and for everyone at ARRC. Craig had already taken action on the one thing every company has but hopes it never needs: our Business Continuity Plan. And a few days later, the government put the country into lockdown, and we haven’t been back to the office since!

Leading up to that point, the business was flying! We were growing at +30% year on year and had started our sixth year with a record January, a record February, and a pipeline for March which meant we were going to smash all previous quarterly bests. Everything we had worked towards was coming together, and it was gearing up to be an amazing year. Most importantly for us, our team were all reaping the rewards of all the training and hard work. Now the newspaper headlines tell us that the UK has fallen into its worst ever recession after a record 20.4% plunge in GDP.

Like everyone else, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of working, and we’ve had to do it in one of the most challenging markets most of us have ever lived through. July figures recorded a rise in new vacancies of +50% on the previous month, but that’s still nearly half a million fewer vacancies than at the start of the crisis.

As profession specialist recruiters, we have the most diverse client base possible for such a young company, so unlike many recruitment companies, we’re not reliant on any one industry sector or beholden to one or two clients for the majority of our sales. Even though vacancy numbers are significantly down, our risk is so widely spread that we’ve continued to win new business and make placements all throughout lockdown.

In the past three months, our clients have been asking to engage us on either an exclusive or retained basis (which means we don’t need to work on as many roles to make as many placements). They are coming to us wanting to work in this way (rather than us pitching for it), and it begs the question, ‘why’? In part, it’s because many companies are making sensitive changes and want to keep control of the message going out to market. To highlight the point, in some cases, we’ve signed NDAs with clients and candidates to avoid word getting out that a company is recruiting. In other cases, it is because the HR/recruitment teams don’t have time to engage with lots of recruiters; they know we will do a good job, and they just want to get the best service possible without the hassle of being chased by everyone on their preferred supplier list (PSL).

We’ve also seen a significant change in the average level of hire. Pre-crisis, there was consistent demand for people at the 55k to 65k salary levels. In the past four months, 90% of the roles we’ve been engaged on have been at Senior Manager and Head of Department levels, and these roles pay circa 50% to 100% more than this.

We’ve won lots of new business. Over 50% of the vacancies we’ve been asked to fill since the start of lockdown are with new clients. As a growing company, we’ve been winning new clients every month for the past 6 years, so this is not new to us. What’s interesting is how much we’re winning now, given all that’s going on. I would opine it is a reflection of the ongoing trend towards using specialists, and our clients clearly value working with profession-specific recruiters for Audit & Risk. However, this also reflects a trend for younger, high growth companies (think tech or online businesses) that haven’t previously had audit, risk, and control functions in place and want to build strong corporate governance functions before they get too big.

Lockdown and the coronavirus sent most companies into a bit of a tailspin, and everyone had to adapt accordingly. Chaos leads to change; change creates jobs, and we’ve definitely seen new roles identified and created in audit and risk. Companies may be hiring fewer people, but the roles they are trying to fill have been scrutinised by every layer of management to a level not seen since the financial collapse of 2008, so by the time we get briefed, all our clients want to do is speed through the process and get someone on board.

Recruitment companies have been hit hard by this crisis, as have we, and we’re very aware of how many of our competitors have been either asked to work part-time, put on furlough, or made redundant. We’ve had to make our share of difficult decisions, decisions that impact human lives, and I feel for anyone whose job or career has been negatively impacted by this. The upshot of all this is a noticeable absence of competition, and, without wanting to sound mercenary, we’ve definitely benefited from this.

Running a business through a pandemic is a challenge, and it’s good to be able to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned over the past five months or so. It’s especially good to see so much.