Craig Charlton, Business Development Manager for Rail at Samuel Knight International, explains how to get the most out of your recruitment consultancy relationship…

With the rail sector facing a severe skills shortage, the war for top talent is now arguably red hot. Employers are facing increasing competition for the best people – and are often paying over the odds for these individuals in order to get them on board. In this environment, constant engagement with potential staff is key to enticing them to work for your firm or project. But the catch-22 of this situation is that often, employers in the industry simply don’t have the time to manage these relationships to the extent that’s required due to the limited resources they already have. Neither is there the capacity to look beyond the normal routes for possible new skills, in most cases at least, hence the uptick in financial incentives to attract employees.

What this is creating, however, is an increased demand for specialist recruiters like ourselves. The crux of a hiring consultancy’s job is to constantly engage with potential candidates – regardless of whether they are currently looking for a job – and that’s what the majority of their time is spent on. However, as more entrepreneurs notice the need for specialist hirers in the rail field, more alleged ‘experts’ have emerged.

So how can you pick out the best consultancy to support your hiring challenges and make sure the partnership is truly working for you? Here are a few things to consider.

Know what makes the best consultancy 

First and foremost, you need to define your criteria for what would make a great partner for you. While there may be the odd nuance here and there depending on your existing resources, budgets or roles involved, the basics of what makes a good consultancy remain generally the same: expert knowledge of the industry, geographical insight and a mentality beyond ‘bums on seats’ methodology. The latter is arguably the most crucial point, but is also one that can readily be overlooked.

It’s all too easy to be wowed by a consultancy’s global reach or sector insight, but if this knowledge doesn’t translate into a great experience for their candidates as well, then the value added to your business will be limited. With a high-level commission culture that doesn’t reward or recognise the positive impact a consultant has had on a candidate or client, some employers risk the chance of applicants being treated as mere numbers, with people receiving a negative experience as the firm seeks to simply make as many placements as possible.

This is an unacceptable situation that you want to avoid, particularly with such high competition for skills. And while an applicant may have had a bad experience with the recruiter, if your brand’s name has been mentioned the likelihood is that they’ll tarnish you with the same brush. But there are ways to better ensure you don’t face this situation.

As a case in point, make sure you find out how a potential consultancy rewards its staff beyond the financial incentives to gauge how much value they place on the candidate experience. Does it recognise employees who have gone above and beyond the norm for an applicant, for example? These types of values will better help identify a partner that will work alongside your business to source top talent.

Make it a partnership

What’s vital for any such relationship is that it’s a two-way commitment. Of course, if you’re setting aside budgets for a consultancy, you want to know you’re getting value for money, but in order to get the results you’re after, it’s important to ensure both parties are pushing in the same direction. Make sure you’re sharing information that can be valuable in guaranteeing the recruiter is sourcing the right people for the role – and arm them with the best possible information to do so continuously, even if there’s negative news in the public domain. Honesty truly is the best policy when making sure your business gets the strategic support it needs.

Consider as well how a consultancy can work with you to help build a sustainable pipeline of resources. For example, we’ve long been vocal on the need to engage with those in education to demonstrate just how valuable a career in rail is for those with a variety of interests. As such, we jump on any opportunity to support our clients when it comes to sharing this knowledge and insight with the aim of improving the availability of skills in the near and distant future.

Take advice

In a similar vein, it’s also crucial to add that your consultancy should be a strategic partner, not just someone who you give a role to and hear nothing from until they have a possible candidate, before they return to radio silence. Specialist hirers need to be completely in tune with what’s going on in the industry, from both a candidate and employer perspective, as well as the latest developments in your company. As a result, they will be incredibly well-placed to act as a ‘helicopter’ adviser to your business.

Their external and third-party perspective can provide you with an unbiased view on how achievable your growth plans are when compared to the current availability of talent, what will and won’t work when attracting from a whole new pool of candidates and whether your workforce plan is robust enough to withstand whatever the future holds. Yet, despite this knowledge being fundamentally engrained in everything a consultancy does, too few employers utilise this resource for the benefit of their firm.

Speak to the experts you work with and ask for their honest views and experience of the market at the moment. Perhaps more importantly, make sure you’re feeding this into your hiring strategy where relevant, otherwise it’s arguably a wasted opportunity for you.

Make sure your partner can grow with you

Scale-ability is also crucial. As your business expands, you want to ensure your suppliers can continue to meet your growing requirements. It’s important, then, to consider a consultancy’s growth plans when choosing who to partner with and seek out examples of how they have evolved their relationships over a certain time period as evidence of their ability to adapt with you. For example, in order to support our clients, contractors and candidates, we developed a video interviewing platform, SKIConnect, that enables our fast-growth clients seeking to expand nationally and internationally the chance to connect with talent pools anywhere in the world. By adapting to not only the changing economy and work environment, but also evolving candidate requirements, we’ve kept a number of businesses on the books in the five plus years that we’ve been in operation – with ABC Electrification Ltd just one of many such examples. And that’s what we classify as success for our firm: developing a partnership that’s sustainable for all involved. As Adam Stanbury, Engineering Director at ABC Electrification Ltd attested: ‘As ABC’s engineering offering to the UK rail industry expands, I see Samuel Knight’s contribution to our business growing in parallel.’

Assess results – but not just the numbers 

Finally, while there’s a number of ways to ensure you select the right consultancy in the first place, the ultimate assessment is what they deliver. But it’s important when analysing how the relationship is working that you don’t focus solely on numbers. As suggested above, honing in on headcount alone isn’t conducive to developing relationships with potential future employees that perhaps aren’t open to a move – at least not yet anyway.

So instead of just reviewing the volume of placements a consultancy has made, ensure from the get-go that you have agreed other metrics to measure success, including those that evaluate candidate satisfaction.

There’s no doubt that the right consultancy can add real value to your business, it’s employer profile and ultimately your firm’s competitive advantage. But you need to make sure you’re partnering with the most appropriate agency. With a plethora of alleged ‘experts’ looking to monetise the skills shortage in rail without considering their own role in the sector, ensuring a business ticks the boxes above will certainly help identify if they are the right fit for your company.

Craig Charlton is Business Development Manager for Rail at Samuel Knight International