Staying power: 30 years in construction recruitment
Sarah Harvey, Director of Harvey Lawrence, has just celebrated her 30th anniversary in construction recruitment. Here she reflects on her time in the industry! When I took my first construction recruitment job in 1989, I would never have imagined I would still be in the industry 30 years later. Thriving for three decades in this role is rare, as it’s such a tough, competitive environment to work in. My time in construction recruitment has given me a unique insight on the industry as a whole, and I wanted to discuss the evolution I’ve seen and the changes I still want to see. As we approach the end of an uncertain year, we’re hoping 2020 will be reinvigorated through political clarity. For construction talent, be it permanent or temporary staff, if you do a good job and add value, you win through. Construction An Improved Landscape The industry has undergone a major image transformation over the last 30 years and has emerged as more professional and respectable. The industry we know today is process-led, policy-driven and digitalised. The culture of the late 1980s has been largely overhauled, and as a result, we all work in a more positive sector. Whilst policy is a must in order to mitigate risk, there is a feeling that policy can be more of a tick-box exercise with the clear exception of health and safety. We have seen a complete behavioural overhaul of health and safety, and rightly so. The standards have skyrocketed, meaning workers are happier, more productive and significantly safer in their roles. Equally, 30 years ago, there was no such thing as having records and plans stored digitally. Advancements in technology have enabled plans to be viewed in 3D, making it more efficient to plan and develop construction projects. The concept of construction management software has also revolutionised the industry. It allows different parties to collaborate on projects with more ease, which means they can make necessary changes much faster. We also talk about equality, diversity and inclusion, and wanting to attract more women into construction. Fortunately, how the industry treats its stakeholders is worlds apart from where we were in the late 80s. Industry leaders who are stuck in their old ways still exist, but thankfully, they are now few and far between. They need to be as they actively deter females from the industry and cause good staff members to look for better prospects elsewhere. Where We Need to Build a Better Industry Culturally, the industry has improved, but there are issues that still need to be resolved. I think the way parties interact with each other has remained largely unchanged with confrontation still rife. Because of this, the industry loses talent that doesn’t cope well in harsh cultures. Being overly tough just isn’t the right approach for today’s talent. The industry has been very slow to adjust here, despite claiming otherwise. Staff retention hasn’t improved massively over the years, but if we adapted the same zero tolerance approach to poor management as we do to health and safety, workers will be more inclined to stay in their roles. People often tell us they feel like they’re in a straight-jacket, unable to offer ideas or honest feedback for fear of it putting a black mark against their name. Similarly, there are widespread comments that people feel like their appraisals are rushed and merely part of box-ticking process. Whilst policy is key to compliance and risk mitigation, there needs to be a greater level of sincerity around policies. We have to take them more seriously instead of using them to simply satisfy legislative criteria. I can still remember how fondly professionals spoke about their careers in the late 80s and 90s. Despite how far the construction industry has advanced, it doesn’t feel like workers these days have the same sense of team spirit and respect for each other. There seems to be a worrying sense of disillusionment with how they’re treated, with company politics and what many consider to be overkill on process. Talented professionals feel stifled and that their roles are now less skilled with the growth of automation processes. I knew many site engineers, site managers, quantity surveyors and the like who are now senior industry leaders. It seems the generation of yesteryear had a real appetite to progress, but these workers are now within a few years of retirement. As a general observation, I think those who have come through the industry in the last ten to fifteen years don’t have the same desires. This is concerning as it poses a potential problem for sourcing future leaders and begs the question as to why people don’t want these roles. It’s highly unlikely they don’t want an increase in salary, bonuses and kudos. It’s more than likely they don’t want to deal with the complicated processes, backstage politics and blame culture that many perceive comes with career progression. Towards the end of the 80s, late payment was rife. We still hear about poor payment issues today, which is leading to the same business failures we saw three decades ago. Payment has improved on the whole, but I feel it may have regressed in 2019. We talk about fair treatment and timely payment, but there are still behaviours that fly in the face of these principles. Recruitment: The Success and Failures of the Industry The recruitment industry has also evolved a great deal during my three decades in the business. When I first started out, recruitment was completely paper-based, and sales offices were smoke-filled dens of relentless, high-pressure sales activity. The role was purely phone–based and job boards were unheard of. The way in which jobseekers look for new roles now has certainly changed. Over the last few years, I have witnessed the rise of job boards, applicant tracking systems, portals and social media — LinkedIn in particular. Previously, advertising was mostly confined to industry magazines, and anyone looking for a different job would need to look at adverts while on their tea-break. In this digital age, I feel as though the sector has lost its perspective of what it means to be good at recruitment. I was taught recruitment from first principles, which means building up a profile of a person’s experience and aspirations through detailed face-to-face discussions. We built trust with clients this way, as they knew we were doing our due diligence rather than just lifting profiles from social media or job boards. Today, this latter approach has sadly become all too common, and I feel it has created an inherent distrust of clients towards agencies. There is no denying that technology is very much part of modern recruitment. I talk to many clients who are frustrated that they haven’t filled their roles when all they’ve done is placed an advert online. You don’t achieve the right results working like that, which is why we need more credible, connected recruiters who understand the industry and the people they are looking to find roles for. Relationships are still key; they always have been and always will be. However, the skill of being able to make good judgement decisions based on knowledge and due diligence has been hugely diminished. Technology should improve efficiency and enhance recruitment outcomes, but I think, unlike in construction, it has had an adverse effect, leading to a poorer service in general. 30 Years On — Achievements and Lessons I’m proud to have survived 30 years in construction recruitment, and that I have stuck it out through three recessions. I’m also proud to have led two start-up recruitment businesses, one for a major player and one being my own, which has been a success for the last 18 years and counting. I have retained many of my clients throughout my working life, and Harvey Lawrence’s repeat business levels with clients is currently running at 83%. You can only achieve results like that through hard work and adapting to an evolving industry. Honesty has set my business apart, which goes a long way in explaining how we have formed so many lasting relationships with clients. In 18 years, we have only had one legal dispute, and we believe that our transparency is the reason why our clients put their trust in us. Experience has taught me to keep my feet on the ground as I have seen first-hand how quickly things can change. This is partly why we are totally self-funded with a strong credit rating. My industry longevity has taught me to be prudent and cautious. I underestimated how difficult managing a business could be at times. I didn’t factor in economic or legislative changes well enough, but I managed to get my head around the learning curve, which has led to my company thriving. Both the construction and recruitment industries have seen positive changes over the 30 years, and I’m sure it will continue to improve. It will be interesting to see how culture and collaboration between parties will make strides towards ending conflict in the workplace. It seems that the industry still has some work to do in creating a more conciliatory culture, one which is motivational for staff and the supply chain. However, the future looks bright, and as long as the industry is willing to adapt, we should achieve better results for all stakeholders involved. Join in the conversation with Harvey Lawrence over on our social channels! Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn or contact us now to discuss your recruitment needs.
Sarah Harvey talks about Harvey Lawrence and her thoughts on the Recruitment Industry
Sarah Harvey marked her 28th year in construction recruitment this year. In this interview, Sarah tells us about her personal experiences and discusses the changes and challenges in the recruitment industry and how these have affected Harvey Lawrence over the last decade and a half. Tell us about how your career in construction recruitment started and how Harvey Lawrence began. I entered the construction recruitment industry 28 years ago, straight after graduating from university. I spent many years with a global player, heading up several offices in the Northern Region. I spearheaded the opening up of the Manchester office for this major brand and developed it through to a Northern network across a team of 65. At this stage, I decided it was time for me to move on and do things my own way. I always wanted my own business and as I had the knowledge and experience, I thought the time was right to build a brand that did things in accordance with my own standards. Harvey Lawrence was founded in Manchester and we expanded into the Midlands in 2009. This meant personally I had come full circle, having grown up in the Midlands and where I started my career. Today Harvey Lawrence consists of a team of experienced recruiters who are passionate about doing the job correctly. We pride ourselves in being a value-based business and even in the tough times that we endured, we still did things correctly and refused to cut corners. We provide quality due-diligence and apply ethical standards, rather than just spraying CVs. What was it like to recruit when you first began your career in construction recruitment? How does this compare to when you began Harvey Lawrence? The pressure for producing results and reaching month-on-month KPIs was high and there was not much room for leniency. Either you cut the mustard or you didn’t. Consultants were expected to undertake every facet of the job and you had to rely heavily on phone work and face-to-face communication – social media and email strategies hadn’t taken hold. There were no job boards or tools such as LinkedIn and most of the work that came through was a result of building strong relationships. The industry at that time required recruiters who could offer a complete 360 service, not only generating candidates but also winning new business and closing deals consistently. By comparison, when I started Harvey Lawrence I was already 12 years into my career so I could network with people who I had previously worked with. I met people face-to-face and was very driven in this particular market. As a result the business has some very strong long-term relationships at senior management level and this has been massively influential in building our brand. Over the years, the recruitment sector has grown and become more competitive, as well as fast-paced. Some recruitment agencies cut corners to deliver CVs quickly but we have fought really hard to avoid this in order to create long-term trust and confidence in what we do. I feel that some of the basics of good value judgment, based on solid selection processes, have been lost. This is something I’m passionate about and as a result I manage my own business with the standards I was taught. What has changed over the years since you started Harvey Lawrence? There has certainly been a cultural shift in the recruitment industry in terms of the way recruiters interact with both candidates and clients. Technology, particularly through the use of social media, didn’t exist to any extent 16 years ago but now it seems to be one of the main tools used by recruiters. Harvey Lawrence has embraced technology and appreciates it is here to stay but we look to employ this in a creative way rather than bombarding people. For us, we don’t look for it to replace meeting people on a face-to-face basis as we think this is the best way to establish what their requirements are. I firmly believe this is why we’ve been running at 93% interview to offer ratio this year. Also our business profile has changed in that we started life as a permanent recruitment agency in the North West but today Harvey Lawrence is equally balanced across temporary and permanent recruitment throughout the North West and Midlands. One thing I can tell you that hasn’t changed is the way we do business: we have kept to our commitment of due diligence, even given the speed of the market. Have you noticed a gap in the market for clients? What are recruitment agencies not doing? There’s a gap in the market for recruitment agencies that demonstrate the right behaviours and evoke trust between the customers (whether that be client or candidate) and the agency. There is a deeply negative view about recruitment agencies as some use a scattergun approach to CVs and sometimes don’t demonstrate the correct business behaviours. I understand why this view is still prominent and I want to focus on ensuring that we avoid such behaviour. Ethical recruitment in itself is a gap in the market, allowing some credible recruitment businesses to gain a competitive advantage. In addition to this, I also believe that working with senior managers on a strategic basis, in terms of resource planning and brainstorming ideas, helps clients drive their recruitment brand, adding value to their own candidate attraction strategies. What has contributed to the success of Harvey Lawrence? Our success comes from our years of experience and track record serving the construction industry. We have survived a very difficult recession and had to adapt quickly to respond to a tough market. However, we maintained excellent relationships with clients and didn’t abandon them when they weren’t able to offer us business. Most importantly, we kept these relationships alive and healthy during these hard times. Our close client bonds have been invaluable to our continued success. The secrets to our success are: working hard; remaining focused at all times; staying true to our values no matter what and always looking forward and viewing the business pipeline. We celebrate what we do well and look to continually improve. Overall, it’s about being committed, thorough, tough, and passionate about what your business stands for. The lows have included having to realign and restructure the business during the recession and having the resolve to keep going and see success through to the other side. Fortunately this has paid off because we have emerged as a stronger and healthier business that remains committed. The main high of Harvey Lawrence has been building a brand to be incredibly proud of. We have built strong, long-lasting relationships with our clients and they consider us a trusted business partner as opposed to a sales organization to be wary of. Where will Harvey Lawrence like to be in 5 years? We will continue to provide excellent service to construction companies in North West and Midlands for permanent and temporary recruitment. We are also looking to extend our reach to London following key relationships we have with clients who work in this area. Whilst we’re incredibly strong in recruiting for building contractors and we know this market inside out, we also have worked with civil engineering and housing clients and we’re looking to build on this further. I am very keen to grow the business but not to lose the essence of what we are about which is a quality brand that is committed to delivering a skilled recruitment service.