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.
Celebrating 18 years
Harvey Lawrence celebrates 18 years in business this month. As a well-known construction recruitment specialist, Harvey Lawrence sources talent across engineering, management, technical and commercial disciplines in the construction sector. The business has seen many changes in the last 18 years, and it is a consistent approach to quality that has built the successful business we know today. The driving force behind the company, Sarah Harvey, is also celebrating 30 years as a construction recruiter this year. Here, she talks about the business and what makes Harvey Lawrence successful. What motivated you to start your own recruitment business? I had always wanted to have my own business, even within my first two or three years as a recruiter. I remember attending an event with my then Director for the Businesswoman of the Year Awards in Yorkshire in 1992 and he commented “that will be you one day”. Not that I think I have reached those dizzy heights, but it did strike a chord with me and I knew that working for someone else wasn’t my long-term aim. It was my move to Manchester in 1993, to set up the Manchester office for Hays and the key role I played in the development and then management of the Northern region, that really gave me the confidence and skill. Whilst I value what l learned in nearly 12 years with a major player, I ultimately wanted to prove to myself that I could do things my own way and put my own personal stamp on a business. What makes Harvey Lawrence different? I genuinely believe the things that make us different are not all that complicated, in fact they are very simple. We are incredibly knowledgeable and we are upfront and honest. When you break it down to what clients and jobseekers want, it’s about dealing with a recruitment company that can show real market understanding and do the job properly. We know that people have long memories and therefore we consider business ethics to be high on our agenda. This attitude really helps to differentiate us in an industry in which I feel business ethics can be seriously lacking. With the increased demand for staff over the last few years, I think this lack of skill and ethics has been further eroded. There are still good recruiters out there, but I feel that they are in the minority. For the good of the sector it needs to be sorted out. For Harvey Lawrence, however, it is a major differentiator; we are much more than CV pushers. We are well-connected, particularly at senior management level and I know that we are taken seriously by many construction professionals as well as amongst our competitors. We have been around a long time, we have placed many people, including in senior level positions, which we do by doing the job properly and being so much more than post boxes. For us it is about longevity, sustainability and pride. All of these things are priceless. It is what makes you hold your head up high and I have made certain that these ethics are upheld throughout the business without compromise. What are you most proud of? I am proud that I started a business from scratch and that 18 years later it is still here and is in better shape than it has ever been with a rock-solid credit rating and credibility. The brand is respected, it is very stable and successful. I have learned some hard lessons from the last recession which makes me always keep my feet on the ground and importantly learn from mistakes. I probably didn’t realise how hard it would be to guide a business through a recession, through lots of legislative change, always gambling your own money. I think a lot of stress, busloads of determination with hopefully a smattering of insight got me through. What is the secret to longevity? It’s about being good at what you do, clearly, but it is much more than that. Adapting to change and embracing new ideas is paramount, especially in the ever-changing recruitment industry. Sadly, this industry is not known for engendering trust so Harvey Lawrence works hard to cast away the negatives associated with the recruitment industry which is why we’ve built so many long-standing relationships. I believe my three decades in the industry and valuable experience gained during this time, means I won't take unnecessary risks. Market conditions are fluid so for me, it is about sustainability, strong compliance and commercials. What do you see as the major changes in the construction sector since setting up Harvey Lawrence? For me, the industry has become much more process and governance-led and has made significant headway in improving its image. The amount of Tier 1 companies has reduced through merger/acquisition and business failure. No longer is the view that biggest is best. In fact, the SME market has really been a game changer for the sector as they now provide very real competition to the larger players and I think the view of the SME space has changed in the last 18 years. They are now taken very seriously and quite rightly as they have attracted some excellent talent. They also have the added advantage of being very price competitive. In fact, we frequently see people migrating from the large players to the regionals as they feel that they can take on a bigger role but clearly there are still those that prefer to stay with what they feel is the security of the larger players. For most people who have been in the construction sector long enough, they know that it is very susceptible to market fluctuation. I think regardless of how busy the market is, the dread of a recession is never far from peoples’ minds. We have gone from a nation of school builders to high rise residential builders. Now everyone is asking how long the developer boom will last and what will replace it. There are also those who, some may say wisely, opted to stick with public sector work as a safer option. There has definitely been a change of work streams and procurement routes, bringing with them their own challenges. What I do remember very well... a few years ago people asked what they would do after the school building had finished as they had not developed their private sector contacts in time and the same question could be asked now of those that are so heavily reliant on the private sector. There has also been a clear move of permanent staff taking to the freelance option for a whole host of reasons. This route has become more widely accepted by construction companies to attract the services of construction professionals and it is definitely the route in the trades and labour market due to its cost effectiveness. Even against the background of legislative change, I think the current market uncertainty means we will see more of this but there will need to be closer examination of how services are supplied in certain circumstances. I also think that some of the characteristics of the UK construction workforce have changed. Long gone is the general acceptance of “have suitcase, will travel” if the money is right. I think people will take less money to be near home and this attitude has strengthened over the years. In the geographical areas where we are strongest, the North West and the Midlands, people who live in Liverpool don’t tend to want to travel to Manchester and vice versa. Similarly, in the Midlands people based in Stoke-on-Trent, don’t tend to want to travel to Birmingham. Twenty years ago, it was generally accepted that you travelled in excess of an hour each way to work. Nowadays, we see people making decisions on which job to take based on its location. If they can get the train or the tram, they are often prepared to take less money for less travel. What changes have you seen in recruitment and what are your thoughts? Since the inception of Harvey Lawrence, the changes have been enormous. The way in which recruitment is done – the gradual drive towards automation and technological advance and changes in procurement of recruitment services in terms of the likes of applicant tracking systems, recruitment portals, PSLs and Master Vendors combined with the growth in social media and email marketing. All these represent change to how traditional recruitment was done. I fully recognise the importance and power of technology, particularly the value that can be created through quality content and thoughtful engagement strategies. However, I think that this is an area that is overcrowded and current content is very “same as”. I don’t think this does anything to find quality people, in fact it potentially deters quality people coming forward. I am concerned that there is a danger of deskilling and devaluing the recruitment process and the recruitment industry which would be a shame for recruiters who still want to go out and engage with clients and candidates, build relationships and find the best candidates. I think technology should be used intelligently but currently I think it is churning out uninspiring, personality-less content that will do little to bring the best people to the fore. ------ In summary, it is clear that the recruitment industry is ever evolving and keeping up is essential in such a competitive industry. The number of competitors is significantly more than when Harvey Lawrence first opened its doors, so keeping abreast of the latest developments in the industry keeps specialist recruiters at the top. The skill and knowledge of a good, well-connected recruiter with market credibility is still the key factor to delivering results in what is now a very compliance-led industry. The leadership, tenacity and adaptability that Harvey Lawrence’s founder and director Sarah has shown over almost two decades, go a long way to explain why the business is celebrating 18 strong years this month. Here’s to many more. 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 next career move.