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The AI Mirage in Hiring: Are Vendors Innovative Solutions or Industry Snake Oil?

March 6, 2024
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      5 min read
      Max Armbruster
      Max Armbruster
      CEO Talkpush

      Getting Ready for the Big Recruitment Rebound in the RPO Industry

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      Episode 15 full coverCraig Sweeney, Senior VP of Global Strategic Solutions at WilsonHCG, a talent consultant firm largely built around RPO solutions, talks about the evolution of recruitment in the RPO industry. He goes over daily challenges, the processes and tech to overcome them, as well as how they’re getting ready for the big rebound in recruitment.


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      Don't feel like listening? You can read the entire transcript right here. 👇


      Welcome to the recruitment hackers podcast. A show about innovations, technology and leaders in the recruitment industry brought to you by Talkpush the leading recruitment automation platform.


      Max: Hello everybody. And welcome back to the recruitment hackers podcast. I'm Max and I invited today to our podcast, Mr. Craig Sweeney, from WilsonHCG. Welcome Craig. 


      Craig: Hi Max. I'm glad to join you today. 


      Max: Thank you. Thank you for joining and putting yourself in front of the computer on such a beautiful sunny day. I can see the weather is unusually balmy in Manchester.


      Craig:  It really is. Yes, this is the one day of the year the sun comes out and it's not cloudy and raining, which anybody who's been to Manchester before would know is the usual blend of weather we have here. 


      Max: Amazing, amazing. Here in  Hong Kong, we are locked at home, unable to go to work because of a tiger flu. So,  it'll come your way. It should get there in about three months time.


      Craig:  Stay safe.


      Max:  So Craig tell us what you do, and what your company does! 


      Craig: Okay. So, we'll say HCG, for those of you who don't know, is an organization. We are a talent consultant firm largely built around RPO solutions, but then more broadly around anything really that links to talent acquisition, from a consulting perspective, from continuing workforce solutions, as well as our kind of core RPO solutions.


      My role is within the business areas, as part of our executive team, I lead everything around new plan engagements. I've got a global team that stretches from Japan, Singapore, through Europe and then into North America. And within my remit is our new business growth team. We've got our solutions team and then our implementation function. So essentially my group owns everything before a client actually goes live and becomes a client of ours. 


      Max:  Okay. New solutions team, you call it. Right?


      Craig: Yeah. So we've got a technical solutions team that helped to architect the solutions that we're actually putting in place for clients, both commercially, but also in terms of their structure. When they're complex global solutions, it takes some detailed kind of building out to have the right capability. And particularly when that's encompassing things that aren't just, you know, one type of hiring. It may be that we're hiring for specialist roles, high volume roles, graduate and internships or within the same solutions. Building that out and making sure we've got the right team to deliver for our clients when it's on a kind of medium or large scale, is often quite complex.


      Max:  I guess, the bigger the volume, the more technology seeps in. And then the lower the volume, the more an organization like yours will be competing with maybe smaller staffing firms.  Is that a fair statement? 


      Craig: I would say increasing technology is important in most scales of solutions that we build out. Because, I think even for those organizations that are maybe just recruiting in the hundreds, rather than the thousands. Having the right technology in place to help fulfill their critical business impact in roles, through whether or not last through engagement attraction, or building our future talent pipelines is all really important.


      Creating a great candidate experience and making sure we're out competing some of the other businesses that  are trying to hire the same talent is super important. 


      Max: Well, you may have seen in the news that there's been a little bit of M&A this year in the technology space. Just last week, there was a company called AllyO that was acquired by HireVue. There was a Sunroom in the UK that was acquired as well over the summer. It seems to me that video.  I don't know if it's hot or not, because sometimes, I mean, it's definitely being talked about a lot in the age of remote hiring and work from home hiring, as the killer app, you know, 15 or 20 years after its conception. This is a first situation. 


      But at the same time it looks like those companies never really got to the next stage. And I'm thinking, I'm thinking about it because you're talking about, you know, hundred of hires and I guess with these kind of environments, video interviewing, even then, you know, for an executive hire, you don't know if you're going to use video interviewing for an executive level hire, basically, right? It's going to be a little bit awkward to do an asynchronous video interview. 


      Craig: Yeah, I think  it's interesting, you know, video interviewing and as you say, it's been around for many years. I think right now, everybody  in this short space of time with everything that everybody's gone through over the last six months, eight and months, yeah. 


      Video technology has just become part of everybody's life. You know, if I'd ever talked to my parents about doing a video call, you know, a year ago, they would have gone, wow, that's crazy. Or, you know, people actually thinking about doing interviews over video, they would have said that's not possible but actually now.


      I think it's just crept into society and that's when you really start seeing, I think, change happened very quickly when it just becomes accepted that this is a way that people operate. So it doesn't surprise me that, you know, video is kind of the core of some of those acquisitions right now.


      Max: But now these companies have to add other things. Right? Because video is so omnipresent and everywhere that it's just not enough to do just video. Right? 


      Craig: I agree. 


      Max: That's the realization. And so, are the big guys, like the big enterprise software companies like SAP and Oracle, do they have a live video native solution? Do you know? 


      Craig: I don't believe so, but whether or not there's products that are in development, possibly, 


      Max: They can always do bargains anyway.


      Craig: Yeah, exactly.


      Max: And so, this is a very general question, for an RPO recruitment process outsourcing specialist. You're  asked to deliver a number of hires. Right? A number of hires and then retention after that. Probably those are your two key driving metrics. With that,  do you also get certain targets around? Like we want you to replace. You know, we want you to change this process and we want you to change this piece of technology? Or it's more of a, you know, deliver the heirs at whatever cost you want, and using whatever technology you want we just want the results?


      Craig: Yeah. I've been in and around RPO since, before it was called RPO. It was, you know, before it even took on that title. And I think if you look at the history of how RPO has evolved and developed. If we were talking 15 years ago, RPO was very much a transactional solution for most organizations where it was around. How do we deliver on a certain volume of hiring and just do that quicker and more effectively and often at lower costs than we're doing it ourselves today? I think over the course of the last five years in particular, maybe slightly longer, the strategic capability of RPO’s has just exponentially grown.


      So I think,  although those measures that you mentioned before are still a component part of what we have when we're delivering for our clients. So it is still around, you have avoidment of firing  and some of those key metrics that we have to operate to and that, but actually it's a much more holistic solution now where we are looking at technology that we're bringing to the table either to provide a better candidate experience, provide better capabilities to be able to pipeline or engage with talent, create the best candidate experience, provide better data, to be able to kind of tell the story around what's happening with hiring, but also process redesign. 


      And the measures that we are now looking at, in terms of the measures that we’re measured against. Aren't just on volume they're on things like, DEI. So how we can help drive better, diversity in organizations as well as just actually deliver the candidates, and make the hires. So it's a much more,  sophisticated business impact solution rather than a transactional solution RPO started out many years ago. 


      Max: It sounds like it's getting more complexity. Maybe one area where things are getting a little more simplicity would be that in 2020, there is consolidation, at least on the tech stack and some companies merging into others. And perhaps that'd be a little bit of a relief for professionals in your field, that instead of having a hundred solutions to choose from, now we have 80. Is that a pain in your back? To walk into customers and every time they've got, you know, I don't know how many TA tech solutions they usually come with. What's the typical number that you walk into?


      Craig: Yeah, well, in terms of, you know, if we’ve got just the baseline applicant tracking system then yeah, we work with  most of those and have done it at some point. But again, our role is to kind of look at those, make sure they're operating effectively. Clients never liked their applicant tracking systems.


      Max: Is universal!


      Craig: Yeah it's universal, but often it's because  they've been installed or implemented. And they no longer kind of build, they no longer fit around the processes that have changed, but the technology has not changed to keep up with it. So they're trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Part of our role is to help actually either reconfigure the technology or redesign the processes or both.


      But your point on what technology we bring, that's unique to each solution that we're building out. And, you know, I think what we avoid doing is just implementing technology for the sake of technology. There's got to be an output there. There's got to be a reason why technology is put in place. It has got to have a benefit and that's going to be different depending on the type of hiring, the locations, the language and various other things that might impact the type of technology that we're building out. 


      But yeah, fortunately, we've got an internal innovation team that does a lot of the assessments around technology and then advice and guidance around what technologies would fit into a particular tech stack, if there's an existing tech stack, because again, not all technologies fit into every tech stack and integrate well. So I think the challenge is less of a challenge for us. It's actually a benefit for us to have that team to advise our clients. And the reason we have that team is that internal TA factions often don't have the luxury of being able to have people that are technology specialists, and with so many technologies on the market right now doing various different parts of the end to end TA process, choosing the right ones, becomes increasingly difficult. Because they're actually, there are a lot of good technologies out there and the list is growing almost week over week.


      Max: Yeah, well, maybe not this week, you know, but most weeks for sure. And your role would entail a lot of traveling, you know, pre 2020, I presume.


      Craig: Absolutely. Yeah. So I probably spent maybe two thirds of my time traveling, or at least 50% of my time traveling over the last four or five years, both to around Europe and North America and Asia as well. And yeah, this year has been very different. No planes, no trains. it's all been, yeah. Working from home and I've enjoyed it. Enjoyed the time because it's just given you time to kind of reflect and think  in a way that when you're traveling so much, it becomes difficult to have that time to do that reflection. And I look forward to the day when I can go and do that again, but I don't wish for that to come too soon. 


      Max: I had the opposite reaction where initially I thought, I don't have any more time to think because I used to think while I'm traveling, when I'm on the plane in the air. But I do have a tremendous amount of time though, that was created by eliminating travel. And in your line of work, I imagine that's been replaced by double the amount of zoom meetings and teams and all that. 


      Craig: Yeah. It has  and that was kind of part and parcel of what I would do in my role every day. Anyway, because we're a global team, we're not kind of spending our days in the same office. We're often in parts of the world, in different time zones. And so Zoom was pretty familiar prior to this year, but certainly became more so over the last few months. 


      Max: I'd like to, to dig a little bit, deeper into the art of sourcing, which is perhaps the area where your clients would, you know, the pain points where your clients would first come to you and say, we're not getting enough quality candidates. Can you bring in the experts? Because our internal talent acquisition team is just not finding the talent. Is that part of the business? I have two questions here. One part is if that part of the business changed in 2020? and how? And then, maybe a word about, you know, how much sourcing can be automated, or rather, what are the limits of automation when it comes to sourcing? What still needs to be done manually? So I blurted out my two questions in a row and you can answer them in whichever order you'd like.


      Craig: Yeah. So, in terms of where technology and sourcing are kind of crossing and the benefits is I think, you know, technology can be used really effectively to outreach and do the initial engagement, with candidates. And take that through a certain element of the process of actually initial engagement. But I think it's more effective in certain roles than others. I think it's more effective at doing that with high volume rather than more niche skills. Because I think, in the market today, even though we're seeing high levels of unemployment in lots of different places,  I think there's still a higher demand for highly skilled talent.


      Max: Yeah. 


      Craig: And often it's a human interaction and human contact. I think that helps to make that engagement more effective in the first instance. But certainly engaging candidates through the recruitment life cycle, technology can have a great impact there because I think being able to access and get responses 24/7 at a time that's convenient for the candidate is really helpful. Through whatever platform that might be. But certainly on higher volume hiring where it's maybe, you know, lower skilled, often, like I said, larger scale, candidate pools, there's definitely a greater element of technology being able to manage candidates through that sourcing cycle.


      But again, I think, where we look at that is not necessarily taking humans out of the process. Is maybe freeing up people's time through technology to have a greater impact, at a further point in the hiring process because quality engagement is still really important. 


      Max: And, the first part of my question about whether the sourcing activities have changed in 2020, you said, that the jobs that are hard to find are still hard to find. So we'll be thinking typically engineers and data scientists and the likes, and then industry specialists. And so that, you know, the nature of your business has not really changed much in that sense from 2020, from the source design. 


      Craig: I think one of the things we've definitely seen in the last quarter is, I think what's happened with COVID and the economic kind of downturn that we saw occured from March, April onwards, is TA functions were heavily reduced. Often down to bare bones or nothing at all. 


      So we found that as the kind of return to work and that bounce in the economy started to happen, those organizations that don't have a capability at all, are looking to kind of give them a sourcing arm that can be very flexible and built around their needs so it can ramp up quickly. It can scale, but it can also scale back. And I think right now that's important for so many businesses, cause they still have uncertainty in the future. 


      Max: And i've read that. You were there maybe, that 2009 - 2010 were good years  for the RPO industry. 


      Craig: They were. Yeah, I think, you know coming out of the economic, the financial crash in 2008, a very similar scenario where, you know, organizations were very uncertain about what was to come. And particularly in places like Europe, where if you're employing people on a permanent basis, it's not easy always to kind of make those adjustments to your business and reduce the workforce if you need to. Because the labor laws don't allow that, but having a partner that can scale up and build around those needs and scale further if needed. But scale back if the hiring ramp slows down.


      Max: So those cuts have been made and they would typically have been made in the areas where automation was most feasible and according to your reasoning. And I agree with it, most that automation would be more on the high volume side of the business, and there would be more opportunities for RPO vendors and perhaps vendors like us to do more in the high volume space, the high volume of space should be a big opportunity in 2021. 


      Craig: My prediction is that all hiring is going to be at an altitude in 2021. I don't think it will be limited to high volume. I think it will be hiring, right across the board. And certainly, you know, one of the areas we're seeing a huge amount of activity right now is around sales hiring, that's from enterprise sales right away through sales consultants across clients.  


      And that's because people are trying to call back their losses that they've seen in the early parts of the year. And I think that will kind of drive through, into next year's plans as well. 


      Max: For me some of these recruiters will be able to reconvert themselves into sales people. 


      Craig: Yeah. Quite possibly. 


      Max: Not that hard of a transition if you're good at it. Right? And, okay. Well we've talked about, you know the kind of customers that come to you and which kind of scenario. Would you have any thoughts to spare on the kind of customers that you do not want to work with? And maybe, we don't have to share names, but customers that have broken your heart or broken your spine, and what went wrong there? 


      Craig: Yeah I think we have some really great customers that we've talked with and I used that word really purposefully. They are great customers that partnered with us. And I think when we've historically maybe had relationships that haven't worked out as well as we would've liked. It's where there's an expectation that we are there as a delivery arm to the business, rather than the operator.


       Max: You're going to blame it on the sales guys! Of course.  Oh, it's their fault. 


      Craig: No, not the sales guys I think it's just about having the right expectations set, you know, for hiring to be successful whether or not it's pure intel or whether or not you're working with a partner like us, there's got to be kind of a skin in the game and there's gotta be, an upside for everybody to want to work together. And that is the way that things kind of land really well. It is when we're operating in that kind of  true partnership, where we have the same goals and outcomes that our clients have.


      Max: Well, I'm trying to read between the lines here. So the nightmare scenario is you're being kind of pegged against an internal team.


      Craig: No, not pegged against an internal team. I think it's where we're being asked to deliver on something where we maybe haven't had the ability to shape or build or give input into, to how something should be delivered.  Or when we have stakeholders that don't have an upside  from our success. And the stakeholders need to benefit from us doing well for it to work. With the vast majority of the clients and the partnerships we have in place. That's absolutely the case because we build all our solutions. 


      Max: I have tried to sell automation, sometimes to the wrong HR professionals. So I think I can relate with that kind of scenario. And also the scenario where people don't adapt their process, where we would say, no we are an engagement tool at the front of the funnel. Do not ask the candidates 10 video interview questions on messaging, like it's going to break. And no!  That's what we want. That's what we're going to get. Okay. You know, we wasted so much resources trying to please people sometimes, it's rare, but it does happen. 


      Craig: Yeah. I think like yourselves, you know, where there to be advisors that's our role is to help resolve people's challenges and their problems with better solutions. And I think there's, again, where we do that and it's successful is where the client actually wants to listen and adapt to our guidance and important advice. 


      Max: And, what's the customer you've been working with for the longest time? Or you don't want to say names? 


      Craig:  Oh, wow. Yeah. We've got clients today that were the first clients that we ever started working with. So, you know they've been relationships for, you know, decades.


      Max: That's nice. Well, I hope they had a decent 2020, and that you're right about what's coming this year, and all of that business coming in. Thank you very much, Craig for participating and sharing your insights on how the RPO industry has shifted or it seems like it has not shifted that much. A little bit less traveling for you, but overall, it's been a good year and things are heating up  at the European market in Q3.


      Craig: Great. Thank you, Max. Have a good rest of your day!


      Max: Thank you, Goodbye Craig!


      That was Craig Sweeney from WilsonHCG, giving us hope for tomorrow and the big rebound of the recruitment at RPO industry. Hope you enjoyed it. Subscribe if you did. And if there's somebody that you'd like me to interview as part of the podcast, you can send me their names too directly to hello@talkpush.com and I'll contact them directly and invite them to tell us their secrets. Thank you for listening and see you soon.

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