Employers can now tap into a pool of talent on their PCs, says Lynne Curry
Computer contract agencies - specialist employment agencies analysts/programmers - farm out some of the sharpest programming brains in the country, yet their own business has been conducted largely through handwritten CVs and teams of staff manually updating details by telephone. Now new technology is creeping in. Freelance analyst/programmers can send their CVs electronically to a growing number of agencies and can look at job vacancies on bulletin boards.

In the latest bid for supremacy in a highly competitive business, the computing division of Reed, the employment agency, has launched a service called Direct Access that will allow IT directors to inspect the CVs of potential staff simply by clicking an icon on their PCs.

Contractors enter their details and employers are given free software to get into the system via a modem. They can shorten the trawl by keying in up to 40 separate parameters. A fee is paid when a contract is finalised - at rates significantly lower than those of traditional agencies, which do all the "fixing" themselves.

Reed says it has not opted out of managing the contract - the skill that agencies say justifies their fees - but has been able to cut the rate by leaving the preliminary search to employers, using recruiters at a later stage. "We are still using personal skills, with specialist IT recruitment consultants who will personally contact each candidate on the shortlist," says Reed's Katy Nicholson. "They will be available all the way through to manage that relationship."

Freelancers, whose details can go on to the system without their name, can block access to their CVs to any employers they choose, thus averting the the embarrassment of their current employer finding them looking elsewhere.

The programmers themselves are becoming battle weary of enticements and promises made to offer a better service and come up with the best contracts. Mike Cullen, chairman of the Independent Computer Contractors Association, sees more homely, "preferred-supplier deals" as the best way forward. Fees to companies are cut by employment agencies in return for selection as one of a handful of chosen staff suppliers. This way, Mr Cullen says, relationships are built up. "This is the fourth similar service that permits you to modem your CV," he added. "It makes you wonder which agency be next."

Tony Coombes, a director of Software Personnel, one of Reed's rivals and among the biggest contract agencies in the industry, says: "We try to reduce the overheads of users and supply the ideal candidate at the right time at the right location. If IT managers don't concentrate on their business, that's against what the majority of companies think they should be doing. The margins on which we operate - the average is below 17 per cent - are particularly competitive, so savings would be offset by additional management time spent on selection."

Although dozens of agencies can now receive CVs electronically, some think the importance of a working relationship is being overshadowed by the technological race. Marc Preston-Allen, of Bristol-basedSanderson Contract Recruitment, says: "If you put garbage in, you'll get garbage out. Most agencies have been using computers for databases for years. Nine times out of 10, a high proportion who come out in the search aren't suitable. That's just the first part of trying to find the right person."

Reed has 10,000 CVs on the Direct Access system, and says that not one potential end-user was not interested in trying it. Katy Nicholson is confident that the agency has hit the right balance between the use of technology and personal skills: "This is the inevitable way that recruitment will be done."