Staff slip through the Net

So far, IT managers seem reluctant to take advantage of online recruitment. Lynne Curry reports
If anyone is adept at tapping their way around the Internet, it should be the heads of IT departments. But when they face the job of finding new staff, they are reluctant to exploit the latest online recruitment methods. Only a fraction of the technical experts in Britain's biggest companies use the Internet to recruit their staff, which is less than half the number who rely on the oldest technology available - recommendations by mouth from people in their departments.

Direct advertising remains the most effective way of finding people, despite the expectation that the paperless revolution would virtually put it to death. Advertising through recruitment consultants comes second, searching agency databases third, and personal recommendation fourth.

Only one of the 276 companies that responded to a survey by Graham Bannock & Partners, commissioned by the Delphi Group, said it had found the Internet useful, and IT heads who found the Internet successful were outnumbered two to one by those who disagreed. Although some IT bosses search databases supplied by agencies themselves - a half-way house between eschewing agencies and using their full services - just a quarter have found it successful.

The difficulties of making recruitment efficient on the Internet are illustrated by the closure of People Bank, backed by Associated Newspapers and trumpeted by a marketing budget said to have swallowed some pounds 4m on its own. Associated withdrew in the spring, and it is now defunct.

"There were big problems anyway, but had they set it up right at the beginning, it would have been better," said one industry insider. "You need a good database - we all know that's crucial - and sound search parameters to make sure than when you do a search, you pick up what is expected."

Casting around online for job vacancies remains a slow process for most people with home computers. Even the fastest modem delivers a series of irritating interludes while the search engine goes off into the ether to locate key words. Although the Internet enables the latest live vacancies to be posted by agencies, it has been less successful in appealing to IT directors who need staff.

In 1995, Reed Computing invested heavily in Reed Direct Access, giving contractors the ability to register their CVs in one place, and employers to find staff. Reed's then group IT director, John Mills, said clients (the companies) were clamouring to try out the service and coming forward with offers to pilot it. Direct Access's major advantage was that it cut costs: for permanent staff, it halved the industry norm of 20 per cent of the first year's salary, and for contract staff, it was also lower than the industry norm, then about 17 per cent. But Reed now says Direct Access was "ahead of its time".

David Dawson-Pick, current director of Reed Computing Personnel, says employers still prefer to pick up the phone to a consultant rather than do the search themselves. Although Direct Access is still operating, it is not being heavily promoted and is to be relaunched, with some changes, in the future. "Technology and people's expectations of the services they want are developing at an enormous pace," he says.

Although employers will not search for candidates, the candidates are more willing to look for jobs on the Internet - Reed's Internet site is updated every day, and carries about 1,000 vacancies. "We don't see the Internet taking over from our terrestrial offices or advertising, but it certainly offers advantages of speed and accuracy," Dawson-Pick says. Computer Team also posts its vacancies, but does not expect clients to do their own pre-screening and selection.

Delphi, which commissioned the survey, and which owns two of the largest IT recruitment agencies - Computer People and Span - as well as Interskill, also found that employers expected the skills shortage to worsen, and were braced for increased costs. Recruiting through third parties, which is not cheap, will contribute heavily to those costs.

Doug Woodward, director of UK and European operations for Computer People, Span and Interskill, says the Internet is another medium, not the medium that will destroy all others. "Looking thoroughly at the Internet takes a long time, and it's easier for recruitment agencies to do the screening. The thing against it is the lack of any personal touch. People like to buy from people. They want to know what someone is like; it's much more powerful. When it comes down to it, you can have all the electronic communication in the world, but the human touch is essential, and I don't think the Internet will ever replace traditional recruitment methods"n