Recruitment skills can be taken to a higher level thanks to a new MBA. By Peter Brown

When Roland Sheehan started in recruitment he was given a telephone and a phone book and told to get on with it. The rest was down to determination and luck.

These days, raw recruiters are more likely to be given access to LinkedIn, the business networking site. They might then find themselves dealing with clients from anywhere in the world. Honed by years of ruthless competition at home, Britain’s recruitment sector is now an international success story. But the sector is maturing – and, as proof, it is about to get its first tailored MBA.

Sheehan, a director with MSI, a healthcare recruitment group, is part of a steering group planning an executive programme for international recruitment management, which will start this September at Henley Business School. It is a joint project between the school and the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo).

“Just because we place people in the outside world into companies doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good at recruiting and retaining our own staff,” says Sheehan, who himself has a Henley MBA. When he first became a director (for another firm) he was suddenly earning a six-figure salary.

“I thought I could walk on water,” Sheehan says. “But the MBA showed me how little I actually knew. It taught me how to structure a business, form a marketing strategy, assess competitors and attract the right people.”

APSCo’s members tend to operate at the top end of recruitment. They include interim management specialists and “executive search” professionals, discreet, pinstriped headhunters who know their markets inside out. For these affiliated firms there will be a reduction in fees – the list price is £28,000 for the three-year course – and, for potential students, a best-of-year scholarship from Barclays Corporate.

Ann Swain, the association’s chief executive, is the driving force behind the new course. The motive, she says, is to professionalise the sector. “Our members tend to be in engineering, IT or finance, and in those kind of markets the individuals who become recruitment consultants are usually graduates, so an academic qualification means something to them,” she says. “Also, it’s difficult to get really high-calibre people and promote them right through the business. You can give them corporate training courses but the MBA is a globally recognised qualification.”

Indeed, it was the international brand of the MBA that decided APSCo and Henley against the obvious alternative, a tailored Masters. The three-year distance-learning course will involve 10 to 15 hours work a week, plus three-day workshops at Henley. The essential ingredients of any MBA will be taught but the students will spend a quarter of their time on practical recruitment specific electives, where they will learn, for example, about the latest digital developments, or global recruitment. There will also be a study week in Singapore, Brazil, South Africa or Germany.

Recruitment is well known as a bellwether for the economy, the first to suffer from a downturn and the first to recover. “During this recession a lot of people went out of the market and haven’t come back, so there’s a shortage of mid-range talent,” Swain says.

Retention, then, is a primary aim of the new MBA, but not the only one. When a company looks at a medium-size recruitment business with a view to acquisition, the presence of a well-qualified senior management team becomes important.

“People want to know what they’re buying,” Swain says. “An MBA demonstrates investment, quality of staff and practical experience. And for an individual it’s a way of shoring up a career. It shows commitment and enables you to go from a management to an executive role.”

At Henley, British recruiters will be rubbing shoulders with students from all over the world. Natasha Clarke, who is also on the steering committee and is a director of strategic planning at SThree, a FTSE 250 company, hopes that women will apply for the course. “Generally recruitment is a male dominated environment,” she says. “I’ve handled that by being clear about my objectives and sticking to them. But women don’t necessarily recognise their own talents that easily. This course will support women and give them confidence.”

Another advocate of the MBA is Miles Hunt, chief executive of the Empresaria group, which he founded as a direct result of contacts made during his full-time course at Warwick Business School 20 years ago. Recruitment, he says, is a young industry but much bigger than it was 20 years ago, and the skills required are broader. “The professional battles now are being fought in India and China not London or Luton.”

The intention at Henley is to develop the students. But at the end it will be down to sponsoring companies to employ the skills they’ve paid for, Hunt says. “If they don’t, they’ll lose their people.”