Take It from the Top: Geraldine King on Fixing the Recruitment Industry’s Reputation

Geraldine King

CEO, National Recruitment Federation

Geraldine joined the Federation in 2009 and is responsible for the running of the NRF office and all divisions of the Federation, including all PR & Marketing and internal communications. Since her arrival to the NRF she has been focused on expanding the services of the NRF to member and has introduced the accredited Certificate in recruitment practice to the Irish recruitment industry the only certificate for recruiters in Ireland.

Welcome to Take It from the Top, a podcast brought to you by the Recruitment Innovation Exchange (also known as RIX). On Take It from the Top, we interview leaders within the recruitment industry to discuss various pressing topics within the sector.

This week, Geraldine King, CEO of the National Recruitment Federation, joins Vinda Souza, Vice President of Global Communications at Bullhorn, to discuss how the recruitment industry earned its negative reputation and why fixing it must start from within.

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Welcome to Take It from the Top, a podcast brought to you by the Recruitment Innovation Exchange (also known as RIX). On Take It from the Top, we interview leaders within the recruitment industry to discuss various pressing topics within the sector.

RIX: This is Take It from the Top, brought to you by the Recruitment Innovation Exchange. I’m your host, Vinda Souza, the Vice President of Global Communications at Bullhorn. Today, we’re incredibly excited to be joined by Geraldine King, CEO of the National Recruitment Federation. Geraldine will also be speaking at Engage London coming up in September, so twice the excitement there. Geraldine, thanks so much for joining us today.

Geraldine King: Thank you for the invitation, Vinda. I’m delighted to join you today.

RIX: Excellent. So I would love to get your origin story as it were. How did you start in the recruitment industry and choose this as a career?

Geraldine King: Well, Vinda, I think like 99 percent of the people in the recruitment industry, I didn’t actually choose this as a career, I fell into it. Initially, the start of my career was in electronics–I was a trainer and technical manager. The electronics industry was very lucrative in Ireland at the time, but when it hit the early 2000s, the electronics industry went a little bit downhill and a lot of the large multinationals pulled out of Ireland.

To cut a long story short, I was looking for another job and I went to one of our local recruitment agencies, Grafton Recruitment, who are really big in Europe and in Ireland. They were looking for a manager in one of their regional branches down the northeast coast and went down to have a chat with their current manager at the time and the rest is history. I stayed with Grafton Recruitment as a regional manager for nine years.

Then, by chance, a part-time role at the National Recruitment Federation as a director of education came up, which I was delighted to take. It didn’t end up being a part-time job or director of education. It ended up being a full-time job within two weeks. I did one and a half weeks of part-time and then I was the CEO, and it’s now been 10 years this year since I’ve been there.

RIX: Oh my gosh. Isn’t that fortuitous though, right? Isn’t that what people wish to go from part-time to full time that quickly.

Geraldine King: Absolutely. And how lucky was I to be in the right place at the right time? This is my dream job. I’m so passionate about recruitment. I think what we do as an industry, as a profession, is just such a good job. We don’t get enough credit for it. We change people’s lives. That’s what we do. And I think it’s one of the best career paths anybody could take.


RIX: It’s interesting you bring that out and you use the term “being in the right place at the right time,” which, from our experience, is really the process by which many people get into recruitment. 

You’ve spoken about the challenge that we have in encouraging people to join the industry, especially in an era of maximum employment where people have a lot of different options. Why do you find that to be challenging? What’s the forcing factor there?

Geraldine King: Well I think there’s still a huge lack of visibility of what we do as a profession because we are not recognized globally. I’m doing some research at the moment around this. There’s not typically a structured academic career path for the recruitment profession and I think that’s a huge challenge. So typically like other professions, the accountancy, the legal professions, there are the perspectives of all of the colleges as the students are leaving in school, they’re also there as part-time courses for people that want to transfer from one profession into another.

And typically the recruitment industry doesn’t have that academic structured career recognition for people to see that we exist. I think there are a lot of people out there that would love to work in this profession, and a lot that fell into it by chance, like me. But if we had more visibility and more structured recognition throughout the academic systems of all of the countries, I think it would help in the attraction of people to the industry. I think we’re going to be massively challenged over the next few years of trying to look at our own talent shortages in our own industry.


RIX: You speak to the importance of increasing awareness of the good work that the industry does. That being said, how do we actually accomplish that? Because as you know, this industry struggles tremendously with recruitment marketing.

Geraldine King: For the future supply of talent, as a federation, we’re part of the World Employment Confederation (WEC), and that’s championed every day by Denis Pennel and Annemarie Muntz who do all of this work around the world promoting what we do. We help people get jobs. That, in itself, the satisfaction of that, if people knew you go home every day after positively impacting the lives of so many people for your career, how awesome is that? But there isn’t the awareness of it, and the only way that we are going to do that is we have to do it ourselves as an industry. We’ve got to educate. We’ve got to make sure that we fight for academic career paths, for structured career paths, for apprenticeships for our own profession.

And if we don’t do it and talk it up and be constantly out there promoting it, we are going to be seriously challenged with talent shortages into the future. Continuous professional development is critical as well. We are doing something really exciting around the first undergraduate for recruiters and that will be in place next year, 2020. But I think if you look at what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to attract people in, but we can’t if we, first of all, don’t have continuous professional development in structured academic form. And secondly, if they don’t know we exist. So, I think we have two massive challenges there.

RIX: Is this sort of like a demographic question? Because it seems like the biggest bang for your buck is going to be in attracting young talent and people just graduating out of school as opposed to trying to reinforce the message with an older demographic.

Geraldine King: I think it’s a bit of both, Vinda, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the shift in the market at the moment, a lot of jobs we are doing today that we are recruiting for probably won’t exist in 10 years time, but they’ll be replaced by even more new jobs that we don’t may not even know yet. For people transferring out of industries or professions that are not typically there anymore, they’re a really good cohort of people that would be ideal for reskilling into another profession like ours. And then as well, I always say recruit for what you know.

We want to attract the school leavers and graduates in, but we also want to attract, which is probably the makeup of what we do have as a profession at the moment, the experts from other fields recruiting for the experts in that field.

If you’re a nurse you’re better at recruiting nurses than somebody who typically didn’t have the insight into what the nurse’s career was like. If you’re an IT specialist, you can talk the lingo and the IT jargon that if you weren’t an IT specialist, you couldn’t do that because you wouldn’t know it. We’re trying to attract talent, whether it’s from another industry or school leavers, or college leavers. I think we need to have the visibility and the accommodation to service all.

RIX: That’s fascinating. It actually segues pretty nicely into a conversation around our Engage London conference coming up and one of the most controversial, but popular sessions of last year that we’re repeating in a different way this year.

Last year, we had a debate between John Nurthen and Ann Swain about whether or not the staffing industry has a terrible reputation, and Ann was, “Yes, it does,” and John was, “No, it may in fact, but that reputation is unjustified,” and ironically enough, Ann won that debate, even though it was quite close. And this year we’re taking it a step further and just going right out and saying the industry does not have a good reputation internally and externally. So why do you think that is and what can be done to fix it?

Geraldine King: I think it’s a little bit harsh. I think like any industry you’re always going to get problems and challenges. I think there’s so much good and so much value. But I think recruitment as a brand is not quite there yet and that’s what we need to be talking about—the brand values of the recruitment profession. And I think it does, in some cases, have a bad reputation. That’s justified sometimes. I’ve heard some stories. I think it’s less now though. We are more professional as a profession and an industry than we were 10 years ago. And I think we really as a profession have upped our game. We’ve had to–the clients demand more. We’re in a candidate shortage market, so we’ve got to be really slick about how we do our business. And then from the client’s perspective as well, the client is expecting more.


They want top talent. We’ve got to be on our toes. We’ve got to be a partner now with our client. We’re not recruitment agencies anymore. We are employment solutions providers and if we can talk ourselves up like that, I think we’ve got to talk our brand up ourselves. That will help us in our reputation going forward. But I do think it’s hard. I do think some of it is justified, but as an optimist and for somebody who sees so much good of what our industry does, like take for instance the WEC’s economic report for last year said our industry is worth $491 billion and placed 56 million job seekers into roles. How can that be bad news?


RIX: Yeah, exactly.

Geraldine King: That’s good news. So I think there’s always going to be an argument. You’re always going to get some challenges. Yes, the reputation may get slightly tarred along the way, but I think we’ve got to be very smart and very slick and make sure that we rectify something as soon as it goes wrong. Put our hands up, take the slap on the wrist and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s my view.

RIX: Do you think that there’s more work to be done on the internal side or the external side?

Geraldine King: Both. Internally, we need to change our terminology. That’s very important. I think I’ve said it before we don’t talk about the legal industry. We don’t talk about the accountancy industry. We talk about the legal profession, the accountancy profession. Why are we the recruitment industry? We are an industry, but why are we not talking about ourselves as a profession? And the terminology is hugely important in how we portray ourselves as professionals. That’s on the internal side. That will filter throughout externally and then the external side has to be all around education, educating policymakers, educating governments, educating clients, and educating probably some of our own industry, on how good we are.

RIX: That’s an interesting point. Do you think that this bifurcation and nomenclature between industry versus profession is rooted in the fact that there historically has not been a specific graduate degree path for recruitment?

Geraldine King: Yes. I think any profession that’s worth its salt appears somewhere for you to be able to apply to do a structured academic career program. And I won’t even say course because it’s got to be a program of certificates, diplomas, degrees for it to be viewed as being a career path or an academic structured career path. And as an industry, we lack that. So at the moment, I’m doing some research around hire apprenticeships and there is not one undergraduate degree in the world that is specifically for recruiters. There are HR degrees, there are sales degrees with recruitment attached to it, but there is not one undergraduate degree or master’s that is specifically for recruitment, and that has to change. Otherwise, it’ll never get the recognition that it deserves. If it’s on the national framework of education, then it becomes a visible and viable profession.


RIX: Personally, I agree with you completely and I think that the idea of having formal educational requirements for agency recruiters means that we just get much higher quality recruiters and deliver more value as a profession to our clients and candidates alike. That being said, I have to take the pessimistic view here and ask you a question around if you’re making the educational requirements so much more sophisticated for this profession, does that inadvertently dissuade the volume of applicants from pursuing it? Because recruitment has historically been viewed as an industry that has a very low barrier to entry, and so, therefore, plenty of people who are good with interpersonal communication can jump right in. All they need is a laptop.

Geraldine King: I do think that’s where the world is changing in relation to how we view career paths. If you look at the gig economy, if you look at college career paths, they’re not typically the be-all and end-all. I think for the lower entry-level that you’re talking about, that’s where the apprenticeship reach comes in. If you’ve got an apprenticeship in place for recruitment, that can be your entry-level. They’re learning on the job as they would normally do if they came in just to be a recruiter without a structured academic career path.

My point is that the option should be there for the academic career path to professionalize the industry for people that want to have the academic side of a profession as well as a really good job. It’s a really good, rewarding and satisfying job. I just think the attraction would be a wider pool of people if it had the career path because then you’re servicing all sectors.

RIX: It’s interesting that you bring that out, because frankly, this is the most convoluted and complex and challenging to navigate recruitment industry landscape that we’ve ever had, coupled with a tight labor market and low unemployment and changing geopolitical mores that I would venture to guess most of us can’t keep up with. It’s a strange combination of legislation and then the advent of technology like artificial intelligence and the increased reliance on automation and new labor models, like as you mentioned before the gig economy. It keeps us on our toes. It makes us continually have to change as an industry and of all of our strategies. Is there anything happening right now in recruitment that actually concerns you? Any major tectonic shifts?

Geraldine King: I don’t think that concerns me. I’m interestingly waiting to see. Technology is helping us, if you look at the access we have now globally to talent that typically we wouldn’t have had 20 years ago. If one of the members of the NRF needs somebody here in Ireland, they could possibly find that person within two minutes in the United States. Technology is really helping our profession to serve our clients smarter and quicker. The part, I suppose, that intrigues me is as a people’s business we will always be about people, the interaction, the face-to-face, the handshake. That’s what we do.

Will technology eventually take that particular task out? I don’t think so, to be honest. And I would hate to think that it would. I think technology concerns me in some ways for the industry, but I think the plus side of it will outshine the negative side. I see automation, it will take some of the administrative tasks away because we’ll be able to do things quicker or by voice. Look at us doing this interview today on opposite sides of the world. That’s fantastic. Interviews can be done like that and typically before they would take longer. I don’t think I would be hugely concerned about technology. Not yet anyway. Now, I could be naive, but at the moment, no. I think there’s a lot of plus in technology.

RIX: I’m an eternal pessimist so now I’ll try to change types and become optimistic. What’s most exciting to you? Is there any technology or new way of working that makes you particularly excited?

Geraldine King: Yeah, I think it all goes down to the technology for interviews. That has changed so much. You know you don’t even make a phone call anymore. You can see the person now. That part of technology really, really excites me is the fact that we can see people on opposite sides of the world. It does quicken up how we recruit and it’s all about smart and timely actions now. Like if you look at the shortage of talent that we have globally in every sector, it’s about you being the person to find the person the quickest. And if you can see that person and talk to them and interview them because technology allows you to do that, it’s fantastic.

RIX: Well, that’s a positive and cheerful note on which to end this conversation.

Geraldine King: If you look at Bullhorn, as well. The CRM systems, the stuff they can do now. Technology on CRM systems alone has really enhanced a recruiter’s life, and LinkedIn, all of that technology, to me, has contributed so much to what we do as professionals.

RIX: That’s an interesting point, Geraldine. I think one thing to keep in mind is that not all technological advancements have succeeded. As many have failed as have succeeded. But I think what’s interesting is that we’ve generally, as a technology sector, learned from the failures and it’s helped us to iterate and understand how to deliver maximum value and to create better start to finish platforms and create better systems for recruitment businesses to run off of. And it seems like there could be some inspiration taken from the tech industry for the recruitment industry as well in terms of embracing potentially not always getting it right and realizing that for every two steps you take forward, perhaps you’re taking one step back and that that’s okay.

Geraldine King: Yeah, I agree. I think technology enhances what we do, and if we use it as another tool in the toolkit without losing sight of that we are a people business, it does definitely go a long way in maximizing value. We live in a technological world so we have no choice but to embrace technology and automation. And I think as you say, if we approach it with caution, be mindful and responsible of how we use it, and use it for the right reasons in the right way, I think it can only add to what we currently do as brilliant recruiters.


RIX: Well, Geraldine, I just have one final question for you, which is completely self-serving, so apologies in advance. What are you most excited about for this year’s Engage London considering that you joined this last year?

Geraldine King: The Engage conference, for me to go to the UK, we have a really good relationship with Bullhorn, and you’re one of our key sponsors in Ireland here. So it’s great to always catch up with the Bullhorn team at Engage. I think the panel discussions are always really thought-provoking. They’re very well thought out and are always very relevant. And then the keynote speakers as well, I’m always interested in to see who delivers the keynotes so that we can then go and approach them and bring them here to Ireland.

It’s one of the really well-recognized conferences for recruiters. So, it’s always exciting for me to go to that, and like this year to participate in it as one of the panelists, I’m really excited about it, because I know my fellow panelists are Ann Swain and James Osborne, whom I know very well too. It should be a really good conversation and I’m really interested in getting their views as well.

RIX: Fantastic. Well, I’m sure it’ll end with a round of drinks, so I can’t wait. Geraldine King, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on Take It from the Top, and we’re looking forward to seeing you in a couple of months.

Geraldine King: Thank you very much, Vinda. I look forward to seeing you too.

Interested in hearing more insights from Geraldine? Join us this September in London for Bullhorn’s annual staffing and recruiting conference where Geraldine will be speaking on our “Fixing the Recruitment Industry’s Reputation” panel.