Recruitment agencies—friend or foe?
Posted: 05 April 2010 08:51 PM   [ Ignore ]
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In recent years it has become quite a common practice to hire technical writers through a recruitment agency. Although Dynapro Systems, Rockwell Software, and Rockwell Automation had been my clients since 1996, on the most recent contract I did for them they hired my technical writing services through an agency. This was after a 12-year long, extremely positive working relationship! I was an incorporated technical writing consultant with multiple clients. I had turned down several offers for permanent employment with the company as a technical writer over the years. What earthly reason could they have for wanting to pay a higher rate to go through an agency?

Obviously, this was a new corporate policy, which affected my technical writing contracts with my long-time client from 2008 onwards. So to unravel this mystery, let’s take a look at what was happening in the news back then in the high tech world. Well, actually, we’ll have to go back about 10 years, to 1998:

Microsoft Loses Major Lawsuit Brought by Technical Writers

This story was brought to my attention when I raised this issue at one of our contractor meetings a while back. Some technical writers who were contractors successfully sued Microsoft to be deemed employees. Their goal was to gain access to Microsoft’s extremely generous employee benefit package. Although they won the lawsuit, their actions have had a major negative impact on the rest of us technical writers. There is now something called The Microsoft Rule which requires technical writers to work on contracts for a maximum of one year and then take a six month break, to avoid the possibility of being deemed an employee. Rockwell instituted this policy as well.

In the old days, the main thing Canadian companies worried about was the Canada Revenue Agency test for distinguishing an employee from a contractor. Companies didn’t want to get stuck paying EI and CPP for temporary workers. And contractors like me, who enjoy this way of life, were just as eager to ensure we met the conditions for being considered independent. Incorporation for the contractor was an additional step that established one as an independent technical writer.

Coming back to the present, in my experience through monitoring the jobs on monster.ca and workopolis.com, the majority of new technical writing contracts are advertised by recruiting agencies. I receive several calls a week from recruiters from throughout North America, looking for technical writers to fill positions here in BC and Alberta! What madness! It is becoming more and more difficult to be hired directly. I believe the main reason is that companies are afraid of having the same problem that Microsoft had, so they seek the protection of having a layer of bureaucracy between themselves and their hired hands.

As always, it is the worker who pays the price. For the company isn’t willing to pay a higher fee for long. (Rockwell asked me to drop my rate by $25/hour if I wanted to continue to do work for them—after taking a six month break, of course. I refused.) Recruiting agencies charge an hourly fee on every hour worked by the writer. This fee does not come out of the company’s pocket. It comes from the writer. So the rates being offered to writers are dropping as a consequence. By about the same amount as the agencies charge. Coincidence? I think not!

It’s a sad state of affairs, my friends! If any parallel between the recruitment agency and the procurer in the world’s oldest profession comes to mind, I wouldn’t blame you. I have had the same thought myself!

What value do these agencies add? Most of them don’t understand what a technical writer does and are not in a position to evaluate our resumes, skills, or experience. They offer the same type of service that the company’s in-house human resources department already performs—finding candidates, performing an initial interview (often a superficial 5-minute phone call, in my recent experience), and checking on references if the candidate is offered a position. For this, the recruitment agency takes their chunk, hour after hour, for the life of the contract. And they have a clause that prevents the technical writer from working directly for the company for a minimum period of time after the contract ends. The agency I am currently working through wanted this period to be a year, but I managed to negotiate the term down to nine months.

I would love to hear your responses to this posting. Do you agree that recruitment agencies are taking unfair advantage of technical writers in the new Microsoft Rule world? Do you see value in going through an agency? Have you had positive experiences you could share with your peers? Do you see any way to improve this situation?

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Karen Rempel
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Posted: 06 April 2010 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’ve had good and bad experiences with recruiters but found that the jobs were either (a) not a good fit or (b) paid really poorly. There was a definite lack of understanding of who I was, what my core skill set was, and what I was worth. In the best case, a recruiter offered to provide informational interviews with companies I was curious about. In the worst case, a recruiter cancelled a phone “interview” with 30 minutes notice, and when I did speak to her she asked inane questions that were clearly read off a flowchart. I never heard from her again.

(Actually, now that I think about it, I had another encounter with a separate recruiter at that same company. She hounded me for two weeks asking me to call her back, except that every time I did, I got her voicemail telling me that she was on vacation. And every time I tried calling after she got back from vacation, she didn’t return my calls. I couldn’t figure out if she was a moron or if she just couldn’t connect my phone messages with my name on a piece of a paper. I never did speak with her in person.)

That said, one of my contracts now is through an “agency” but they’re not really recruiters. They’re more of a staffing company that provides services and sub-contracts a lot of their work. While they do take a share of my pay, the part that I get is pretty generous. And they’ve been great advocates for me, have provided lots of support (especially when it comes to internal politics) and are constantly checking to make sure that I’m comfortable. And the client that they’ve connected me with is someone whom I probably wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

So, friend or foe? I guess it depends.

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Posted: 20 April 2010 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Hi Eagranie,

[This paragraph has replaced the original paraghraph I wrote:
I agree with you that sometimes recruiters can be helpful, and advantageous to people who are starting out in the field. I have come to the conclusion that they are not as useful for someone who is well-established with a good reputation. It is unlikely that any writing job will pay what I am accustomed to earning plus a cut on the top for the agent. How much this cut can be varies. Some sources say $5-10/hour is common. Other companies charge as much as 30% on top of what the writer is making.]

The week before Easter I had a call from a recruiter with TechnoDyne in Ontario who said I had exactly the skills his client was looking for. He was filling a position in Alberta for the Energy Resource Conservation Board. He asked me to send my “latest resume” and fill in a grid that describes # of years of experience with various skills. This was all very urgent, evidently, so I went home after a hard week and spent several hours the Thursday night before the holiday providing the info he requested. The next day he replied that since I had 0 years experience writing regulatory legislation, it was a no go. I was so mad at both him for wasting my time and myself for bothering to spend any time with an out-of-province recruiter!

And like you, I have had an experience with a local recruiter (who I was forced to go through for a client I already had worked for for over 10 years) where my phone calls were never returned and he said he was out of the city, but the receptionist had said he was in the office that day. Who knows the truth of the matter, but I do know that on at least 10 occasions he did not return my phone calls, but if he needed something from me like a form signed he wanted it right away! That, plus the fact that that particular long-time client then asked me to lower my rate by $25/hour, really irked me.

So I agree with your conclusion, it depends!

Warm regards,
Karen

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Posted: 27 April 2010 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I don’t think this issue has anything to do with technical writers. I’m also a tester and see the same thing for developers as well. I think it has to do mostly with the Canada Revenue Agency, the employee or self-employed question, and companies wanting to limit their liability. I’ve worked at the City of Burnaby and this is the reason they gave for stopping dealing directly with incorporated contractor. I think the solution is maybe for a bunch of tech writers to get together and form their own recruitment agency and take a smaller slice of hourly rate, or charge a flat rate. This will undercut the other recruiters.

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Posted: 08 May 2010 04:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Hey PJ,

That’s interesting, to hear that testers face the same issues. Great idea about tech writers banding together to form their own recruitment agency! Some weeks I get a few phone calls, first wanting to know if I’m available, and then wanting to know if I can recommend someone. I bet if a bunch of us pooled together we could corner the market, as most agencies really aren’t that familiar with what tech writers do, so we’d offer a genuine advantage to companies who need writers. Hmm…

Warm regards,
Karen

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Posted: 12 August 2011 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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If you were interested in this forum thread, you’ll love the October program meeting! Our programs team is bringing in three different types of recruiters to participate in a panel discussion about what recruiters do and how they aim to help technical writers. I have been invited to join the panel to provide a different perspective. It should be an interesting discussion! Watch the home page for details!

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Karen Rempel
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