I never thought I’d stay in recruiting my entire career. I took a part-time job at a recruiting agency when I was in college and stayed on after graduation. I made good money and relished the daily challenges that kept me on my toes, eventually working my way up to high-level IT recruiting where I took on management roles leading recruiting teams. Over the years, I received offers from friends and colleagues to make the switch to corporate recruiting, but I never seriously considered them—I was happy at agencies.
But in 2020, that all changed. The COVID-19 pandemic upended everything and I was let go from my agency. I started looking for other jobs and eventually landed a position at a small agency in Louisville, Kentucky, overseeing the development of its IT recruiting division. But the pandemic made me reassess what I wanted out of my career. When a friend offered me a position at Humana, I took it as a sign and finally made the transition to corporate recruiting.
Having been on both the agency and corporate sides of the industry, I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. Agency recruiters—as the name implies—work for an agency and typically serve multiple clients simultaneously, while corporate recruiters are in-house at a company and serve the recruiting commitments of their employer. Essentially, the roles are different means of achieving the same goal: procuring talent. But each requires its own distinct set of abilities and specific temperament.
Having experienced the ebbs and flows of both agency and corporate recruiting, I've come to appreciate the unique challenges and rewards that each path offers. Whether you’re just starting out or contemplating a career switch, here are some valuable insights that can help you determine the right recruiting path for you.
Path No. 1: Agency Recruiting
Agency recruiting is fast-paced and exciting, and can be lucrative when you’re consistently landing placements. The average base salary for an agency recruiter at the time of this writing is just over $63,000, which can increase significantly with earned commissions—you can hit or even exceed an average yearly pay of $96,000.
Of course, to find long-lasting success in agency recruiting, you need to be ready for everything the agency environment has to throw at you. If you're going to thrive in an agency role, here are four things you need to be able to do.
Ride the Roller Coaster
When I was an agency recruiting manager, I’d ask new recruiters if they were willing to ride a roller coaster every day—because that’s what agency work is. You have to be on your toes constantly. For instance, you might have a candidate who aces the interview process and appears eager for the job, but who takes another opportunity last minute. Job candidates can drop out unexpectedly at any point in the process—in fact, according to a study from the British staffing agency Sterling, 71% of job candidates either dropped out or actively considered dropping out of their most recent hiring experience.
After a disappointment, you have to be ready to pick yourself up, regroup, and restart the process, pivoting on a moment’s notice regardless of uncertainty, other challenges, or the number of placements you have on tap. Flexibility is key.
Have a Robust Network
As an agency recruiter, you have to network constantly to build your list of both potential hires and peers. LinkedIn is a great resource: Start making connections, reading comments and posts, joining groups, and you’ll find that your network will multiply. You should also attend every in-person function that comes your way to connect with other recruiters who can send job candidates your way, and to whom you can return the favor.
According to global LinkedIn research, 73% of recruiting professionals said that relationship-building is a top soft skill that all recruiters will need in the future—second only to communication skills (78%). The study suggests that recruiters with relationship-building skills will see three times more promotions than recruiters without such skills.
I know how much time and effort growing your network can take—I’ve spent more than 20 years building connections. Today, I have a huge network of people I can tap into even as I work in the corporate space. And with 96% of today’s workers looking for a new job in 2023, I have access to the high-quality talent pools that employers want.
You might assume that being an agency recruiter is a lonely venture and you’ll do most of your work on your own. But that’s not true. At an agency, you’re part of a team with colleagues who all want to land placements just as much as you do. You’ll need to be proactive about communication if you want to retain relationships and work together toward a common goal.
The pace of communication can place a strain on your schedule. Prior to Humana, I worked for an agency that had daily morning check-ins. The meetings took up half my morning, but they were important—they kept me connected with my colleagues and united in our mission to find the best talent we could. Increasingly, the ability to collaborate and communicate is critical to success as an agency recruiter, and it’s common to partner with other recruiters to get the job done.
Agencies—especially large ones—expect you to deliver consistent results. It is becoming increasingly important to be savvy with technology to stay on top as an agency recruiter; out of the organizations that are planning to increase their recruiting spend in 2023, 59% will invest in new recruitment technology processes—a higher percentage than any other budgetary concern, including job advertising, hiring new recruiters, or investing in employer branding. Agencies also have high metrics that they expect their recruiters to meet. In addition to ensuring that you make a certain number of calls or candidate submissions per day, or a specific number of placements per month, there are key metrics to be considered, such as the amount of time it takes to fill a position or maintaining high offer acceptance rates.
As a manager, I shared those numbers and metrics with my team every day, looking carefully at the ratio of submissions to client interviews. The number of candidates actually getting interviewed after submissions are sent to the client is a good indicator of how well an agency recruiter is doing their job.
Path No. 2: Corporate Recruiting
If you love recruiting but want more stability, corporate recruiting might be a better fit for you. Although not always as lucrative as agency recruiting—which has commission opportunities—corporate recruiting can provide a strong base salary, which as of this writing sits at around $65,000. Additionally, corporate roles often come with attractive benefits packages that agency work might not include, such as healthcare, retirement plans, and paid time off.
Corporate recruiting has its challenges, but if you can manage the following tasks you may find that it’s a better fit.
Handle a Demanding Workload
While you won’t deal with as many clients simultaneously in a corporate recruiting role, you’ll still have plenty of requisitions on your plate. I often handle anywhere from 20 to 25 requisitions for various departments across Humana at one time, and each one brings in a number of candidates. For instance, if I post a scrum manager position, I might get 300 applications. Though it’s extremely difficult to go through that many applications, it is my job to sift through them and find the most qualified candidates for the requesting hiring manager. And while you may have only one “client” you’re focusing on, you will, depending on your title and seniority, have a variety of teams to manage and diverse positions to fill on a regular basis. It’s important to practice patience and check in with yourself so that you don’t get overwhelmed by the various demands and heavy workload. You can’t recruit with precision and purpose if you’re burnt out.
With so many teams to serve and a large number of requisitions to handle, one of the most important skills you need is organization. Often, you will have multiple hiring managers asking you about the status of their requisitions, each one leaning on you to help them find the best candidate for their opening. If every requisition you are managing has five or 10 people in the interview process, you have to keep track of that entire process and make sure that nothing falls through the cracks.
Additionally, potential candidates may reach out to see where they stand—or you may need to reach out to them. In that Sterling study of job candidates who considered dropping out, the most commonly cited reason was that “the process was taking too long” (39%), while “the hiring process was too complicated” came in at a close second (37%). It’s important to stay abreast of your candidates’ needs so you can offer support wherever possible.
Good communication with candidates is also important because even if someone is not the right fit for an immediate opening, they may be perfect for another role at a later date. You’ll want to keep good candidates on your radar and interested in future opportunities with your company; I have a “hot book” of candidates based on their skills and I use LinkedIn to stay connected with them. I also encourage strong candidates to follow up with me from time to time for new opportunities.
Create Your Own Systems
On the agency side, everything is CRM-based. Agencies typically have systems in place that not only allow managers to check the progress of recruiters across the organization, but also provide tools for staying on top of activities and placements. In the corporate environment, however, you may have to develop your own system for staying organized. For instance, while we use Workday software at Humana, I use Excel to keep myself organized and on track with all of my requisitions. You have to show that you are a reliable self-starter who can find the solutions you need to get the job done, day in and day out.
As a corporate talent acquisition specialist at Humana, I have to be a strong, valuable partner to the hiring managers with whom I work. They don’t rely on me to just look at an application on paper and send a candidate over to them. They depend on me to take a deep dive into what they really need—what the position requires, the skills the candidate must have—so I can identify the ideal potential employee.
I take the time to fully vet candidates—but I can only do that effectively if I’ve developed a relationship with the hiring manager to get a comprehensive understanding of everything involved in that requisition. In the corporate sphere, you should see yourself as a consultant for your hiring managers and be ready to partner with them; they may come to you for advice about job profiles, salary ranges, and more.
Common Ground: Shared Qualities for Both Agency and Corporate Recruiters
While agency and corporate recruiting have their major differences, I’ve found that they also have two key traits in common:
A desire to learn: Recruiters have to do their research. In the agency realm, you must educate yourself about different industries and emerging technologies so you can “talk the talk” with potential candidates. On the corporate side, you need to know your particular industry, as well as what the market demands or offers for certain jobs in different sectors and at various levels. In both settings, you need a breadth and depth of knowledge to meet the challenge of finding the right employees for either your client or your company. While you can gather information online, nothing replaces direct feedback. In 2008, when I was with the agency in Louisville, all of the recruiters were laid off but me. I had to work in areas that I knew nothing about, so I tapped into my network and started calling people. I asked them to share their insights with me and learned that recruiters are very eager to do so—you just have to ask. The process never stops, and you will always be learning as you go.
The gift of gab: To be successful in any area of recruiting, you have to be personable and willing to talk to people. You can’t hide behind your computer and send emails all day. You have to build relationships with candidates and hiring managers so you can understand what they need. Your ability to ask the right questions and garner the most useful information will make all the difference when you’re striving to make placements.
The Finish Line: Embrace Your Unique Recruitment Journey
Ultimately, the key to recruiting success lies in recognizing your strengths and interests—and, most importantly, your aspirations. Remember to be true to yourself, because whether you choose an agency or corporate path, it will lead to the same goal: procuring top talent who will help shape the future.
As you embark on your recruiting adventure, armed with insights from my personal journey, I encourage you to keep sight of your ambitions. Your unique qualities will set you on the path to excellence, regardless of the road you choose. But just remember, no road is permanent. You can always change routes based on your evolving goals and desires. Like the saying goes: The journey is the destination.