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Professional recruitment in 2020: robust, agile and evolving

Ann Swain, CEO, APSCo


While it has long been universally accepted that external benchmarking is a useful way to monitor business performance, in today’s climate of ongoing uncertainty and rapid change, keeping abreast of wider sector trends is business critical. Here at APSCo, our annual UK Recruitment Index is our most comprehensive deep-dive into the professional recruitment market. 


This year’s edition, which is produced in conjunction with Saffery Champness with assistance from The Employment Agents Movement (TEAM), tracks financial and operational key performance indicators across the sector, enabling recruitment companies to measure themselves against industry averages, while also providing invaluable intelligence to inform future strategy.


In 2019, the results indicate a profession which is robust, agile and evolving. Margins remain resilient, averaging 17.5% across all respondents - although some sectors were performing significantly better. For contingent permanent placements, utilities & energy generated the highest average fee as a percentage of salary at 27%. This was followed by 23% for both media & marketing and accounting & finance.


Despite the overriding air of positivity evident throughout the report, possible hurdles to success and profitability were also recognised. Over half of those surveyed (55%) said they were either partially or highly reliant on EU contractors, suggesting that Brexit could be a threat to many businesses over the coming months and years. However, while Brexit and associated economic uncertainty was cited as a barrier to growth by 60% of those surveyed, the top hurdle to business advancement was the need to upskill employees, which was identified by 80% of respondents.


In addition to widespread recognition that we need to develop our own talent, staff retention also remains a key challenge. Those surveyed saw average attrition rates of 20% and above within their own businesses, with firms with an NFI over £10m seeing rates as high as 33%. This may explain why increasing headcount remains the number one priority for firms, with 87% seeing this as their best way of achieving growth. The irony that our profession seems to be battling its own staffing crisis will not be lost on our members.


The lack of gender diversity across the profession, particularly at senior level, also remains a significant obstacle. Among respondents, the highest number of women was at the recruiter level (41%). However, this percentage reduced significantly at leadership level (35%) and board level (25%). I have no doubt that this gender disparity is linked to wider talent challenges across the sector. However, just 31% of companies have initiatives in place to retain women. It seems that talented females are either being lost to other professions, or simply not offered the opportunity to climb the career ladder and fulfil their full potential – either way, these figures are completely unacceptable and must be addressed urgently.


The professional recruitment sector is currently facing unprecedented challenges. However, today’s rapidly shifting landscape is also presenting ambitious firms with exciting opportunities. As we step into the next decade, I have no doubt that the sector in the UK will continue to contend with ongoing uncertainty. With our future relationship with the EU still uncertain, the prospect of a new government on the horizon and incoming legislation set to impact the use of contingent talent, challenges are certainly afoot. However, if I have learned anything during 20 years at the helm of APSCo, it is that we are a profession which is adept at evolving to thrive.  


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