Agency Trouble

I’ve received an interesting email from Orion Group, one of the largest manpower supply agencies in the oil and gas business.

Dear Engineer

Important information regarding ‘QED International (Oil and Gas) Nigeria Ltd’

“Before you accept any potential assignments with them, I thought you should know that Orion Group have issued invoices to QED International (Oil and Gas) Nigeria Ltd totalling a sum over $700,000 dating back to February 2009 which remain unpaid.”

Alan Savage, Chairman, Orion Group

This doesn’t surprise me in the least.  I spent a lot of time over the past few years watching these agencies, and even had a spell working for one of the largest (not Orion) last year.  In my opinion, they are often represented by the industry equivalent of the second-hand car salesman.  Typically, you will sign up to their website and post your CV.  You will apply for one or two of the positions advertised and never hear anything about this again.  However, a month or two later you will get an email or phone call from them about some job in Saudi Arabia, details of which are non-existent.  They can’t even tell you who the client is, what the rotation is, or give even a basic job description.  But they will ask you for your expected salary and your current salary.   If you give them the details and “apply” for the position, it’s almost certain you will never hear anything again.

That’s probably because the position doesn’t exist.  These companies do a lot of market research masquerading as recruitment, harvesting CVs against which they can put a rate to help their clients – the oil and gas companies and service providers – gain knowledge of the labour market.  The request that you submit an expected rate accompanies almost every email, and is asked at every preliminary interview without fail.  If you respond with “Well, what are they offering?” you will never, ever get a straight answer.   You’ll get some guff about how they don’t have all the details yet, but they need to know what rate you want just in case your expectations are “miles out”.  Even used car salesmen don’t ask people to say how much they’re willing to spend on a car they’ve not even seen.

I get the impression these companies are forever trying to solve the chicken-and-egg conundrum.  They need lots of CVs on their books in order to get contracts with their clients, but they need jobs from their clients to get the CVs in.  One way to get lots of CVs in would be to invent a load of jobs and encourage people to apply for them, and then go to a potential client with a barrowful of CVs to show how great they are at attracting talent (and nailing down market rates).  I don’t know if this actually happens, but I suspect it does.  I’d be willing to bet that over half the jobs posted on the websites of oil and gas recruitment agencies are not actual jobs in the way you or I would understand it.  An engineering company bidding for work on a project would need to submit CVs and calculate labour rates, and what better way to do it than advertise the positions, submit the CVs that come in, and use the day-rates provided?  And if the company doesn’t win the work, then never mind.  The only people whose time has been wasted are a few dozen professional engineers and an agency lackey or two.  You might also get an oil company vaguely thinking about maybe doing a project at some point in the future, a skeleton team is put together which includes an engineering manager who has nothing to do but think about how he will staff his organisation in the unlikely event that the project clears the two years of financial wrangling and approvals, and before you know it a load of jobs appear on an agency website.  The reason the agent can’t give you a proper job description is because he hasn’t been given one by his client, and the reason his client never gave him one is because he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to write it, let alone get terms and conditions such as salary, accommodation, and rotations specified.  Then you’ve got the engineering companies who are hopeless at retaining people and daren’t stop advertising for positions in case they lose yet another engineer and they don’t immediately have a candidate to replace him.  Never mind if somebody applies for a job and the position is not yet vacant, he can just hang on until we need him.

I’m not saying that Orion are exactly like this, if anything they are one of the better agencies out there.  But what I talk about above almost certainly happens with all of them to one extent or another, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they might take a bit more care to establish a relationship with their clients such that they are not posting adverts for non-existent jobs and wasting everyone’s time.  But this would fundamentally misunderstand the role the agencies play in all of this.  The agencies do not merely charge a finder’s fee for anyone they recruit, they actually serve as the employer who then seconds the employee into the client organisation, for a percentage fee of the salary.  The one and only goal of the agencies is to get as many employees seconded into a client organisation as possible whilst expending minimum effort.  Given that it takes almost no effort to forward an email from a client regarding some vague job somewhere to a couple of hundred people on a mailing list along with boilerplate body text about submitting their expected rate, and should they be successful in seconding somebody for this position they would stand to make several thousand dollars, you can understand why the agencies have little interest in ensuring the jobs they advertise are real.

And unfortunately this attitude doesn’t end at the recruitment, it continues all the way through the employment.  It takes almost no effort to start up an agency, I reckon you’d need a desk, a computer, a phone, and an ability to bullshit for a few months.  Stuff like preparing contracts, arranging visas, etc. you can work out later.  And you don’t need to know anything about the jobs being advertised because, let’s  face it, the HR manager in the client company didn’t have a clue when he or she sent the thing and chances are the engineering manager doesn’t really know either. Having worked through an agency for a company which failed to give job descriptions for people who had been working there for 6 months and had little idea what to expect of them, I speak from experience.  Anyway, quality control amongst recruitment agencies is not as high as it perhaps could be (putting it politely).  And once an agency has got its foot in the door with a client, there is no way they are going to upset the apple cart by asking silly questions from potential recruits, and once its got a contract in place and is seconding people in there is even less way they are going to be asking even sillier questions on behalf of their employees.  I have had somebody in one of the agencies admit to me that they are terrified their client will move to another agent who will charge a smaller percentage fee, so they are careful not to make any waves.

What this means in practice is the employee gets the run around.  For example, an employee will arrive in-country on a deal which supposedly includes full medical cover.  When he gets there he finds he is only covered for emergencies, but as he is there 70% of the year he is not too happy that for all non-emergency treatment or consultations – which he gets for free back home on the NHS – he now has to pay for himself, and it is far from cheap.  So he speaks with his agent and asks why his medical cover is less than expected, and the agent will whine that “this is the deal we’ve signed up to” as if that’s actually an explanation instead of merely an alternative to a gormless silence.  When the employee will ask that he gets given proper medical cover as promised, the agent will whine that “we can only recover the costs that the client will agree to”.  So the employee speaks directly to the client, who says it is nothing to do with them and they must speak to the agent.  And the agent will not take the matter up with the client because they will not do anything which might jeopardise the money that is rolling in.  So an employee is not properly covered for medical expenses?  Who cares?  Not the client, and not the agency.  Expand this across such issues as pay for travelling time, per diems, laundry bills, visa runs, airport transfers, etc. and you end up with a lot of aggravation.

To be fair, this isn’t always the case.  If the contract between the agency and client has been set up properly and nobody is trying to skim off a margin here and there, the system can work quite smoothly (it all depends on being honest up front: contractors will put up with anything provided they are told well in advance).  But far too often the client company decides to outsource all its employment responsibilities to an agency who has no power – or rather, no inclination – to solve the typical personnel issues an employee might have.  The result?  The good engineers get annoyed and move somewhere else and the client companies end up employing the wrong sort of people, leading to grumbles about not being able to find the right people.  The agencies make a little money and the companies save a little money, all to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

All of this brings me to my point, which regards the email I received today from Orion.  Agencies seem to take no interest whatsoever in the nature of their client, and demand nothing from them by way of honesty, clarity, or anything else which would normally underpin the relationship between employer and employee.  So I’m hardly surprised to see that an agency has found itself contracted to a client which hasn’t bothered to pay its bills.  Perhaps if agencies weren’t so keen to jump into bed with anyone and slavishly entertain their every whim, you’d find this sort of thing wouldn’t happen (and I’m sure this is not the only case like it).

This is not to say that the agency system is broken beyond repair, it is not.  Indeed, the agency system is vital to the industry, not least in keeping an awful lot of good engineers employed.  And not all agencies are rubbish, and not all client companies are bad.  But there are certain client companies which discharge their responsibilities in return for no questions being asked and an easier life, and some agencies appear to be all too happy to oblige, usually at the expense of the employee.  This does nobody any favours in the long run, especially in an industry which is forever complaining of a shortage of good people and the difficulties of recruiting them.  What is needed is for the major agencies to step up and be a lot more discerning about the jobs they advertise and the companies they do business with, and to be open and honest with their employees and represent them on issues of genuine grievance.  But more importantly, the client companies should ensure that they work with the agencies openly and honestly and do not use them as a mere vehicle for screwing down rates, dodging personnel issues, and hoodwinking engineers.

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4 Responses to Agency Trouble

  1. phil says:

    I had a similiar experince with trying to get a job when i was going to leave my company. I thought i might as well contact the recruitment agencies first and see what they have. Despite lots of promises fromt hem and me applying for these jobs on their sites nothing but the sounds of silence in the following months. I was more succesful with applying dirrectly on companies websites for jobs they had actually advertised which they needed to fill. At least her i they bothered to actually send rejection notices and in one case after several itnerviews a job ofer.

    Anywyas keep up the itnerestign stories of Nigeria, you can’t beat good nigerian pper sauces with some fired plantane. I was in Ibadan a few years ago and that was a little elss hetic that lagos, it had a cool tropical reaserch center there that you can stay at. Don’t bother with Abudja though…boring

  2. Tatyana says:

    Ha, just experienced same exact scene with an agency rep!
    He interviewed me for supposedly well-paying job back in April. No calls since. Yesterday saw him at a trade event and he said he has several opportunities. Took my card and called me an hour ago. Asked tons of questions (my current compensation rate, recent resume, nature of work I’ve been doing in the last 6 months, etc). When I inquired about the “opportunities” he mentioned he was excessively vague, said he can’t tell me the name of the client as it is confidential, said the project is within my specialization( but no concrete facts or description), said too early to talk about benefits, etc and promised “to keep me informed as the things progress”.

    It’s not that I expected much, from past experience…but you hit it square.

  3. Tim Newman says:

    I’m wondering how many other industries operate like this. I suspect it’s quite a few.

  4. Pintie says:

    You hit the nail…I could not agree more with everything you said Tim.

    I have been dealing with numerous recruitment agencies of all sizes since last 6 years. And I got to know how they prefer to operate. Some were sucessful to offer jobs that either I did not like as they tried to cut the rates and benefits or they did not respond as soon as you tell them your “expected” but quite reasonable market rate as they brand you “expensive” and keep clear of you. I also often wondered why on earth these agencies, whether UK or international based, are not regulated properly to protect candidates and new recruits who are their employees and only “assets” that they profit from?

    In a new world where it seems to be more and more regulations and controls are emerging to protect the innocent in the internet than some of these recruitement agencies. Secondly, I often wondered how could an oil and gas major settle for a second or third-best candidate just because the agency would not pass the CV of the best-fit candidate to the client because of pressing profits before quality. I often wondered if oil major client HR actually know they maybe missing on a best-fit candidate thanks to a process built upon greed and exploitation. I appreciate agencies are there for business and returns for their shareholders but this should not be at a cost of best-for-the-job -candidates often and sadly get over looked.

    Another interesting side of this dilemma is that , as I recently experienced with world’s one of the largest oil majors, whilst it was very hard to get into pay roll of the agency and the client company, having left behind and won a massive competion from equally competent candidates still in the market, when I got to the other side, I saw the oil major HR was still struggling to fill in the boxes of other vacancies due to alleged shortage of CVs ! Is it because the selection and recruitment process is somehow a self harming obstacle for “smart” recruitment or both sides ie the client and the agencies themselves are to blame for causing this stagnant bottle-neck quite unnessarily to the detriment of smart but unemployed candidates’ progress & prosperity?

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