I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Up until a few months ago, I was somehow blind to the entire industry of staffing, recruitment, and temporary employment – not a whiff, a hint, or a clue for 27 years. I hadn’t the foggiest.

This troubles me on two levels: as a former job-seeker (because I may have benefited from a stepping stone) and as a citizen of the world (because I like to think I’m worldly and aware).

But my embarrassment began to fade after I realized it wasn’t just me. My parents had never been familiarized with staffing, so I broke out the scratch paper one weekend  and began to diagram how the revenue model works (I mean, there are multiple layers of outsourcing involved). Then my brother, a mechanical engineer, confessed to being unaware of staffing services – even when in the position to hire temporary employees:

“We were ready to assemble a large piece of manufacturing equipment. The materials were lined up and the safety plan was in place. Surprisingly, the biggest challenge was finding the people, though I knew the area MUST have a pool of such folks. I ended up talking to a local machine shop owner who was able to scrounge such a group together after making many phone calls. It seemed to me like a circuitous way to go about it. I would definitely go through a staffing agency if I could re-do the project.”

Doesn’t this encapsulate both the value of staffing, and its relative obscurity to some?

I decided to outsource my investigation to a few staffing marketing pros, but none were shocked at my ignorance.

“It doesn’t surprise me that you didn’t know. It has very little to do with your confidence, your capability, your awareness,” said Tom Hart, chief marketing officer at Eliassen Group in Massachusetts. He went on to say that staffers rarely reflect on external perceptions of the industry. I notice a similar vibe of insularity.

At the same time, though, the marketing officers emphasized the sheer amount of advertising turf they cover. Jennifer Brigham, director and VP of marketing at SEEK Careers, said there were too many sites to list. I found these two views to be slightly conflicting: if there was truly a bold and visible presence out there, I was bound to have bumped into it.

Most of the firms partner with job search giants such as Monster, Dice, and CareerBuilder, and spend money there on licensing agreements.  But wait -- back up. The nature of marketing needs some clarification here. I was thinking of traditional block-of-text-and-image ads, but marketing to candidates often manifests itself as job descriptions. Thus, recruiting and marketing are one and the same. The job postings are going to be clicked on whether the job-seeker realizes it’s hosted by a staffing agency or not. This isn't the most conspicuous way to get one's industry name out there, but it narrows the potential candidate pool, and maybe that's the point. Would they rather have a bunch of walk-ins looking for general work, or fewer candidates handpicked for certain roles? It depends on the size and type of agency.

Tom Hart did say part of their budget gets funneled into direct marketing campaigns (snail mail), which aligns more with the traditional model I was expecting.  He said that he also gets invited to the same college campuses every year to inform up-and-coming college grads about certain placements he's looking to fill. Yet Hart also points out the unfortunate fact that college students aren’t steered toward recruiting as a possible career – another missed opportunity for exposure.

“Who has a discussion with their career counselor or professor about a career in recruitment? It never happens … they come to us through sales,” said Hart. “The staffing industry is not very well known.”

To Keith Wolf, vice president of marketing at Murray Resources in Houston, it’s more about clearing up misconceptions and less about that initial interaction.

“Every time a candidate asks us how much we charge to them to find them a job, we're reminded that we need to a better job of educating. There is no charge to the candidate!” he said.

To me, it will always be a mystery. It’s like that awkward moment among friends when a pervasive pop culture reference falls flat. (“You’ve never heard of Pulp Fiction? How? How is that even possible?”) Maybe I didn’t spend enough time on the big, national job search engines.  Maybe my niche in the workforce (creative media and publishing) is typically overlooked by staffing. What do you think?

(Maybe I breezed past a booth much like Tom Hart’s. Yeah, that must be it.  Lesson of the day: pay attention to booths, people. Who knows what else we could be blind to?)

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