Are Recruitment Agencies still relevant in the search for talent in South Africa?

When I started my career in recruitment over 30 years ago, agencies were the primary way to source talent. I joined a prominent agency in 1988 and, working out of the Carlton Centre, we brand new graduates blindly prospected for new clients using the yellow pages, and advertised jobs in ‘The Star’ on a Wednesday. We were merely matchmakers and words like “Candidate Experience”, “Talent Pipeline”, “Employee Branding” and “Sourcing” were not part of our lexicon.

Things have changed dramatically since then!  The 1990s saw the advent of Job Boards like CareerJunction and PNET in South Africa.  These portals allowed agencies to post jobs and receive applicants online, and more importantly, they were able to leverage the pulling power of their competitor agencies in that applicants became part of a database available to all.  This was a huge disruption to the recruitment industry and put the applicant at centre stage, where before they’d been fighting for recruiter attention.    Now, agencies jostled to present candidates with alternate opportunities and for the first time, these job seekers had choice.  

The early 2000s brought us professional networking platforms like LinkedIn; and sites like Facebook and Twitter, and a myriad of other social networking sites, became available to users around the world later in the decade.  These platforms brought candidates into an open marketplace and revolutionised the way recruiters identified, attracted and engaged talent.  The job boards were quick to respond by making their platforms available to corporate clients as well.

These developments definitely brought the question of the relevance of or necessity for agencies to the fore.  The marketplace was open to all who had the skills to navigate the online world.  Recruiters with their fingers on the pulse, invested in “sourcing” skills and a knowledge of “Boolean strings” became a ticket to the game.  Companies also realised the opportunity in front of them and in-house recruitment teams became more than “postmasters”, shuffling CVs between agencies and the business, and became fully-fledged recruiters in their own right.  Many agency recruiters moved into these in-house teams lured by a steady income and no targets!  Technology also made it easier than ever for job seekers to apply directly for roles at potential employers.

Despite all these changes, APSO, the largest governing body of the recruitment industry in South Africa, still represents more than 700 private employment agencies.  According to informal data gathered by Paul Byrne, Head of Insights at the Saongroup (Owner of CareerJunction and PNET), the total number of agencies in SA is closer to 3000.  There are also 5 South African job boards servicing the industry.  This clearly evidences an ongoing need for these services.  The question is why? Here are 4 reasons:

  1. TIME

According to Statistics SA, South Africa’s unemployment rate is currently sitting at 32.5%.  People are desperate for work and apply indiscriminately to every opportunity on offer. This means a recruiter must wade through hundreds of applications to find the CVs which are relevant.  For companies, it may make more sense to outsource that low-value work unless the technology to auto screen applications is in place.  Agencies can also deal with the onerous task of “regretting” unsuitable candidates without impacting the client’s employer brand. 


Ideally, an agency has access to deep industry networks they’ve grown over time.  This gives the employer quick access to a pool of quality talent.  A caution here, though; this isn’t always the case.  Some agencies try to be everything to everyone in order to get more work.  The problem with this is that these agencies will be doing exactly what the client themselves can do, i.e. advertise, screen and shortlist.  There’s not much advantage to the client in this approach.

  1. COST

Building and maintaining an in-house team is costly and companies in South Africa are operating in a challenging market.  It’s imperative to keep only critical costs on the balance sheet (and staff are always the largest cost) and “buy” additional capacity when necessary. 


In small companies, a few recruiters are responsible for all hiring.  The vacancies are disparate and in many cases, there is little to no opportunity to leverage applicants for one role to fill another.  In large companies, there is more opportunity for the in-house recruiters to specialise but not all divisions hire equal numbers.  This means that some recruiters are swamped and others are twiddling their thumbs.  “Capacity smoothing”, i.e. sharing roles between recruiters, is only a limited solution because once again, productivity usually drops when recruiters are recruiting for unfamiliar roles.  In my opinion, agencies can provide an expert capacity boost.

As you’ll see from all the points above, agencies are a valuable part of our ecosystem.  The trick is which one to choose and how to partner for optimum results.  I’d ask these questions:

  1. What sets your agency apart?  What do you do differently?

Here, I’d want to hear what they specialise in.  Is their focus on a certain industry, level of role or geography?

  1. How will you go about filling my role?  What’s your process?  

Are they merely duplicating what your in-house recruiter can do or do they add value?

  1. What do they do to keep up-to-date?

Are they leveraging the latest tools that allow for a streamlined process?  How “healthy” is their database?  Do they have evidence of their success with similar roles, or in your target geography?

  1. What are the terms of engagement?

It’s better for all parties to have these ironed out upfront.

  1. What do you need from me?

The best agencies will want time with you to fully understand your requirements.  They’ll ask you questions that are not answered by a job description.  They’ll want to spend time getting to know a bit about your business.  Spending more time upfront will guarantee you a better quality result and save you time down the line.  

In my opinion, it’s vital to include agencies as an integral piece of your sourcing strategy.   However, it’s important to remember that the value of an agency to a client is in direct proportion to the time the client invests in the partnership.  As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to  go far, go together.”

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