They are commercial companies that find suitable candidates for their recruiter clients.
They do not provide careers advice even if they have expert knowledge of particular business sectors.
Some employ a pool of staff themselves and hire these to clients; others handle the recruitment of short-term, contract or permanent staff on behalf of the actual employer.
Some offer services to anyone; others are directed specifically to graduates or candidates who have significant experience.
Some have national coverage; others function locally.
How do recruitment agencies work?
Agencies should not charge candidates any joining or registration fees as it is the employer who pays the agency. However, sometimes they may charge for additional services, such as creating a printed CV.
Agencies have targets for sending candidates for interviews and they receive their payment when a vacancy is filled through them.
The Recruitment & Employment Confederation promotes good practice and, therefore, all agencies that are registered members must comply with its standards. You can check whether a recruitment agency is a member on their website.
The registration process usually involves filling in an application form or submitting a CV. You may also be interviewed and tested by the consultant.
Your details are kept on a database that is searched for suitable candidates when vacancies are placed within the agency. When you are short-listed, you'll be informed of the details of the job role. If you are interested in the position, your CV will be forwarded to the client.
If you are invited for an interview, you will be given more information on the company. It is quite common for the client to be kept confidential until the interview stage, as the agencies prefer to direct the candidates to the clients themselves as opposed to the candidates applying for the job directly.
Always ask for feedback after your interviews so that you can improve your performance.
How to find the right type of agency?
Talk to different agencies and find out which ones suit your needs best and who you feel comfortable with. Ask them about the types of jobs they recruit for, who their major clients are, how many vacancies they have available and how long it usually takes for them to place candidates.
If you are looking for temporary work, any of the 'high street' agencies are probably able to offer you some help. However, it's best to register with those that specialise in work you are interested in and have skills for.
If you are looking for graduate jobs, you should find agencies that specialise in these.
How effective are recruitment agencies?
Agencies vary in effectiveness. Some job sectors use more intermediaries than others.
It is not reasonable to expect instant results.
Using an agency should be considered as a complement to, rather than a substitute for your own job hunting.
Help the agencies to help you
You may find it most effective to register with several agents.
Build a good relationship with the consultant who is handling your applications.
Tell the consultant clearly what you are looking for and be honest about what you can offer potential employers.
Keep your records up to date. If you develop new skills, let the agency know so that they can promote you most effectively to their clients.
Listen to the advice offered by the consultant.
Be reliable and professional, even when doing temping work. Agencies will not want to find you work if your behaviour damages their reputation.
Make sure the agency can get in touch with you. If they can't contact you, they may offer the job for someone else.