Recruitin’ Ain’t Easy: An Interview with Frank Nicolia of Hirewell

Since beginning his recruiting career in Connecticut 14 years ago, Frank Nicolia has placed hundreds of candidates at every possible level within respected organizations. He’s watched the continual evolution of the job market, and experienced the ups and downs firsthand; along with millions of others, Nicolia lost his job in 2008 when the banking crisis unfolded and the stock market took a nosedive.

Now, as senior recruiter at the Chicago-based agency Hirewell, Nicolia is thrilled to be placing the Windy City’s best and brightest at companies all across town. Hirewell is made up of four main placement divisions — IT, sales, HR and marketing/digital — and Nicolia’s focus on marketing and digital has him playing matchmaker for the city’s most in-demand tech companies and candidates.

Nicolia started at Hirewell, ironically enough, after being recruited from another role. During a phone chat on July 12, he described this as a standard occurrence in the recruiting world.

“When hiring recruiters, typically you tap the network. I was contacted by a past colleague of mine and he described what Hirewell was all about, and I saw a fantastic opportunity to join one of Chicago’s leading search firms,” says Nicolia. “After an initial coffee meeting, I met with the owner and several partners here and ran through what I’ve done and how I could be an instant impact for them. Nothing is harder than recruiting recruiters. We don’t make it easy.”

So what exactly do they do at Hirewell? And how does this compare to the other staffing and recruiting firms in the area?

“Hirewell is your all-in-one, one-stop-shop company. If you’re a startup and you’re looking to fill various roles, why work with 10 different companies when you can work with one?” he says. “We cover as many bases as we can — not just one specific area in terms of skillsets.”

While Hirewell is an “agile” firm, as Nicolia describes it, a large chunk of staffing agencies specialize in niche industries or specific roles within an office. No two firms are exactly the same, but they share a bottom line: helping people find jobs, and helping jobs find people.

What Do Recruiters Do?

“I see the work we do as being information brokers first and foremost. It’s our job to make sure we have all the ins and outs of positions and companies we work with. Second, we are an extension of our client’s hiring team. We make sure to keep the best interests of the client in mind while helping individuals advance their career,” Nicolia said.

According to Forbes, the global recruitment industry may be worth more than $200 billion. Between advertisements on job boards, skills assessments, lengthy interview processes and eventual training, businesses can spend around $4,000 per candidate when seeking to fill an important position. Recruiters serve to reduce the headaches and the time wasted on both sides of the table, seining the ocean of talent to find the perfect catch for each role.

This can mean a number of methods and practices to the thousands of different agencies across the world. And, as Nicolia points out, recruiters themselves are as diverse as the positions they fill.

“There isn’t one thing, in terms of schooling or training, that makes a great recruiter,” he says. “The biggest thing is having the sales mindset, but at the end of the day this isn’t a typical sales role. Our ‘products’ are living, breathing people who change their minds all the time — the same goes for clients. I would say the best qualifications are being a great listener and to never stop asking questions.

“My first boss said the best salespeople are children; they never stop asking ‘why?’”

According to Forbes, the global recruitment industry may be worth more than $200 billion.

In a number of cases, staffing agencies are distinct from recruitment agencies. Staffing may involve more temporary or temp-to-hire work, and job seekers meeting with agents to be placed in one or more contract positions. Recruitment, on the other hand, can refer to those firms hired by organizations to seek out qualified individuals for higher level positions — even if they are gainfully employed at the time. This process is also known in the industry as “executive search.”

But many modern agencies, such as Hirewell, choose not to be boxed in by labels or predefined limitations.

“I feel the best companies out there cater to their client’s needs. For the most part, Hirewell is a recruitment firm, but is agile enough to recognize what the market needs and adjust the way we work as needed,” says Nicolia. “Too many people worry about labeling and how they define their firm. Our clients come to us to solve their hiring problems. The level, the skill set, the ‘permanent vs. contract basis’ … those are just the details.”

As far as his day-to-day routine, Nicolia says he spends the vast majority of his week on the phone. After a sole (but hefty) cup of coffee in the morning, he knocks out the “money calls” with the candidates closest to being placed and the companies with the most in-demand openings. The rest of the day is spent bouncing from call to call, “qualifying candidates, hunting candidates, setting up the calls, making the submissions, setting up the interviews,” and so on. The interview process can often stretch out across multiple days and meetings, but there are sporadic occasions when the stars align from the get-go.

“If I talk to somebody and they are dead on for what I’m looking for, I’m sending them out right after the call,” he says. “I try to dig down as much as I can without being on the phone for two hours.”

Tricks of the Trade

Having recruited in Connecticut, San Diego and now Chicago — filling roles at IBM and Microsoft along the way, and with a front-row seat to the internet’s ascendency throughout — Nicolia has seen the good, bad and ugly of the recruitment industry. In his current role, Nicolia is utilizing the principles he’s learned and the insights he’s gained to better serve clients and minimize wasted time.

Regarding his general methods, Nicolia says:

“Of course, the main tool in a recruiter’s toolbox is LinkedIn … we use it for everything from keeping in contact with folks to finding the right talent. However, I feel some recruiters rely too much on that and don’t use their biggest tool: their network.”

“When I start a new search, the first thing I do is reach out to folks I’ve worked with — regardless of if they are a fit for the role, they might know someone. Referrals are my best friend. Why scroll through 1,000 names on LinkedIn when I can reach out to two or three folks, and they pass names on to me?”

But certain situations call for trial, error and creativity, even for a 14-year veteran.

“Sometimes it takes trying three or four different things to find the right person. There is no official rule book. Do what works best for you.”

On the biggest faux pas in the world of recruitment:

“Not following up, simple. Regardless if the person you are working with is a fit or not. Not getting back to them is not an option. I’ve worked with folks for years and haven’t placed them but keep in contact because I could place them, and building relationships is the biggest asset in our industry.”

“The same goes for candidates — even a simple ‘I’m not looking’ is better than not responding. Though they may be happy in their current role, things change; and why wouldn’t they want to have a resource available to them, even if they never use it?”

Finally, when asked his favorite interview question to ask candidates:

“‘How many ping-pong balls would it take to fill a jumbo jet?’ To be honest, you could write an entire article just on this topic.”

Advice for Job Seekers

The job quest is stressful at best. Most of us can attest that being between jobs or feeling discontent with a current position is simply the pits. Recruiters have the privilege of guiding people of all walks to their latest and greatest job opportunities, and for someone of Frank Nicolia’s persuasion, “there is nothing better than when you find the right candidate for the right job.”

But on the other side of the coin, his least favorite aspect of recruiting is “having to tell someone they are not a fit. This goes for most good recruiters. It’s a must and will only help that person in the long run, but no one ever likes to give or get bad news.”

To help hopeful candidates avoid this unpleasant conversation — and help recruiters like Nicolia avoid them as well — he offers some insights to those currently (or potentially soon) on the market.  

To begin: Is the resume dead, as some believe?

“Not at all,” Nicolia says. “It has its place and it all depends on skill set. For designers, their portfolio is their biggest asset; for roles like CEO or marketing managers, a strong resume is a must. We need to see what you’ve done and the success you’ve had. LinkedIn profiles with strong details are ideal, however it should be a quick highlight and not as detailed as a resume.”

As for other social media, “it comes down to common sense. Whether you are looking for a job or not, don’t post anything you don’t want the world to see.In other words, it might be time to reconsider that profile picture with the beer bong.

How College Football Recruiting & Corporate Recruiting Aren’t So Different

Regarding in-person interview etiquette:

“It might sound like Interview 101, but I had a C-level executive lose out on a role because he was chewing gum the entire time. Something as small as that could spell disaster.”

One of the blatant shifts Nicolia has witnessed in his career is in the paradigm of job duration. Whereas past generations were conditioned to feel obligated to remain at jobs for three, five or 10 years — even jobs they didn’t love — the modern workplace has a far looser expectation. He goes so far as to warn against this old way of thinking for most employees, particularly when personal growth has stalled.

“When I first started recruiting, you saw people with 12 years experience at one company. You don’t see that anymore. It went from being a great thing to a red flag; unless you’re a C-level executive, as soon as you stop learning you need to figure something else out.”

To adapt to this new philosophy, Nicolia encourages anyone in the workforce to be flexible and increasingly proactive. “Regardless of whatever you’re working on now, you need to be thinking about the next thing,” he says. “Great individuals always have their ear to the ground. A lot of people are constant career changers and have had great success.”

Whether this means working across departments to learn new skills, registering for a skills bootcamp outside of work, or coming up with unique ways to market yourself to potential companies or clients, Nicolia believes the cream must always be striving to rise and remain relevant.

“People have to be creative in what they want to do, and understand it’s not going to be easy.” He adds, “The talent market keeps getting tighter and tighter, it’s much harder to find the best talent out there who are open to making a move than ever before.”

For individuals at a standstill, Nicolia suggests immersive courses like DESIGNATION and General Assembly that teach in-demand skills while having students produce actual work for clients, not unlike an adult form of training wheels.

Last but not least: don’t hesitate to meet with a recruiter. They are your friends.

“My best advice is to see recruiters as a positive resource,” says Nicolia. “Be upfront and honest with us. We are here to help, and do what we can to make sure that we be just as honest and upfront.”

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