Why talent agents for engineers don’t exist

People often ask me if I’m a talent agent for engineers, in the same way that actors have talent agents in Hollywood. In a lot of ways, the way I work is closer to a talent agent than a traditional recruiter — rather than sourcing for specific positions, I try to find smart people first, figure out what they want, and then, hopefully, give it to them.

However, I’m not a talent agent in the true sense, nor have I ever met any. I really wish the agent model could work, but in this market, it’s not going to happen. Here’s why.

First, some quick definitions. A talent agent is paid by people looking for work. A recruiter is paid by companies looking for people. If someone tells you they’re a talent agent for engineers, ask them where their paychecks are coming from.

Agents make sense when it’s hard to find a job or when the opportunity cost of looking for work is high enough to justify paying someone else. Recruiters make sense when it’s hard to find workers or the opportunity cost of looking for workers is high enough to pay someone else. In some sense, it’s almost like recruiters are talent agents for the companies they’re representing.

Talent agents for actors make a lot of sense for precisely this reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “employment of actors is projected to grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average [of 11%] for all occupations.”1 By contrast, “employment of software developers is projected to grow 22 percent from 2012 to 2022”2, about twice as fast as the average. To get a better handle on this disparity, I also tried to pull current unemployment figures for each industry. Based on some quick googling, it appears that unemployment for software engineers is somewhere between 1 and 4% depending on the source. For actors, it’s between 27 and 90%. What was particularly telling is that according to BLS, there are something like 67K acting jobs in the U.S. (the figure was for 2010 but based on projected growth, it’s not changing too much). The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) alone boasts over 165K members3, and The Actors’ Equity Association (union for stage actors) has about 50K members4.

Where competition for a job is extremely fierce, it’s in your interest to pay someone a portion of your salary to legitimize you and help get you the kind of exposure you wouldn’t be able to get yourself. For engineers, because the shortage is in labor and not jobs, paying out a portion of your salary for a task you can easily do yourself doesn’t make much sense. Sure, having to look for work on your own is kind of a pain in the ass, but it’s not something you do that often, maybe once every few years. And, in this market, finding a job, for desirable candidates who would actually be in a position to have talent agents clamoring for them, is not that tough. If you look good on paper and have an in-demand skill set, you can pretty quickly end up with a compelling lineup of offers. Even if you do get a few more offers with an agent, for most people, interview exhaustion sets in at somewhere around 5 on-site interviews. Moreover, from what I’ve been able to observe, most people are looking for a job that’s good enough. After a while, if the company is above some social proof threshold, the work seems interesting, the people are cool, and you’re getting paid well (with the supply/demand curve looking the way it does now, this isn’t currently a problem), then you accept.

I found this out myself when I first started my own recruiting firm. At the time, I really wanted to explore the talent agent model. I was convinced that having engineers pay for an agent’s services would swiftly rectify many of the problems that run rampant in technical recruiting today (e.g. wanton spamming of engineers, misrepresentation of positions, recruiters having a very shallow understanding of the space/companies they’re recruiting for), so I spent the first few months of running my business to talking to engineers and trying to figure out if a talent agent model would work. Engineers were super excited about this. Until I mentioned the part where they’d have to pay me, that is.

It does bear mentioning that freelance engineers do have talent agents (e.g. 10X Management). When you’re a freelancer, you’re switching jobs and often and potentially working several jobs in parallel, and on top of that, your time is split between doing actual work (coding) and drumming up business, so the less time you spend on drumming up business, the more time you can spend doing work that pays. In this model, paying someone to find work for you makes perfect sense because the opportunity cost of not working is high enough to justify the payment.

There are some full-time engineer archetypes for whom having a talent agent might seem to make sense. There are people who still have trouble finding work in the status quo. Examples might be engineers who:

  • don’t look good on paper but are actually very good
  • are looking for a really specific niche (e.g. NLP engineer looking to work on high-volume search with a specialty in Asian languages)

However, there are not enough of these people to justify an entire market. In other words, for a lot less effort and a lot more money, you could just focus on more mainstream candidates and get paid by the company.

All that said, I wish the whole talent agent thing could work because then the ethics would align with the money. And that’s kind of the dream, isn’t it?


1http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/actors.htm#tab-6
2http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Computer-and-Information-Technology/Software-developers.htm#tab-6
3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAG-AFTRA
4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actors’_Equity_Association

24 Responses to “Why talent agents for engineers don’t exist”

  1. Pradeep

    I think the reason is because it is just not the ‘norm’ yet and we know change can happen anytime. It will take just a few engineers to talk about how they benefit from using a talent agent and some standardized terms to emerge for the idea to spread. It actually shouldn’t matter if they are being paid by the company or the engineer- it ultimately is coming from the engineer’s budget- whether the company paid it to her and she paid you or the company paid you directly.

    btw- We’re building a resource for engineers to find their talent agents for contract jobs at OnContracting

    Reply
  2. KS

    As a senior software engineering manager I be very happy to pay a talent agent to negotiate on my behalf for the best possible compensation package. Engineers spend their lives developing expertise in engineering and when they need to seal a deal with an employer they come up against people who’ve spent their lives developing skills in negotiation. I’d be especially interested if the agreement with the agent was structured as a proportion of what he/she could achieve for me above some baseline, rather than based on the total compensation.

    Reply
  3. Alex

    Very insightful and honest analysis, thank you. It’s a shame engineers are not more picky about their job, it’s one of the most important decisions they make in their lives. If I was looking I’d happily pay someone like you as long as it was not upfront but as a % of future wages.

    Reply
  4. Alex

    I love the idea of software talent agents because of the state of the world and economy the concept suggests. I picture a future where a few star programmers are able to manage orders of magnitude more complexity than their counterparts. They are well compensated by a capitalist system that has begun to recognize the amount of interpersonal waste and drag every large undertaking generates.

    So in order to justify the expense of engineering talent agents there would have to be a corresponding increase in opportunity quality they could broker access to, i.e. something equivalent to the difference between a lead role in the upcoming Star Wars movies and wearing a chicken suit at kid birthday parties.

    Reply
  5. Dave Taylor

    I’ve represented engineers a few times and (if I may say so) to pretty impressive effect. I’d offer a different analysis of why you don’t see engineer agents in the wild:

    1. Engineers don’t think they need them.

    2. To get a good deal, you often have to ruffle feathers, and most engineers don’t like to rock the boat.

    3. To best-represent an engineer, you should be an engineer, and most engineers don’t want to get into the representation business.

    4. When an engineer comes in with an agent, they’re sometimes viewed as primadonnas. To overcome this stigma, the engineer has to be so awesome that the potential client can get over their issue with the idea of someone representing them. There aren’t many engineers of this caliber, so you don’t hear about representation very often.

    Reply
  6. Todd

    I swear this isnt spam 🙂 I legitimately want to say “great post” and am glad to have this insight into this facet of the industry. Im actually finding a number of your blog posts helpful, so, thanks.

    Reply
  7. Ellen

    I’m looking for a job, and despite claims that it’s “a task you can easily do yourself”, I’d gladly pay for somebody else to find me a company that I’d like to work with. Sadly, companies never advertise the criteria which are important to me as an employee — and as you say, “interview exhaustion” soon sets in.

    I’m on the verge of leaving the industry, in part for this reason. Could it be that the job of searching for jobs is so ‘easy’ on average because the industry is driving away everyone who’s too far away from average?

    Just because it’s not happening now doesn’t mean it couldn’t or shouldn’t. Tech companies don’t tend to hire many women, either, but I know that’s in large part because many corners of the tech industry are not kind to women engineers, not because women don’t want to find good places to work.

    Reply
  8. IActor

    NO legitimate talent agent in Hollywood, or anywhere else, EVER accepts pay to find work for talent. Those are scams at best. Your story is wrong. Find another analogy.

    Reply
    • aline

      So, both agents and recruiters are paid based on results — if an agent doesn’t find you a job, they don’t get paid. The fundamental difference is that an agent gets paid by the talent at the end of the day. The cut comes out of their paycheck, not from the production company.

      Reply
  9. Pedro the Engineer

    I honestly think you do not understand the meaning of engineer or engineering.
    It might be a good idea to do so before trying to represent engineers.

    Reply
  10. Evan

    I’m a recently graduating engineer so I have been thinking about this quite a bit. I think this is a great conversation to have. I have thought about this quite a bit due to having a friend who is somewhat successful in his artistic career. My opinion on why we don’t see talent agents is because such a business model is based on there being only a few talented individuals (scarcity) which, when orchestrated with a manager who can bring work, proves to be justifiably profitable. Also, engineering highly benefits from multiple individuals with different backgrounds working to produce a technology of value. In other words, the value of the technology can scale easily from one person to one-hundred people. This is in contrast to an artist who’s work tends to be self-sufficient as that is how their talent was discovered (people don’t usually have 10 to 100 friends growing up with backgrounds In different engineering disciplines that know how to use SAP gantt charts or what the reliability predictions are of a certain type of aluminum). Engineers tend to be known in their circles of domain specific knowledge and do not tend to have a wide market. Work will usually come to the higher caliber engineers by word of mouth. Ultimately, engineers play a role in society and the more specialized they are in their domain of knowledge, the more valued their contribution is to a team of other specialized individuals. I also think there is a hypocrisy in the philosophy companies hire new grads by. The fundamental “good traits” of what, I think, many perceive as being held by a good engineer are actually constrained by what the company deems an acceptable level of risk. Thus, they tend to highly value individuals which are predictable and do not take risky routes on their design work. Therefore stagnating appropriate development for the individual to reach their true potential. A “Tony Stark” would be a nuisance of an intern in any entry engineering position.

    Reply
  11. shiro

    I’m a freelance programmer AND an actor. I do have an agent for acting jobs, but not for programming gigs, precisely for the reason you described—I’m offered more work than I can handle for programming but I have to compete to get roles.

    That said, the roles of agents are not only limited to get jobs, but they can also negotiate conditions on behalf of me, collect paychecks, and can help me when dispute arises on contract, etc. I might consider paying for that kind of comprehensive service for programming gigs if they exist.

    But ultimately, freelance engineers are only a small fraction of engineers; most of them have stable jobs (2-3years as opposed to 2-3months, if not for permanent position). Representing an engineer with the level that one can negotiate on behalf of the engineer himself would require domain knowledge as well, which is vastly wider than acting world. Considering those points, I’d agree that it would be difficult for agents of engineers to be feasible.

    Reply
    • aline

      Wow, this is amazing. Never expected to find someone who lives in both worlds. Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  12. Rachel

    Something has to upset the recruiting industry, though. It’s so entrenched in its inefficiencies. There has to be a better way to find the next move you want to take. When your tagline is “I’m a recruiter that doesn’t suck,” you know you’re fighting the tide.
    What do you think of the people at Hired.com, or White Truffle, or the like? I feel like every time I turn around there are more startups trying to fix the hiring/recruiting space. But they seem to still be limited to their circle of influence, whether it’s the city they’re in or the types of companies they work with (startups, or big-name corps, for example).
    It’s funny — I keep seeing topics on boards, and articles, and blog posts, about how it’s impossible for engineers to have talent agents. The idea is obviously wanted; just keeps coming up.

    Reply
  13. da Tyga

    Hi Aline!
    Great post! I think there is a need for a distinction between permanent employment and contracting. The other issue is that the demand for engineers various greatly with geography. Once you get away from the startup hubs, demand falls drastically.

    When contracting, you are selling yourself, negotiating, doing admin and then doing the work. Many engineers are only skilled at the last part. Having an agent actually does work.

    For many years, I had a friend who was a former IT salesman. He just about knew everybody in town and heard about all the project starts. He had a “book” of about a dozen “talent” and he would position specific engineers for specific contract roles. He managed the legals & money side of things, took his cut and paid us the rest. He has since retired and I miss him so much.

    Dealing with recruiters for contracts is a pain, because not only do they keyword match, but typically the same contract is shopped around town by several recruiters. It gives an illusion that there are lots of jobs about, when in fact the real number of jobs is hardly more than 10% – 15% of the job postings.

    Reply
  14. Brian S

    Aline, as a chemical engineer with deal flow, I would be glad to pay a talent agent to negotiate terms for my work. Let me know if you know anybody who would be interested.

    Reply

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