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A History of Recruitment - Era 1: 1965 to the 1980s

The world of recruitment has changed significantly over the years, from the days of snail mail to today's digital era. In this series of blogs, we will take a trip down memory lane, traveling in time from 1965 to the present day. By studying the trends, challenges, and shifts recruitment has faced over the last fifty years we will get a better picture of how the current landscape has been shaped. 


Recruitment Era 1: 1965 to the 1980s

The first Recruitment Era we will explore spans 1965 to the 1980s. The moon landings took place during this time period, but what else was going on for everyday Americans? During this time it was normal for candidates to focus their job search on the local area, as movement across the country was not as easy as it is now. Due to the limitations of the technology at the time, it would often take weeks or months after applying for candidates to hear whether they were going to be invited for an interview. Recruiters were viewed with suspicion, by both candidates and companies alike, particularly during the first part of this period. Thankfully attitudes began to shift during the economic upturn of the 1980s as companies saw the benefits recruiters could bring to their workforce. This created a more open environment for discussions to take place. 


What was life like?

During the 1960s Federal spending increased dramatically as numerous initiatives such as Medicare, Government assistance and education grants were launched nationwide. Many of these programs were expanded during this period, which, along with the energy crisis and the Vietnam War, contributed to high inflation and high levels of unemployment right up to the mid-1980s. During the 1970s, the US economy experienced two recessions, which contributed to unemployment reaching 10% in 1975 (1). 


Many people would have been employed in the manufacturing sector which accounted for 26% of all jobs (2). By the 1980s, trade (both retail and wholesale) was the top sector, which highlights the shift away from an industrial nation to a more service-driven one. This could also have been a result of the economic upturn of the 1980s, which meant everyday Americans had more disposable income and therefore the demand for retail jobs increased. 


People were very focused on what was going on in their local area, particularly during the 1980s, companies increasingly began looking for skilled workers, amplifying competition for talented staff. This helped increase candidate mobility across the country.


Snail mail and classifieds were the norms

Due to limitations with travel in the first part of this period, most candidates focused their search in the local area. They would be notified of positions by friends or family, but they had to spend their free time scouring the ‘classifieds’. These were short write-ups (sometimes only a few lines) about positions placed as advertisements in the local, regional, or occasionally, national newspapers. Targeting specific groups was difficult and it could take months to fill a position.

Once a candidate had spotted an interesting position in the newspaper, the next step was to put together a paper resume and sent it via snail mail. A person’s resume would include much more personal information than they do now and it wasn’t unusual for candidates to disclose their height and weight, especially for jobs requiring manual labor. The recruiting company would often wait for the advertising to close before replying to candidates, which meant it could take weeks or even months for candidates to get a response, particularly in the sixties and seventies. 

The situation changed during the 1980s. The importance of your network grew and a personal recommendation could go a long way. Interviewers began asking questions aimed at uncovering ‘soft skills’, particularly around learning and people management. If you had someone who could vouch for your character, it made interviewing a much easier process.


Recruiters were not highly regarded 

During the sixties and seventies, speaking to a recruiter was a secretive affair, even more so than now. It was not unusual for candidates to be reluctant about engaging with headhunters as open discussions were considered to reflect badly on their character. Recruiters were seen as undesirable poachers and many companies were hesitant to work with them. Any employee found to be talking to a recruiter was seen as disloyal and risked having their employment terminated at short notice. 


Thankfully, the 1980s saw a shift in this attitude, and companies began to be more open to working with a recruiter to fill their positions. They were still regarded with some suspicion. The economic upturn (3) of the mid-1980s helped contribute to increased confidence in recruiters as companies realized they could help them reach new candidates. 


Your Rolodex was your most important asset

Now candidates leaving companies may have a virtual client book that they take with them to their new job. Between 1965 and the 1980s, the most valuable item a candidate had was their Rolodex (4). This rotating business card filing system was invented in the fifties and quickly became a staple of every professional’s life. It contained essential contact information of clients the candidate had previously worked with, allowing them to bring these relationships forward into their new role. A candidate’s Rolodex could make or break their desirability for employment. 


Summary: Snail mail, skepticism, and Rolodex

The first era of recruitment was characterized by snail mail, a high degree of secrecy in communication between job candidates and recruiters, and a general mistrust of recruiters as a professional group. The job market was limited, with local employment opportunities being the primary focus for the majority of candidates. The entire recruitment process was slow and it could take weeks or months for a position to be filled. Due to the negative reputation of recruiters job seekers had to be careful when engaging in open discussions about job opportunities or risk their own reputation being called into question. Despite these challenges, recruiters were able to help many people find meaningful employment and build successful careers for themselves and their candidates.

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