Recruiter's Advocate & Engineer Arbitrage

Recruiters have a reputation in the tech community for being annoying, overbearing, backstabbing, overly-forward, uninformed, loose-lipped, technically ignorant, spam-prone, conversationally dull, would-be pimps who would sell their own mothers into prostitution (or an equally debased QA position) if it meant an extra commission for a placement. The premature demise of many an engineer's LinkedIn account has oft been blamed on the overwhelming barrage of recruitment offers from these so-called parasites living off the wages of the people doing all the work. Not to mention that awkward moment at every tech MeetUp when the one sheepish engineer left in the room (the rest, being engineers, having gone to the bar) looks up to find themself surrounded exclusively by salivating recruiters ready to wolf down 20% of their next year's salary. This reputation is no doubt well deserved, but if I may play Devil's Advocate for a moment, the proliferation of recruiters in the tech community is due to an arbitrage situation we as employees and employers created.

Recruiters are a form of traditional merchant, sailing from the far east ports of expos and hackathons back to the eager bazaars of Jobvite and HR departments to hawk their wares in front of eager hiring managers. They buy low, finding underpaid, underappreciated, underrepresented talent hidden away in the windowless dungeons of the first companies to flash them a paycheck, and they sell high to new employers who have finally realized their dire need for the expertise required to try turning it on and off again, shave the yak, or [_____] all the things. The supply of people with expertise in this or any other STEM field is low, as anyone will tell you, and yet many engineers are still paid well below their potential salaries. With the market for hiring new engineers paying one price, and the market for employing existing engineers paying another, the arrival of arbitrageurs is inevitable; enter the Dread Recruiter.

Why are recruiters dreaded so? Someone out there is still hiring their next employee from a recruiter. It's like wondering aloud and with fearful disdain why the quality of beef in a McDonald's hamburger hasn't improved in the past decade of organic this and probiotic that, only to look down and find a double quarter pounder in your hand. It was there, and you were hungry! Even so, it's clear why employers dislike recruiters: recruiters capture a commission on top of a candidate's salary, and in performing this arbitrage function they are incentivized to raise the salary of the employee higher than any employer would otherwise volunteer to pay. Unless the recruiter is brokering a higher salary, the engineer has little incentive to switch jobs. Employers still need to find engineers, and they'd be happier not to pay recruiters on top of paying engineers more to switch, but at the end of the day they are still happy to get the engineer in their door at a higher price than their competitor was paying them given the limited supply. After all, employers are making even more money by selling the goods and services produced by this limited pool of engineers.

So then why do engineers dread recruiters? Engineers don't hate raises, and they are discerning enough not to take jobs they will hate if the tradeoffs aren't worthwhile, but they will mark a recruiter's LinkedIn invite as spam faster than they will a cold calling vendor offering free entry into an iPod raffle with every purchase. What engineers really don't like is wasting their time on extraneous conversations with people they don't know (or sometimes even with people they do know). They're the ones who listened when their parents told them not to talk to strangers, and maybe, as with many other things in their lives, took it a step farther than most. They've also taken Adam Smith's division of labor to heart, and become highly specialized in communication regarding their jobs. Can a recruiter help them solve the load balancer SSL problem they are working on? Can a recruiter tell them about a new development in motherboard bus speeds? What is the recruiter's opinion on the relative merits of Haskell vs Scala? These are conversations that interest engineers; this is efficient communication. Efficiency is priority number one, recruiters. Because waste is a thief.

Recruiters have at least one thing right though: engineers are underpaid. Engineers are not ones to actively seek out interviews or passively accept communication from recruiters that will help them increase their own market value. The market for engineers, to abuse an economist's term, is not clearing. This is largely due to the aforementioned lack of supply, but supply is forever linked to demand. Demand is expressed in this market by the employer's willingness to pay, and underpayment of engineers is potentially a root cause of the much lamented lack of STEM graduates and job applicants. As the Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager pointed out in N+1's Diary Of A Very Bad Year:
Finance started sucking people from all over. You'd walk around our trading floor and there were guys who were math Ph.D.s and physics PhD.s, ... The bubble in financial assets had a derivative bubble in people. There was a misallocation of financial resources and a misallocation of people resources. [The bubble bursting]'s a good thing, you know? Some of these physicists should be doing physics; some of these computer scientists should be doing computer science.
This misallocation of labor resources described by the Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager is even less efficient than engineers talking to recruiters, and at some level engineers know this as well. They know it when they see the proliferation of employees in their organization that don't appear to do anything. They know it when they see entire businesses that don't appear to produce any value. They know it when they read about an entire economy in the throes of an inflating or deflating economic bubble caused by the inefficient allocation of resources and labor at a mass scale. But what can just one engineer ever hope to do? What can they do to pull the world's economies away from the path of another bubble / burst recession? What can they do to solve the STEM education crisis? What can they do just to get recruiters to stop calling them?

They can ask for a raise.

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