A talent war is raging through the property business as agents desperately seek new staff to cope with booming demand. Specialist recruiters report record numbers of job vacancies on their boards, while a culture of ‘counteroffers’ has emerged as firms try to hang on to negotiators looking to leave. And the recruiters warn that if they want to fill empty posts, agents need to embrace modern working practices including working from home, shorter hours and less weekend working.
The comments come as the latest KPMG and REC jobs survey showed that UK recruitment activity across all sectors surged again in June, with the growth in permanent roles hitting a fresh record, while at the same time, vacancy growth also hit a new record. Meanwhile the availability of workers declined at an unprecedented rate.
Paying a premium
“Never have we been in a position where property in general and estate agency in particular are at the forefront of the economy, whilst simultaneously the UK’s hit the lowest number of candidates per job available in 24 years,” says Josh Rayner, founder and CEO of Rayner Personnel.
“We are in a talent war – they are all paying a premium for the right people. We’ve had 12 months of good times but if you don’t stock your staff that isn’t going to continue.
We are in a talent war – they are all paying a premium for the right people. We’ve had 12 months of good times but if you don’t stock your staff that isn’t going to continue. Josh Rayner, Founder & CEO, Rayner Personnel.
“If you have a quality member of staff to interview with a proven track record who can make deals happen and is not an order-taker, then take the advice you would give that purchaser of a double-bay three-bed semi when they ask for a third viewing and what offer to make… don’t wait around. Pay top money and make that offer today or you will miss out.”
The firm currently has 800 live jobs in agency, compared with 500 in a normal period, and Rayner says agencies are so desperate for staff that as many as one on four candidates with firm job offers are getting counter-offers from their existing employer.
“We are finding it hard because people aren’t paying the right money,” he explains. “People are getting counter-offers more and more and this is crippling us. You do all the hard work, get two or three interviews, they get offered the job, they take it because they are unhappy, hand in their notice, and the boss offers another £10-20,000 to stay.
“It’s a stock and talent war but talent outweighs the stock because if you haven’t got the talent you won’t get the stock.”
It’s a theme echoed by other property recruiters. “Demand is high at the moment – we have just under 30% more vacancies now than we had pre-pandemic,” says Anthony Hesse, Managing Director of Property Personnel.
“They are looking for people with 12-18 months’ experience but they weren’t being taken on 12-18 months ago – they don’t exist.”
Priorities have definitely shifted. The opportunity was there to earn very good money but they are not buying into that in the way they would have done historically. Antony Hesse, Managing Director, Property Personnel.
Even trainees are hard to source. “Normally summer would be a classic time for us picking up graduates coming out of university but we are more than 50 per cent down on people ringing us up in response to jobs we’ve had,” he adds.
“We’ve always done very well in that sector but this year it’s more of a struggle. They are expecting a decent salary because there is so much competition out there, particularly in tech, for example.”
Hesse believes Covid has played its part in making people stop and think about their priorities – with work-life balance now taking centre-stage. “The pandemic has made employees more interested in work-life balance and it plays a bigger part in their decision-making than it ever has before – all the things estate agents don’t want to hear, I’m afraid.
“Priorities have definitely shifted. The opportunity was there to earn very good money but they are not buying into that in the way they would have done historically.”
He says his clients are looking at ways not just to attract but retain the best quality staff – and that 8.30am to 6.30pm five days a week and every other Saturday is now looked at as being “a little hard core”.
“Clients that were expecting people to work a six-day week are now saying you only have to work a five-day week – candidates will shy away from a six-day week.” Hesse says one client is even trialling a four-day week, while part-time hours such as 10am to 3pm are becoming more common in a bid to attract parents with young families back into the business. There is also more of an appetite to look at people not just working less hours but working remotely, with perhaps three days in the office and two days from home.
Good basic salaries are also critical, rather than relying on commission to top up income. “The fact is if they want to employ the best people they are going to have to compete financially, and we have noticed there is definitely a pressure on salaries at the moment,” adds Hesse. “So when we get vacancies from clients we have to have quite hard conversations with them and explain they are not going to find someone unless they improve what they are offering.
“I understand it’s a marginal business and they can’t just double their basic salaries but they are going to have to become more competitive with other industries.”
Driving up salaries
Lynn Cannell, Founder of LCA, agrees there is a big shortage of candidates at the moment, and that salary expectations are rising as a result. “A good agent would rather pay more to keep them than pay a recruitment fee and not be sure about what you’re getting – it’s driving salaries up quite considerably at the moment,” she explains.
A good agent would rather pay more to keep them than pay a recruitment fee and not be sure about what you’re getting – it’s driving salaries up quite considerably. Lynm Cannell, Founder, LCA.
She, too, has experienced the counteroffer phenomenon. “Noticeably, I’ve found some of the biggest counter-offers to retain a member of staff have surprisingly not been in a front-line sales role but within the property management sector – I had someone who was offered £10,000 to stay in a support role, not a business-generating role,” she says.
Cannell believes if agents were more willing to take on trainees it would help alleviate the staffing crisis.
“I’ve had some clients who have not only had their best year ever but have opened new branches and acquired new businesses, and have done that predominantly by taking on trainees, who have had the energy and enthusiasm and gratitude and desire to take on the market and do very well,” she says. “They are not necessarily young, they could be people coming from other industries – hospitality, leisure – that have great people skills.”
As other recruiters note, flexible working is also now high on jobseekers’ agendas. “I think the industry may be missing an opportunity here,” she observes. “I’ve spoken to candidates who have said, ‘I am more than happy to do 7pm or 8pm viewings but not if I’ve got to be in the office at 8.30 the next morning.
“When I think about what has happened [with Covid], and the transition in the business and how it operates, I think they are missing out on those who have had successful careers that could work more flexibly and be of real value,” she adds. “The traditional working hours and structure may not be as effective now.”
Reluctant to move
GCB Agency Recruitment has a record number of vacancies, with more than 700 property jobs on its books. Founder Gareth Broom believes one factor – also highlighted by other recruiters – is that the property sales boom has left negotiators in line for fat commission cheques, making them reluctant to move.
“You have maybe got negotiators sitting with small agents that are actually doing quite well and thinking, ‘I’ve got a good pipeline here’. Probably in a different market they would want to make the move, but maybe they are sitting tight because they’ve got big pipelines.”
It’s not uncommon that we get one good candidate and we can get them out to four or five places – and we will get three offers on the table. Gareth Broom, Founder, GBR Agency Recruitment.
He agrees that many agents are looking for the impossible – negotiators with 18 months’ experience. “They don’t really exist because 18 months ago agents weren’t taking people on,” he says.
Instead he urges firms to look at transferrable skills from other industries such car or phone sales. “If people are prepared to take someone from a sales background and train them they can get some good people in,” he points out. “But because agents are so busy there is a reluctance to take someone on who maybe hasn’t got any experience because they have to go through a training programme – and quite frankly they haven’t got time to do it.”
Again, flexible working is now front and centre for job candidates. “We had a client this week where a candidate said they wanted to work from home three days a week, and the client offered two. The client said they would never have considered that before,” notes Broom. “Another client is looking at Saturday opening hours.”
Like Rayner, Broom warns against trying to drive a hard bargain on salaries. “It’s not uncommon that we get one good candidate and we can get them out to four or five places and we will get three offers on the table. If you’ve got a salary range of £20- 25,000, don’t go in at £20,000 because they have probably got two other offers.”
London-based recruitment agency Deverell Smith also reports that demand for talent in is massively outstripping supply. “It’s an ongoing exercise and the best firms are constantly looking to talk to the best people,” says founder and CEO Andrew Deverell-Smith.
He believes it is time for the industry to tackle flexible working head on if they want to boost staff retention. “The industry has some big challenges to navigate. What Covid has done for the working world, globally –is to create a flexible-working mindset, culture and capability in every industry. What estate agency is doing about flexible-working practices, I would argue, is very little.”
Covid has created a flexible-working mindset, culture and capability in every industry. What estate agency is doing about flexible-working practices, is very little. Andrew Deverell-Smith CEO, Deverell-Smith.
Perhaps what the current crisis shows is just how critical staff retention has become.
“As long as this is a people business then it’s an ongoing exercise to be knowing who the best people in your market are and to be working as hard as you can to make sure that most of those people are on your team-sheet rather than anybody else’s,” says Deverell-Smith.
“For me that’s a recipe for success. It’s that simple – if you’ve got the best team, you’ve got the best business.”