They’ve been a fixture of the West Midlands working landscape for more than 40 years – and not even a global pandemic was likely to steer them too far off course.
Whilst politicians, scientists, the media and the millions of self-appointed keyboard commentators out in cyberland continue to thrash around trying to make some sense out of a global emergency, who better to turn to for some common sense than Kidderminster-based Hewett Recruitment?
After all, they have been plugging away at the coalface of the regional economy for more than four decades, providing specialist advice and guidance to many thousands of jobseekers and helping workplace candidates fulfil their career ambitions.
Ever since Louise Hewett, the mother of Director Laura, set up the firm back in the early days of the Margaret Thatcher political revolution, the agency has steadily grown into one of the longest established businesses of its kind across the West Midlands.
In common with countless other SMEs nationwide – and of course the big boys, from travel and aerospace to retail and automotive – Hewett found itself in the eye of the storm, and adapted accordingly.
Laura said: “In the first lockdown, everything kind of ground to a halt. This time round with the Jan-March lockdown we didn’t have any negative impact on our number of industrial Temps working – if anything we’ve been busier!
“These are mainly manufacturers, we can see how manufacturers have carried on, they have worked out how to be Covid-secure and keep their people safe. They keep the cogs turning and the economy ticking.
“Likewise with permanent recruitment, when we had the first lockdown last year, pretty much everything was on hold or cancelled but this year, we didn’t have anything cancelled at all. A few processes slowed down a little bit because candidates want to be able to meet the employers face to face, and vice-versa, before signing on the line.
“You can really see that companies that have survived this far have done so by being innovative and agile. These companies are now looking ahead and making steps for the future.”
That innovative forward-thinking is reflected in Hewett’s own approach to the pandemic, as Laura’s co-Director Ben Mannion explains.
“We are no different – we are an SME business who in the space of a week went from a traditional office – people in the office all the time – to having everybody work remotely the way that businesses were able to do.
“That was pretty incredible, they all deserve a pat on the back for that. Without a doubt, it is a very challenging thing to do and we can say that because we had to do it as well.
“Actually, the labour market being adaptable is one of our strong points as a nation. We adapt really quickly and what you see now is this huge temp demand because businesses are tapping into that form of temp labour to help get their products out the door.
“We have a very flexible labour market and within that you have got businesses which are flexible as well. I think, all things considered, we are in a pretty good place compared to where we could be.”
The same can be said of Hewett Recruitment, whose decades-long commitment to personal service and a diversified strategy has helped the agency weather the storm of Covid, whilst others have struggled.
Laura said: “In terms of how we have got through it as a business ourselves, we have achieved that by being agile – adapting to the market around us. We specialise – each of our Recruitment Consultants specialises in their chosen niche or sector but as a business we operate across a broad range of industries. So whenever one sector or industry is doing well, our business can adapt to it, work and scale up to that.
“One service that has been much more in demand this past year is our redundancy outplacement service to businesses. That is a package we have delivered and perfected since the recession in 2008, so was something we were able to switch on and target where it was needed.
“Most of our recruitment consultants are highly experienced, they are long servers, very independent, they don’t need too much management from us. Everyone has been standing on their own two feet – which has been so helpful with everyone working from home.
“We have got a really good team and a really good feeling of everyone working together. We have learnt a lot this year about how we can be more successful as a business.”
That success – inextricably linked to four decades of experience in the West Midlands recruitment sector – is also down to a horses for courses approach by Hewett to the working world.
And whilst both Laura and Ben concede that many parts of the workplace have indeed been hit hard by the pandemic, the overall prospects for the world of recruitment are rather more nuanced than so much of the doom and gloom coverage would indicate.
Ben says: “We are patron members of the Hereford and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce, I am the President, we are involved with the Local Enterprise Partnership…so we get all this information coming in from all these different clients and people from across the county.
“I would not tell you that everybody is saying everything is going to be OK because that would be churlish. There are people who have been seriously impacted by this pandemic and their businesses are having a tough time.
“But I think, by and large, when I look across the local area and the business support groups, away from hospitality, leisure and retail, because I think we have got to treat that separately because they have been so specifically impacted by Covid, people are in a reasonable place. They have got this far and they are keeping their heads down.”
Ben agrees with Bank of England suggestions that the economy is currently a ‘coiled spring’ eagerly awaiting unlocking – releasing months of pent-up demand.
“I think that there is a huge amount of demand that is waiting to happen – people just want to get outdoors. We live in a consumer-driven economy….out there spending money and hopefully that is what people will be able to do over the next few months.”
Says Ben: “Our long-term growth plan is around IT and engineering. With the rise in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and automation, you think that naturally leads to having an impact on lower-level positions that may well be automated and taken over by robots. There is a lot of administrative work that can be taken over by AI-based systems, so we expect those roles to be potentially the ones that might fall away.
“But the flipside of that is that when you have robots and AI you need programmers and engineers to build and maintain those robots and AI. That is why we are focusing on IT and engineering because we know that is where there will be considerable demand for people with the skills to focus on AI, machine learning and automation.”
He forecasts a burgeoning demand for Software Engineers, Maintenance Engineers and other key roles within IT and Engineering, “areas in the UK that have been neglected from a general training and career development perspective in recent years.
“You will need more skilled people and we have to make sure that we have got the young people coming out of schools, universities and colleges with the right skills because it is really important that we have got that kind of pipeline to deliver those higher-skilled roles.”
But whilst large sectors of the economy prepare for the inevitability of IT and robots, the more immediate impact of Covid-19 continues to cast a shadow over UK plc.
Says Ben: “It is very difficult to talk about this with a broad brush approach about all sectors and all businesses. There are winners and losers, unfortunately.
“Some sectors have been hit very hard while there are some sectors that have done very well – you only have to look at the headlines and look at the big supermarkets and how well they have done, whereas a lot of SMEs have struggled.”
He dismisses suggestions that the office of the future will become extinct. “I think that what this has taught everybody is that not necessarily everybody wants to be 100 per cent remote 100 per cent of the time.
“We were kind of in a situation in the UK where we weren’t really embracing true flexible working and allowing people to work from home. We were then forced to move completely in the other direction with everybody that could do so working from home all the time. We will end up with a more happy medium once we are allowed to.
“I think for a lot of people, particularly in this third lockdown, the novelty of this has worn off, particularly when you combine it with home schooling.
“We are talking to a lot of candidates now that don’t want to work in roles that are 100 per cent remote in roles moving forward. They know they are at the moment because there are restrictions in place but they want to be going into the office on a day to day basis.
“It is about looking at each individual role almost on an ad hoc basis rather than a broad brush approach.”
The long-term effects of Covid notwithstanding, the team at Hewett remain true to the values first instilled by founder Louise Hewett all those years ago. As Laura says: “She realised that she could provide a more in-depth, reliable personal service, and those are still the values that we are guided by.
“It is not a numbers game for us, it is about really getting to know people, it is about the local market, the local connections and really looking after individuals.”
Ben adds: “Louise always said she never wanted a big empire. She kept it local. If you spread out too much you kind of lose that personal touch, which is what the business is built on.”
Laura said, “We have learnt a lot during this pandemic – it’s been such a difficult time for us as for many people, both personally and from a business perspective. But it’s important to take the positives and learning opportunities from it. We have massively upskilled and improved our capability in terms of the use of technology for what we do. We have also learnt a lot about cost-control and as a result have a leaner, more productive and more profitable company. Most importantly – Ben and I are still great friends – we’ve had to lean on each other at times, so if anything that has made us stronger too.”
With that kind of enduring philosophy, it’s fair to suggest that Hewett Recruitment will continue to be a fixture of the West Midlands recruitment sector long after the worst effects of Covid-19 are finally consigned to the history books.