Headhunters Sniff Change in the Air for Exec Hiring

Rrecruiters show a spike in confidence for the job market over the next few months. But a dramatic improvement may be a lot further down the road.

To gauge a headhunter’s mood, look no further than the economy’s health. With prospects for financial fortunes getting a smidgeon rosier, recruiters are growing more confident that companies will soon resume hiring executives.

The surge in optimism is sudden. ExecuNet, a networking forum for executives that conducts a monthly poll of executive recruiters, found in its just-released May survey that 57% of 143 respondents were confident or very confident that the executive employment market will improve in the next six months. That was 16 points higher than in the April survey, and the second-highest monthly gain since ExecuNet launched the survey in May 2003.

The biggest increase? That came way back in the survey’s second month, coinciding with the easing of the previous economic downturn, when the confidence index shot up 20 points. “Responses are similar to what we saw coming out of the last recession in the second quarter of 2003,” said Mark Anderson, ExecuNet’s president and chief economist, in a statement. “Executive recruiters expect hiring to increase as we move toward the end of the year.”

For now, although headhunters’ confidence is shooting up, hiring levels are not. Recruiters interviewed by CFO.com were more guarded than buoyant. “Based on wetting your finger and holding it up in the air, we’re feeling some wind in the right direction,” says Chuck Eldridge, managing director of the financial-officers practice at Korn/Ferry International. “But it’s not quite there yet.”

And don’t look for that to change right away. The summer months are almost always the slowest time for the hiring of finance executives, Eldridge notes. Companies are starting to think about whether they have the right people, or enough people, in finance roles, “but no one is charging out and hiring 12 people,” he says.

Indeed, don’t expect to see robust hiring for the next 12 to 18 months, according to Barry Bregman, vice chairman of CTPartners. His firm’s business has grown slightly each month since reaching a low point in January, he says, and companies are looking at moving forward rather than just surviving. But he expressed no more than cautious optimism about a rebound.

The comeback, when it happens, may take a while to play out. “A tremendous amount of talent has been put out into the market, and there is a significant supply-and-demand imbalance,” Bregman says.

Still, there are pockets of relative strength in the finance employment market. Bregman says his firm has done more treasurer searches since the economy melted down last September than it had done in the previous three years. People with global tax experience and skilled internal auditors are also in strong positions to land jobs.

At the CFO level, Bregman expects many new hires to come about in tandem with new CEO appointments. Those should continue to be fairly common because of shareholder dissatisfaction and the fact that companies will be seeking different skill sets, “because we’re in a different market now.”

Meanwhile, even if companies are not yet ready to hire, some preparation might be in order “in case everybody decides the day after Labor Day to get into the [hiring] market,” Eldridge says. He’s advising clients that they should be researching available talent to create a pool of potential hires and “avoid being the last to market.”

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