Top Staffing and Recruitment Priorities for 2020: Relationships, Technology, and Talent

Recruitment professionals can expect challenges and opportunities in near-equal measure in 2020. The talent shortage, pricing pressure, and economic uncertainty represent major obstacles for businesses, yet the vast majority expect year-over-year increases in revenue (71 percent) and placements (77 percent). 

The goal for staffing and recruitment businesses is largely the same as in previous years, but the chosen paths to success are not. The top priorities for 2020 represent the most wide-open field in the history of this survey, suggesting that firms are adopting different approaches to grow and thrive in 2020.

Relationships rule the day


Staffing and recruitment professionals are focusing heavily on relationships with both clients and candidates. Respondents cite candidate acquisition as their top priority (43 percent), followed by client relationship management (34 percent), and candidate engagement (27 percent). 

Top Priorities for 2020
Candidate Acquisition 43%
Client Relationships 34%
Candidate Engagement 27%
Digtal Transformation 26%
Employer Branding 24%
Expanding into New Markets 22%
Internal Training 21%
Diversifying Business 15%
Social Recruiting 14%
Expanding Breadth of Services 14%


Although candidate acquisition is still the top priority overall, it has a much narrower lead over the rest of the pack this year—in 2019, 61 percent cited it as a top priority. Client relationships took the biggest leap this year, moving from the number-five priority to the second priority overall. Given the prolonged talent shortage (the number one challenge for firms in 2020) and economic uncertainty (45 percent predict a recession), firms appear to be doubling down on relationships and customer loyalty to weather the storm.

61% of respondents cited candidate acquisition as their top priority for 2020

While relationship management is top-of-mind for the majority of staffing and recruitment firms, capitalizing on overlooked opportunities is a great way to gain a competitive edge. The bottom three cited priorities by agencies were expanding VMS (Vendor Management System) business, reskilling workers due to the changing nature of jobs, and leveraging secondary sourcing partners and offshore recruitment agencies.

Reskilling, in particular, remains an appealing opportunity for firms to differentiate themselves from the competition. Three-quarters of respondents believe reskilling is an effective way to address the talent shortage, yet only four percent say reskilling is a priority for 2020. 

Investing in reskilling can go a long way to solving the number one challenge amongst firms: tight talent pools due to skills shortages and gaps.

More than half of the largest staffing firms drive at least 25 percent of their revenue from VMS, yet expanding VMS business continues to rank in the bottom three priorities of staffing and recruitment agencies. While VMS business isn’t viable for everyone, it might be worth reconsidering if you’ve dismissed it in the past.

Let’s dive deeper into the top priorities for this year.

Candidates (acquisition and engagement)

With no end in sight for the talent shortage, it’s no surprise that talent is considered the most precious resource in today’s competitive landscape. North American, Benelux, and DACH respondents cited candidate acquisition as their top overall priority, as did small firms (1-50 employees).

Tellingly, candidate acquisition and candidate engagement are not valued in equal measure. Compared to the 43 percent of firms who will prioritize acquisition in 2020, just 27 percent will afford that same attention to candidate engagement and the candidate experience. Given the value of redeploying workers and the importance of a firm’s reputation to attract candidates, agencies that put all their efforts into placing candidates at the expense of providing a good experience risk damaging their candidate acquisition efforts in the long run.

The greatest illustration of this discrepancy is among DACH respondents: 58 percent plan to prioritize acquisition and sourcing, and only 11 percent plan to prioritize candidate experience and engagement.

Client relationship management

In a people-centric industry like staffing, it should come as no surprise that improving client relationships is a top priority for most staffing firms. Staffing and recruitment C-suite executives and practitioners (recruiters and salespeople) alike cited it in their top three priorities.  UK&I, North America, and APAC respondents also flagged client relationships as a top priority; DACH and Benelux respondents were far less likely to do so.

Small firms are much more likely than larger firms to emphasize client relationships in 2020, potentially suggesting that larger firms already believe their management processes are strong, while smaller firms still see room for improvement. 

Another possibility is that larger businesses believe that focusing on other priorities will also improve client relationships. For example, larger firms cited embracing digital transformation as their second-highest priority (digital transformation is the fifth-highest priority for small firms). Businesses that leverage technology to improve their operations can then gain deeper insights into their client relationships and ultimately provide a better experience.

I still believe at its core, staffing is very much a people business. You have to stay in touch, you have to talk to people. If you’re just texting or you’re just doing nurturing campaigns and things of that nature, you’re not gonna be able to build a rapport.

Gary Cook, President and CEO, Pacific Companies

Embracing digital transformation

While some firms have already adopted some automation and AI-influenced technology to run their businesses, most agencies have yet to make this leap wholesale. The findings reveal a major variance in the interest level in digital transformation depending on company size and role.

As mentioned, respondents at large firms (500+ employees) are far more likely to be all-in on digital transformation than their smaller counterparts. A similar discrepancy arose between executives and practitioners. The C-suite rank digital transformation as their second priority, while digital transformation didn’t even crack the list of top five priorities for staffing and recruitment practitioners, clearly because the latter don’t often have strategic decision-making authority, and digital transformation is a top-level strategy. 

Automation is a disruptive force. We’re going to have disruptive capital. And the organizations that aren’t able to adopt automation will perish. They won’t be able to keep pace with their competition.

Kyle Tothill, Managing Director and Partner, eHire

Regionally, DACH and Benelux respondents cited digital transformation as a top priority much more often than in North America and UK&I. Even for those that are less likely to prioritize digital transformation, this year’s survey represents an increase in interest from last year. This trend is likely to continue: once automation and artificial intelligence are fully harnessed into the recruitment workflow, they will likely have profound implications on the industry at large.

Digital transformation is a top priority for my business in 2020

NA 21%
APAC 27%
Benelux 33%
DACH 52%
UK&I 24%


Employer branding

Solid marketing leadership within the staffing and recruitment industry is not a given: a recent study found that 61 percent of staffing and recruitment businesses have neither a CMO nor a VP of Marketing. Despite this, marketing is still a focal point for respondents: 24 percent of firms identified employment brand development and marketing as a top priority for 2020. 

24% of firms responded that brand development and marketing are top priorities for 2020. 

Geographically, the Benelux region ranked employment brand development and marketing as one of their top three priorities, while the DACH and North American regions were less concerned with it. Smaller firms indicated a much greater interest in employer branding than larger firms, which could be due to the fact that larger firms typically have more established marketing departments and brand recognition. 

Staffing and recruitment professionals in healthcare, IT, sales/marketing, and light/industrial all valued employment brand development and marketing as one of their top five priorities in 2020. While investing in marketing leadership can be expensive, a cohesive marketing vision is incredibly beneficial to the long term success of a firm.

Expanding into new markets

The globalization of the recruitment industry is well underway and it provides opportunities for firms to expand into new markets more than ever before. Two-thirds of staffing and recruitment professionals view globalization as an opportunity in 2020.  APAC and UK&I respondents are the most likely to see globalization as both an opportunity and a priority.

Part of the reason for this optimism is that recruitment is already a global industry. It’s no surprise, given the money at stake. Staffing Industry Analysts estimates global revenue at $466 billion, with forecasted six percent growth. And that’s not counting the size of the global gig economy, which comes in at a staggering $3.7 trillion. Those are some pretty hefty incentives for recruitment businesses looking to scale.

As a result, many of the most successful recruitment businesses in the world operate globally. Of the 100 highest-grossing recruitment agencies, more than 80 percent operate in multiple countries. This figure would be even higher if not for Chinese recruitment agencies that do an international level of volume within different regions of the same country.

The many expansion success stories domestically and internationally may explain why more businesses this year plan to expand into new markets (22 percent to 18 percent).

Carving a path in 2020: choose your own adventure

What strategies will you use to tackle your top priorities and ultimately grow your business in 2020?  There’s more than one path to success. Whatever your priority, leveraging technology and capitalizing on underutilized opportunities (like reskilling), will be key to success in 2020 and beyond.

Content Marketing Specialist


Ben is Bullhorn's content marketing specialist who focuses on many mediums of digital storytelling, including video and podcast editing/production, blogs, and social media. During his young professional career, Ben self-founded InVision Media, a small business supporting companies and organizations interested in promoting their message and value proposition via marketing through social media and video editing. Before joining Bullhorn in 2018, Ben was the captain, president, and social media manager of the University of Maryland Men's Ice Hockey team.