Contractors spend approximately 22% of their operational turnover tendering for work*. Across the entire transport and infrastructure sectors, there is a continuous flow of bidding and project activity. Some major bids can cost £5m-£10m for bidders, whether they are a contractor, outsourcing company, transport group or other key supplier.
Right now we’re seeing the first few contracts start to be awarded to the water contractors and consultancies bidding on AMP7, HS2 and Network Rail are announcing winning bids and several rail franchises; including Southeastern, West Coast Partnership and East Midlands Trains have bids in and are awaiting results (don’t hold your breath while you wait).
This constant cycle of bidding and delivery is just part and parcel of the industries we work in. But just because it is a way of life, it doesn’t mean that it comes without its challenges.
Finding the balance when it comes to recruiting for bidding is an extremely common dilemma.
Often, companies will need additional expertise to win and deliver bids or to tackle new projects. But should that bid be unsuccessful, then what do you do with the new recruit? And how do you go about attracting a candidate to a role that may not even exist? It’s the classic chicken and egg conundrum.
In our experience, there are four approaches you could take to tackling the bid recruitment quandary.
1. Proactive upfront recruitment
Recruiting key members of staff before the bid is submitted is a risk, but one that may be worth taking.
In this instance, it is crucial that there is good resource planning and communication between senior management (who know what is being bid for) and their HR/recruitment teams and external headhunters who have to go to market to recruit.
Essentially, what you need to determine is, “do we need this new person to win the bid?”
If timescales are tight, and work will begin almost immediately after the contracts have been awarded, then yes, you will probably need this person to secure a win. Equally, if scarcity is an issue and the project is so specialised that only five people in the country have the skills to deliver it, it’s pretty critical to have one of those people on hand from the outset.
The downside to this tactic is that you could potentially end up with an employee that you don’t have a job for. Likewise, it can be harder to get a candidate on board for a project that you haven’t secured yet.
From a candidate’s perspective, they will want to understand the company’s ambitions are for the projects being bid for, that there is a commitment to provide the tools and resources to enable a reasonable chance of success, and what the plan B will be should the bid lose.
One of our clients, a civil engineering contractor, is tackling this approach by recruiting a Project Director to work across a number of major bids. The projects are specialised enough that they require the skillset to stand a decent chance of winning, but they are minimising the risk by bringing someone to bid for multiple projects. The Director can then lead mobilisation and delivery of the successful bids.
Recruiting in freelance interims for the bid phase is an alternative option.
It can be a high cost during bidding but if you don’t win you can demobilise the team at a weeks’ notice. A disadvantage of this approach is that the interims likely won’t be around after to deliver the bid if successful, so it can lead to problems further down the line.
3. Conditional Offer Recruitment
Sometimes companies prefer to recruit in advance and make an offer before the contract award on the basis that they win. The recruitment process is started before the bid is submitted and the candidate resigns from their current role if the bid is successful.
This approach requires trust from both parties.
From the company, you will need to share some sensitive details about your bid in order to ensure that the candidate is aligned with the strategies and direction you have committed to. And from the candidate’s side, they need to honour the commitment to the company – perhaps by agreeing to have their name published in the bid.
A financial offer will need to be negotiated and agreed and everything lined up, deal done, with the offer accepted conditional on the bid win. So the obvious downside to this is that, if you don’t win, you’ve wasted a few weeks recruiting and managing the offer.
Another point to remember is that you will also have to factor in notice periods. So again, if you know the project will commence imminently after the award, then a long notice period isn’t going to be ideal.
4. Recruit if you win
Waiting to get the result of the bid is clearly the most straight forward option when it comes to recruitment. You will have a concrete role to sell to candidates, you won’t need a plan B and you won’t have to entrust sensitive information pre-bid.
However, when you consider that the search process could easily take a couple of months (potentially more if the role is highly niche) and add on to that a 3 month notice period, you could be looking at 5-6 months from the contract being awarded to the candidate starting.
If you know that you’ve got the time for this process, then this approach makes sense. But if this might be cutting it fine, or would jeopardise the chance of winning the contract entirely, then one of the other options will be better suited.
Recruiting around bidding activity is far from an easy decision and each situation will require a different approach, or perhaps even a mixture of all four.
What approach do you favour?