We sat down with Khush Jabble, a former successful global engineering headhunter and the founder of KAPZ – a leading custom bicycle parts manufacturing company based in the UK – to talk about the challenges of recruiting engineers for some of the biggest infrastructure jobs, working for yourself as a contractor and changing industries entirely.

Engineering is so critical to an organisation’s bottom line, what is the number one thing you like clients to know before hiring a freelancer/contract engineer?

For me it has to be personality – all day long. Getting the right personalities into a team is the most critical aspect of recruiting successfully. More often than not, completely overlooked during the process, wasting time and energy of all parties involved. And it’s a subject I tried my best to hammer home to my clients on every project I worked on.

The right engineering skill and knowledge is fundamental of course, from a technical point of view, but people make teams. Getting the right personality mix is just so important and often overlooked, especially in the freelance sector.

I spent as much time meeting and learning about the team as I did, interviewing and assessing potential applicants for my clients’ needs. As a consequence of this, my shortlists were very short, the success rates were very high, the time expended by clients to interview and assess candidates was low as was the failure rate of all my placements.

What are your top tips for freelance-engineers?

Network, make new contacts, do your research, keep abreast of current news and happenings in your sector and in the wider sphere of your industry. Knowledge and contacts go a long way.

Even if your current assignment is going really well and you are super busy, with no end date in sight, it’s easy to fall into a hole. Time taken to keep all your knowledge up to date will serve you well in the future.

What excited you most about your former work as a head-hunter/recruiter?

Helping to create teams of the right personalities was always my main driver. Obviously getting the right skills into a business is critical. But the right personalities are the key. It’s the single biggest determination of success of a project. If you think back to the best projects you have worked on, it was the team that made it great, not the project.

Working as a retained headhunter, without any care on placement fees, I was able to focus clearly on the common goals I shared with my client. Successful placements would invariably become clients too, so building teams of the right people was the most important thing.

What is the one thing that frustrates you the most when dealing with a company who doesn’t understand engineering and freelance resource requirements?

It’s as much of a frustration as it is a failure of the freelance recruitment process, generally speaking. All the freelance recruitment campaigns I have seen have always been about bums on seats – we have a space to fill quickly, let’s get some CV’s together from any old agency and select one that looks like a good fit – big mistake!

Freelance recruitment should be handled with the same care and attention that permanent recruitment usually is. Technical and personality requirements are the key – recruiting on a great CV alone is a disaster waiting to happen, even with highly technical vacancies. It is so easy to create a proper freelance brief, but in my experience, it rarely happens. Again, I always managed the freelance recruitment briefs I was given exactly like the permanent briefs I worked on. If clients didn’t want to do it my way, I would much rather not get involved, as the probability of failure is very, very high.

What do you think sets apart contracting/temporary engineers from the more typical and traditional permanent staff?

On the plus side, the right ones are hungry, keen, flexible, multi-tasking capable and usually have a greater breadth of experience than career permanent employees do.

On the downside, because of the poor way we recruit freelance staff, they often have lots of short-term roles, with little in the way of completed projects under their belt, which permanent employees normally do.

Recruitment is a competitive marketplace for engineers and recruiters alike, how did you manage to maintain strong relationships and consistently recruit top quality engineers for so long?

Build strong relationships – work as a headhunter, not an agency, meet all of your candidates, learn to assess personality, take proper briefs from your clients and only work on roles where you have a proper brief and full buy in from your client.

Basically, it’s all about integrity – anyone can write a good CV, anyone can say anything they want over the phone, anyone can say we need a senior telecoms engineer. But can they describe in some detail the personality of the team and that of the ideal person that will compliment that team?

As a recruiter, work only on fully resourced vacancies, where you have met the team and have the full commitment of the client. Help them reverse the cycle of making bad recruitment decisions.

What are some of your most notable achievements as a recruiter over the years?

Apart from some key global hires at the most senior levels, I would say that I was instrumental in helping my longest serving customer change the way they looked at recruitment. Away from purely technical to a more human centred perspective on the recruitment process. The closer we got, the less effort was needed from their side. The shortlists became shorter and trust levels deepened, based on the years of effort and the results we achieved as a resourcing team.

What advice do you wish you had been given when you started your career?

Never work on a success only basis. Retained recruitment with the right recruiting partner is the way to go. The focus for the recruiter is on getting the right person, not a focus on a success fee and the commission. The ethics are just so right – from a recruiter to both their client and all the candidates they encounter.

We hear a lot in the media about the plummeting rates of secondary students taking up STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) subjects and the global engineering skills shortage – What do you think the future looks like for engineering recruitment and the ever-changing online technology advancements?

Even with a growing global population, engineering skills are plummeting. The industry is different, people are different, expectations are different and the way we work is a world away from the way we did just 20 years ago. Even though building a tunnel is still building a tunnel – moving earth, reinforcing with concrete etc. – the people managing this process are different. More technical, desk-bound, less hands on and less people orientated.

When I started in the industry, the personalities I dealt with were brilliant. Some of the most notable in the industry even today. But they are all over 60 and the new people coming through just want and expect different things. Successful recruitment has to move with the times. Sometimes, clients are stuck in the 90’s and as well as recruiting differently we have to try and portray our industry differently too.

Engineering is amazing and we need to sell “amazing” to the kids at school. I have some ideas, but I am sure someone else could do it better than I. Excitement needs to be sewn at a really young age. As a kid, maybe 8 years old, I remember being taken to a local construction project and watching the workmen lift the biggest pre-built steel roof into place on a local building – it was amazing and it really sparked my imagination. I became an engineer because of experiences like this.

Get the kids involved, spark their imagination, perhaps have meccano classes, I don’t know – but we do need to try and inspire the kids, in a different way. It’s a whole discussion that I would love to have.

If you had the opportunity to affect change in the engineering industry – what would that change look like?

I believe that over 85% of the people that an organisation recruits are actually already known to that organisation. I would love to have the opportunity to teach clients how to recruit their own staff, without having to rely on the expensive processes they currently have in place today. I think that over the course of 2-3 days, with the right team members in attendance, I could easily get them recruiting better people while significantly reducing the cost for each recruit. I did this successfully at CrossRail [a 73-mile new railway line under development in England, crossing London from west to east] and also at a number of other clients I worked with – the results were spectacular and the savings were huge.

What led you to create KAPZ and change direction?

I am a lifelong cyclist and mad-inventor – it must be in my blood! After 25 years in recruitment – I think I had had enough. Travelling around and working in the same sector for a long time can become a bit samey. I wanted to do something different, but had no idea what I could do.

Having created a custom bicycle product for one of my own bikes a few years earlier, it was always on my mind. So, one day I created a proper design, found a company to make some for me, created a crappy website and…BINGO! The business has been growing ever since.

Three years in, I was in a position to leave recruitment and concentrate on KAPZ full time. Like a dream come true. I get to design stuff, build stuff, get stuff made, create unique designs, deal with my customers and ship over 30% of my creations to customers all over the planet – I love my job. I loved recruitment, but sometimes complete change is the best.

And what are some of KAPZ’s most notable recent achievements?

Since we started, we have created a trend in cycling, customising your bicycle is now big business. Everything we make is made in Great Britain, which I am really proud of.

This year we were asked by Campagnolo, arguably the world’s most desirable cycling brand, to make some of our products for them – a relationship which is developing nicely. We have some more exciting plans for 2020 with them.

We are 100% solar powered and 100% outgoing, petro-plastic free.

And I have got a laser – how many people do you know that have a laser?

How do you spend your downtime?

To me downtime is as important as work time. In 2020, I decided not to be at KAPZ headquarters on a Friday and it’s one of the nicest things I have done – I am still available for my customers, but not there. I am usually on my bike, or with my two rescue donkeys. They live with me and my wife at home and we spend a great deal of our time with them. It’s the most magical and relaxing time we spend – when we are with the donks.