When I first started recruiting, I worked on tech jobs. These were desktop, and hardware, and sys admin, and then some developer and designer roles. I knew next to nothing about the technology, but in 1999, neither did anyone else. Heck - we were hiring kids out of college with C++ course to be Java programmers for $45-60,000.
As I got better, and the tech did as well, the old argument that recruiters should know what they were working on led some of us to get CIS degrees (most of them got out of the industry). I thrived by asking questions, and my business really went wild once I started posting interview questions like what to ask a Java Swing candidate. In addition to traffic, hiring managers would call me and argue about what I posted (managers don't call recruiters unless they have to - in case you're wondering.
In 2006, when I rolled out of recruiting to join my wife's marketing firm, I focused on social media. Blogging, copywriting, and SEO were my bread and butter, matched with her design prowess (just check out Brandstorming.com for a taste). As I got better, social media exploded, and I found myself consulting with firms large and small to do the work I once recruited for. That led me to work hard at learning digital, including email, PPC, and the full marketing stack from story to distribution. That made me a better recruiter, because I was recruiting for the roles I performed (and later managed).
And what I found out was the old saw that candidates wanted recruiters to understand what they worked on was not universally true. Calling as a peer, candidates found that lying to me was more difficult than the recruiters they were used to working with. I burrowed down into details, and I joked with them about using the wrong jargon. And you know what - they hated it. I didn't realize in technology how much I was missing - in my early career blindness, I was practicing matching candidates by how well they pitched a story and how serious they were about the job. In today's world, I see massive flaws in candidates, but I also see massive flaws in the job descriptions, and had to learn that the perfect candidate was one who could survive the interview and then thrive at the job. That's not always clear on the resume.
It's true that knowledge of an industry helps, but after a decade in digital, I'm finding the gaps in my own experience. I don't have millions of dollars running through my fingers, which means that I'm behind the curve in understanding social display for the Home Depot. I'm not testing a 5,000 page sites traffic using eyeball tracking and service virtualization (no one is doing that last one, yet). I'm not up-to-date on the size of pictures of the best phones for Facebook live, and I've never looked at my website on the Microsoft Surface Pro.
In short - the experience I've relied on to sell and recruit as a digital expert is no longer accessible unless you're actively inside a team of people doing the work. That doesn't mean I can't still place someone with experience using Facebook Ads to drive webinar sign-ups that fit into the Hubspot funnel, but it does mean that if I were tasked to do the job - I'm no longer able to sit side by side with a candidate and compare notes.
It's a career arc that is strange. I went from knowing nothing to knowing everything (that you needed to know to hire for social) to knowing some parts of everything. My biggest challenges now are making sure I stick to the script, listen to the candidate, don't jump ahead, and most important - that I don't mistake nostalgia for technical competence.
I once firmly believed that a career recruiter should be able to effortlessly switch industries, as knowing how to recruit was more important to knowing who to recruit. That insight wasn't wisdom, but rather the experience of working on different technologies that moved faster than our ability to learn them. If that's still true (and it seems a constant), then no recruiter can ever be expert in their field unless their field is dying.
That's too much thinking, and it's the nostalgia trap instead of real understanding. Do you know why managers and candidates think they need recruiters who understand them? It's because our industry hires entry level recruiters and burns them through them. The number of inexperienced or new recruiters is always several times greater than the number of experienced recruiters. A new recruiter at a tech firm in San Francisco is going to talk to hundreds of people in a week, while I talk to the top 20% in the industry. This means that most of the people talking sand emailing with recruiters are talking to inexperienced recruiters. Internally, recruiters have multiple requirements and a lot of process to manage. The niched recruiters internally tend to work themselves out of the job and move on.
It's very likely that managers and candidates are mistaking technical expertise for a recruiting model that brings them recruiting expertise. It would have been simpler to point this out in the beginning, but for those of you who've read to the end of this post, would you have believed me?