The History of Recruitment

How new is the recruitment industry? How did people find jobs throughout history? 

The idea of a recruitment agency first took hold during World War II, when there was a sudden urgency to fill vacancies left by those who joined the armed forces. But through the ages, there has always been a need to find the right person for the job… 

When I first joined Harvey John, totally new to the world of recruitment, I was curious to find out more about the industry. I wanted to dig deep and discover how it has evolved. How did recruitment work in the past and what role has it played in history? 

Most people (including myself) might assume that recruitment is something that only really started in modern times. And, in some ways, this is correct.

Modern Day Recruitment

What we consider modern-day recruitment only really started during and post World War II. This is when agencies were set up to start filling gaps left by soldiers who had gone to war, and women got the opportunity to fill the roles of their male counterparts. Where would we be today if it wasn’t for those amazing women?

The importance of agencies continued to grow at the end of the war with the need to carry on filling the gaps of those who had unfortunately not come back and reintroduce returning servicemen and women into the workplace.

Recruitment was very different to the way it works now. Job adverts were simple descriptions in a newspaper or a physical job board. Agencies started to thrive as they were the ones connecting the candidates to the right industries. Recruitment agencies encouraged soldiers to write resumés, making it easier to send them in the right direction.

Resumés and agencies may have become popular during the war years, but they weren’t a product of World War II. The first person to write a professional resume was Leonardo Da Vinci in 1482. Looking for work in Milan, Da Vinci sent a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the Regent of Milan, describing his many skills. Perhaps the world’s first CV?.

The first recruitment agency was started by Henry Robinson in 1653. He made a proposal that there should be an “Office of Addresses and Encounters” to help link workers with employers, which was refused by the British Parliament, but Henry went on and opened his business anyway! There’s that recruitment drive we like to see!

A call to arms

Recruitment in its most basic form can be traced back even further. Military recruitment is the oldest form of recruitment and there is evidence of it with the Egyptians, Romans and in Imperial China.


In Ancient Egypt, the King would recruit soldiers for his kingdom, ensuring he had the best men to beat his enemies. Kings couldn’t rely on tribes providing them with men as there was no guarantee of the talent they were getting. Doesn’t sound too far off of what recruitment is about now, but instead of conquering a country, it’s companies trying to ‘conquer’ an industry!


What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, aside from roads, the aqueducts, the calendar we use today and even underfloor heating, they also influenced how we recruit. Would you believe me if I told you that Julius Caesar came up with the first employee referral program? There is evidence in the British Museum that he signed a decree offering Soldiers a reward of 300 sestertii if they brought another soldier with them to join the army.

They also started temp work by hiring mercenaries from Germany, Armenia, Arabia and so on, and one of the benefits was the potential to become a Roman Citizen. Offering incentives to get recruits is something we still see today. Another aspect they had to incorporate into military recruitment was scraping the class structure so that anyone could apply. I don’t think this was out of any form of kindness it was mostly due to the higher-class citizens tending to opt for jobs in business or in other fields.


Lastly taking a look at Imperial China. They had introduced something that was termed the “exam from hell” by the British. The Imperial Examination was created during the Han Dynasty. It was used to find the best potential candidates for certain roles within the structure of the government. Examining candidates is still used in so many industries to test suitability, it’s fascinating to learn where it started!

As a lover of learning and with a fascination for history, I loved finding out about how recruitment started out and how it has changed throughout the years. In the next blog, I’ll be looking at how recruitment changed and expanded after the 1950s.

Alex Louise is a member of the Operations team at Harvey John.

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