• Sally Eubanks

Staffing Agencies: A History


It is no secret that staffing agencies play a huge role in recruitment for all industries today. Staffing agencies are no longer utilized simply to fill unskilled labor roles. In reality, a staffing firm can fill practically every position available in the twenty-first century. From administrative assistants to computer programmers and marketing directors, if you have a need, an agency can supply it. As in the past, staffing agencies are also still the experts when it comes to staffing general labor as well.

For something that has been such a big part of the American business experience, staffing agencies in the United States are a relatively new concept. Despite this, the idea behind staffing is much older.

Origins in England

The origins of staffing agencies can be traced back to England in the mid-1800s. Henry Robinson, a merchant, and writer suggested a bill to parliament that would introduce ​​an Office of Addresses and Encounters. The primary focus of this new ministry would be to connect Englishmen with establishments looking for workers. Although Parliament ultimately decided against the creation of the ministry, Henry Robinson did end up starting his own staffing agency. The staffing agency would eventually fail but in 1909, his dream would be realized with the Labor Exchanges Act. The Labor Exchanges Act 1909 was a Parliamentary Act that saw the introduction of state-funded labor exchanges, also known as employment exchanges. The goal of the program was to assist the jobless in finding work.

Before the act was passed, however, there were a couple of employment agencies that did quite well. In 1873, Gabbitas and Thring were established to help schoolmasters find work. Under the name Gabbitas, it still exists today. A few years later in 1890s America, the Mrs. A.E. Johnson Employment Agency was established. While it no longer places footmen and parlor maids, it still works to find servants and staff for America’s financial elite.

The Early 20th Century

The staffing industry as we know it in America today, however, began in 1906, after the Great San Francisco Earthquake. According to Ann Swain and Jane Newell Brown, authors of The Professional Recruiter’s Handbook: Delivering Excellence in Recruitment Practice, this agency was started by Katherine, “Kitty Felton”, also known for her social and charity work; including founding one of the first foster agencies in California. Katherine saw the devastation left behind by the earthquake and wanted to help people find work once more.

The Great Depression and World War 2

The Great Depression, starting with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 devastated the economy and the workforce at large. In 1933, during the height of the Depression, 24.9 percent of the total labor force, or 12,830,000 individuals, were jobless. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 sought to rectify this. It established the Employment Service, a countrywide network of governmental employment bureaus. The Employment Service aimed to enhance the operation of the nation's labor markets by bringing together job seekers and firms looking for workers.

Staffing agencies in America grew exponentially during World War 2. With so many men away fighting in the war, the country was left with millions of open positions, especially within factories used to aid in the war effort. Staffing agencies began to pop up to help these companies fill their vacancies, often with women. After the war had ended, the men who came home were in great need of employment. Staffing agencies were able to connect these men with companies that were hiring. Most of the jobs these staffing agencies were filling were blue-collar jobs evolving general labor rather than in-office work.

Modern Staffing

In the 1960s and 70s, America turned to staff agencies not for full-time, blue-collared workers but for temporary workers in all fields as well. Temporary workers were an obvious alternative for businesses struggling to hire and pay full-time employees, especially given the looming economic downturn in the 1970s. Temporary employees were no longer merely needed for administrative or blue-collar jobs; they were also needed in engineering, accounting, programming, and a variety of other industries. This is a pattern we still see today.

During the 1980s temporary employment increased dramatically, from 185,000 to over 400,000 per day! Staffing agencies also changed, functioning less as an outside entity and more like an extension of the HR departments of the companies they worked with. Rather than a one-and-done contract with companies, staffing agencies began to build working relationships; staffing positions for companies over and over again as needed.

Today there are over 20,000 staffing agencies in the United States alone. 16 million Americans work on a temporary or contract basis for staffing agencies in all fields from general labor, to engineering and business. With new technology, staffing agencies can keep large databases of potential candidates all over the world and attract more through social media and job boards.

The staffing industry has changed a great deal in the past century but one thing's for certain. The commitment to excellence is still there. The desire to connect the best and brightest in their fields with companies in need is always at the forefront of what staffing agencies do.


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