Job hunting on your own vs. using a recruiter

A former coworker contacted me last week. He’d been employed in the same place for the last 16 or 17 years and he couldn’t remember how to look for a job. Who better to ask than a guy who’s changed jobs 9 times in the same timeframe? One obvious question to ask regards job hunting on your own vs. using a recruiter.

In fairness to myself, government contracting causes a lot of job-hopping. And in fairness to him, the game’s changed a lot since the last time he had to play. IT Recruiters existed back then, but back then when you wanted a new job, you found it yourself.

I still use both methods.

He told me he didn’t think his recruiters were doing much for him. He may be right. Most recruiters I’ve dealt with submit as many people as they can for every job opening they find, hoping one will stick. If you’re the best fit, good for you, you’ll get the job. But you won’t get much help from them, beyond them getting you in the door. Unfortunately they’re sending you through the door with your competition.

Here’s another dirty secret: There’s a finite number of jobs out there, and any given recruiter can see 90% of them.

I learned this the hard way. Several years ago when I was in between jobs and bleeding out my savings account, I got a phone call about a job with a large company that needed a CISSP who could write, speak, and put together a good presentation when needed.

Sign me up!

The next day, a reliable recruiter called me about the same job. Other people I knew had used him before, and I’d been working with him at getting placed at pretty much every other large company in the area. I told him I’d already had another recruiter submit me. He gave me some good advice: When I get a call about a job I’m interested in, don’t commit to anything right away. Call him first and see if he has that job in his system.

He wished me luck, and said I was the best candidate in the whole metro area for this job and everyone knew it.

Guess what? I didn’t get the job. Not only that, I never even got an interview. That recruiter, given the best candidate in the whole metro area for that job, couldn’t get that candidate (me) a phone screening, let alone in the door for an interview.

That recruiter still calls and e-mails every couple of months with a job pitch, or wanting to meet for coffee. One time she even pitched me a job on the very same team I was working for at the time. I couldn’t resist writing back, “I already work there.”

Pro tip: If a recruiter on Linkedin contacts you, and the picture looks like it came from a modeling agency, it’s not someone top notch. You want to be represented by someone your prospective employer listens to for some reason other than because she flirts with all the managers.

A good technical recruiter knows how to pronounce SQL and Linux and can tell you at least one difference between SQL and Access, and knows not to submit a DBA for a sysadmin job or vice versa. They aren’t overly technical people but understanding technology is their secondary responsibility, and you want someone who’s not neglecting that part of the job.

In fact, the last technical recruiter I worked with was a tough interview. He asked me harder-hitting questions than a lot of hiring managers have, including hiring managers who didn’t hire me for whatever reason. (It happens.) He knew what he was looking for when it came to this role, and I had to convince him I was it.

But I don’t use recruiters exclusively, because there are some companies a recruiter won’t be able to help you get into.

Some companies think it’s cheaper to pay someone else to screen for them, and some companies think it’s cheaper to screen them themselves. The company you want might be in the latter category. You won’t know until you look.

Where to look? Linkedin for one, because all of those companies will be there. Any other job board can yield promising leads too. Old-fashioned networking works too. I usually get better job leads from former coworkers than I do from recruiters.

That same year that really bad recruiter couldn’t get me in the door, I read a book about job hunting. Her tactics never landed me a job so I won’t repeat them, I’ll just repeat the most worthwhile thing she said. She said not to bother applying for one job. Apply for ten. Use a spreadsheet to track each job you’ve applied for, with all of the key information, like points of contact, when you’ve talked to them, date and time of your phone screening, date and time of your in-person interview, date and time you sent your thank-you letter, a self-imposed deadline for following up, and anything else you might ever need to remember. During a cold job market you can probably keep track of it all in your head, but during a hot market you can’t. In 2015 I had three companies gunning for my services, and even with my spreadsheet I confused a few details along the way.

A good recruiter will keep track of some of those details for you, but if you’re using two recruiters, or if you’re using recruiters and hunting on your own, you’ll need that spreadsheet. And if you get a call from the hiring manager wanting one more detail, it’s helpful to have that spreadsheet for reference so you have all the details you need right in front of you. If you’ve applied for 10 jobs, some of those details won’t be fresh in your mind.

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