How Recruiters Can, and Can’t, Help You Get a Job

I get a lot of phone calls and emails from people who tell me that they’re looking for an executive recruiter to represent them in their job search. They’re hoping to find someone who knows the market, has a lot of contacts, and who will line up interviews with companies for them.

I disappoint them when I tell them that’s not what an executive recruiter does. As an executive recruiter, I’m working on specific searches on behalf of the company that pays my fee. I am always fair and honest with my candidates, and wouldn’t do anything that was against their best interests, but it’s not my role to look for jobs for them. That may not be what someone wants to hear if they’re looking for a job, but it’s how the business works.

Understanding the different types of recruiters is important, so you know what their priorities are, and you can stay more focused and productive in your job search.

Different Kinds of Recruiters You May Encounter

In-house recruiters are employees of the company. Generally part of the HR department, their job is to find, screen and process candidates for open jobs within the company. They may specialize in a certain type or level of job. How they interact with the departments they’re supporting will vary from company to company; in one company a recruiter might work to fill all open jobs in just one division or department, and in another company, they may recruit for only specific technical areas or job types.

In-house recruiters work on salary, and are sometimes bogged down in corporate politics or bureaucracy, so they might not be as responsive or effective as you might like. This is why there’s a belief that you should always try to circumvent the in-house recruiter and HR. But they are your portal and need to be respected. You want the in-house recruiter to like you and remember you because they also are plugged in to the company’s job openings, and can be a great advocate for you inside the company.

Agency recruiters work for an employment or staffing agency placing full-time regular employees. I started my career as an agency recruiter, placing secretaries and office staff in San Francisco companies. There are agencies that specialize in legal secretaries, accounting staff, promotional jobs, industrial labor, and other niches. Many do full-time placement as well as having temporary work. If you are an office worker in a non-management job, chances are there’s an agency that might be able to place you, so check around to see who might place the kind of job you’re looking for. Agency recruiters work on salary plus commission, or commission only.

Contract recruiters are outside contractors who have been hired temporarily to work at the company as an in-house recruiter. This happens often when a company is in a high growth phase with lots of hiring needs, and it makes economic sense to hire a contractor at an hourly rate, rather than hiring a full-time employee, or paying a lot of fees to outside agencies. The contract recruiting business was huge during the dotcom boom, with highly experienced recruiters commanding $100 an hour or more, and although hourly rates came down to earth a bit, it remains a common role with fast-growing tech companies who are having to hire quickly. For you as a job-seeker, it might be hard to tell the difference between a contract recruiter and in-house recruiter unless they tell you.

Technical recruiters know how to find technical talent. They might be in-house, or they might work for a contract staffing company, which is an employment agency that puts technical contractors on assignments with companies who have short-term needs, or who can’t bring on full-time employees for some reason. The technical contractors are paid by the contract staffing company, who bills the company, adding a markup to the employee’s hourly wage. There are some major companies whose workforces are heavily made up of contract employees, with contracts of a few months to a year. These recruiters are often also experienced in visa processing and immigration issues, since many technical contractors nowadays come from outside the U.S.

Executive recruiters focus on, well, executives, meaning management jobs at different levels, up the C-level executives or board members. Some executive recruiters focus on very specific niches; I met a surfer in Hawaii once who worked five hours early every morning doing recruiting top management for the steel industry. If you were in the steel industry, you would definitely want your resume in his files. There are recruiters who focus on sales executives, doctors, advertising jobs, or the textile industry. If you’re in a niche field, it is worth some research to find if there are recruiters who specialized in your industry so you make a connection with them.

How Recruiters Get Paid

Retained search recruiters work on retainer, which is a guaranteed negotiated fee for conducting a search—usually for a very senior job. The fee is paid for conducting the search, whether or not they decide to hire one of the candidates that the search produces. Retained searches are generally very complex and include a deeper level of research and evaluation of candidates.

Contingency recruiters work on contingency, which literally means on possibility. With a contingency search, the client doesn’t pay a fee until and unless they hire the recruiter’s candidate. I’ve worked primarily on contingency for my whole career, and like it because it means I am only paid on results. But it also means the work is done upfront, and if you don’t make the placement, you can’t recoup any of your costs. It also can mean more competition, since a company might have more than one agency or recruiter working on their search, as it costs nothing until they hire someone. Contingency fees are billed when a candidate starts working, and there is usually some guarantee period for the client.

Fees for executive search firms and staffing agencies are substantial, based on a percentage of the person’s salary. They can reach well over $50,000 for very senior jobs, which is a big investment to the hiring company. For that kind of money, they rightfully expect a lot from the recruiter, and well they should. The recruiter has been tasked with finding the very best possible candidate for the opening in order to earn their fee.

And that’s another thing to remember… when a company is willing to pay a big fee for the best person, they’re not likely to consider candidates who don’t fit the ideal profile. That means even the best recruiter can’t get a company to consider a candidate who falls short of the specs. For that kind of money, they want someone who’s pretty much a sure thing, whose background is on the mark. If you’re under-qualified but talented, overqualified but flexible, or making a career change, you might have a real shot if you’d come in through the HR department, but they’re not likely to take a risk with you if it’s going to cost them an extra twenty or thirty grand.

Connecting with the right kind of recruiters can be a key part of a powerful job search strategy, if you keep in mind what kind of recruiter they are, who their client really is, and that they are probably going to help you with jobs where you are extremely competitive and your experience is on the mark. Stay in touch with recruiters you know and build a friendly relationship, absolutely, but keep your expectations realistic.

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