In the July  9, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader says all the job-search tools are mind boggling. What delivers the best job choices?

Question

job choicesI can’t decide whether to change employers or try for an internal move. I haven’t had to search for a new job in over a decade. The number of “tools” being marketed is mind boggling! Job sites, coaches, intelligent agents (really?), video resumes, and my favorite, services that use “big data” to match me to the perfect job. I tried one service that sends jobs to my mobile, but it’s spam. Can you recommend a few of the very best services to try?

Nick’s Reply

Your best job-search tool is the one between your ears. When you subcontract your job choices to someone (or something) else, you may wind up pursuing what comes along, rather than what you really want.

The employment industry is forever telling us that we need Big Data and career experts to guide us to our next great jobs. We need coaches and counselors and someone else to write our resumes. We need job boards and intelligent agents to deliver “opportunities” to our mobile devices. The problem is that while these tools may turn up something novel, they also lead us to relinquish our power to choose what’s best for us.

Which do you choose?

Try this little test. Think about going to interview with a company that found your resume in a database. What company? Well, one the database matched you to. So you go on the interview. How well would you come across in that meeting? How high would your enthusiasm and motivation be?

Now think about a product you really love, or a company you’d do flips to work for. Imagine what it would be like to meet and talk with a manager at that company. Exciting, eh? Incredibly motivating?

So, why would you let a database pick your next opportunity?

Relying too much on career help can make us passive and less effective. Take control of your career and learn how to advance it by pursuing what motivates you. How can you do this without automation and “professional” help? By taking small steps.

4 steps to your next job

In the world of psychology, we know that a daunting task — like job change – is best approached in steps. Succeed on the first little step, and you’re ready to take the next. Achieve several successes, and your confidence grows. Soon, you know you can reach the ultimate goal, and your self-assurance signals others that you’re worth hiring. Take charge. Take four steps on your own to get where you really want to go.

1. Talk to managers in your company

I’m glad you’re considering an internal move, especially if you feel you work for a good company. There are people who would pay a coach a lot of money for help to get a meeting with managers in your company. Yet, you can poke your head in almost any manager’s door almost any time you like. Pick one in an area you’re interested in. Introduce yourself. Ask the manager for advice and insight about how someone like you might fit into their area of the business.

Establish your credibility with the manager by briefly outlining what you accomplished last year in your current job. Talk about three things you did that helped the company. Then, ask the manager to name three challenges they see in their department. Suggest what you might be able to do to help. With proof of past success and ideas for what’s next, you have set the groundwork for an internal interview. It’s up to you to decide when is the right time to make a specific request.

2. Talk to a friend

Go visit a friend who works at a company you admire. Meet their co-workers and discuss your careers. What better way to “get in the door?” People pay to join networking groups to make new career contacts – but it’s hard to win the trust of strangers. So start with people that know you.

Your friends are the best sources of new contacts and ideas, if you put your heads together and consider who you know that can give you the advice and insight you want — before you actually need it. When you let other people open doors for you, it enhances your status. The next step is to return the favor: Offer introductions to the new folks you meet. One more step, one more success!

3. Talk to a company

Yes, directly. Not via a job ad or resume or recruiter. Pick your target company. Who do you know who knows someone who works there? How about the company’s customers, vendors, consultants, banker, accountant, or lawyer? I can almost guarantee you can find someone who will introduce you to an insider. (See Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door.)

But, don’t ask them for a job interview. Instead, ask about their work. It’s an easy step – all you have to do is listen! Ask what they’re reading that influences their work, and for their insight and advice about their industry. Make a friend, and you’ll become an insider worthy of a referral to a new job.

4. Go to a professional event

Most job hunters freeze at the thought of picking up the phone and calling someone they don’t know. They’d rather write a stiff, formal cover letter ending with a plea that’s often interpreted as a threat: “I will call you in five days to schedule a meeting.”

From How Can I Change Careers?, p. 28

Attend professional and industry meetings regularly. Then take the next step: Offer to speak or conduct a workshop on a topic you know well. Attend more meetings. Become an active participant. Offer to help others. Become a hub of information and introductions. This takes time, so start taking steps now. The closer you are to the action in your industry, the closer you will get to managers who might be your next boss. (See Shared Experiences: The key to good networking.)

You’re right. So many tools are being marketed to help you find a job that it’s mind boggling. Most of them don’t work. Worse, almost all of them make you a bystander to the selection process. Don’t jump at “opportunities” that come along, and don’t subcontract your career choices to some database or to a coach.

The best career tool is between your ears — it’s you. You’re good at your job because you do it step by step. You can build confidence — and the network you need — to succeed at career change. Or you can wait for Indeed and LinkedIn to text you with your next job.

Start taking small steps toward the goal you choose, not the one that comes along. Every one of those steps is other people who do the work you want to do.

Where is the locus of control in a job search when we rely on automation, databases and “experts?” How do you choose the companies and work you pursue? What “tools” actually limit your choices? What tools expand them?

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31 Comments
  1. You make it sound so easy, Nick. And it’s not rocket science, but I admit I struggle with these steps. 1) & 2) are out of the question, 3) I have no clue about, even though I’ve tried asking friends and acquaintances for their opinion on companies with good reputations (I’m not looking in a local market, so that confounds things), and 4) is tricky as well because I’m trying to change my career path, which was never linear in the first place.

    If I could get in front of flesh and blood I know I could stand a decent chance of getting a job, since the majority of my past jobs were acquired through direct interaction. But that was 20+ years ago, and now I can’t get past the damn ATS, no matter how much I tweak the resume to get a good score on these resume scanning sites.

    Why don’t these “recruiters” and “human resources” people see what they’re missing out on when they rely on technology to cull their candidate list? I am so fed up with this broken hiring process.

    • @Askeladd: I feel your pain. But respectfully, I have to tell you that I think you’re copping out on yourself when you say my 4 suggestions are out of the question or tricky. This all takes a lot of work; there’s nothing easy about it.

      But please consider: You are implying it would all be a lot easier if you could just get in front of the right people. There’s the problem. My 4 steps are designed to do exactly that. All 4 require personal interactions! So, why are you stuck on the automation? (Recruiters and HR, for the most part, are ALL automated!) Don’t be angry at the automation. Avoid it. Ignore it. Focus on talking to people.

      While talking with your manager(s) may not work if you want to leave your company, the other 3 are all do-able. As for #2, you’re saying you have no professional friends — but that’s tantamount to saying you can’t make any. That’s just plain wrong. #3 and #4 are intended to help you make such new contacts. But you have to actually go out and do it.

      Look, I’m not singling you out. I’m really addressing anyone who feels the way you do but just doesn’t come out and say it.

      “Why don’t these “recruiters” and “human resources” people see what they’re missing out on…?”

      Because they don’t have to. They don’t get paid to hire. They get paid to process keywords. They have no skin in the game. They don’t get paid to find you. They get paid to process you when an algorithm spits you out on their desk.

      Please: Find a meeting of people who gather to talk shop about whatever career it is you want to switch to. Attend. Be honest. Meet people. Ask for advice and insight. It takes time and effort.

      The only way to successfully get in front of “flesh and blood” is to find out where those people hang out (online and “live”) and go there to be with them. The only way you will know what to say in an interview for a new job in a new career is to meet and learn from insiders first.

      I know you’re frustrated. And yes, the process is broken. So, go around it. Don’t fall for the idea that someone will do it for you.

      • Thanks for the straight talk, Nick. I know the key is meeting people, but as others have mentioned, it’s a challenge for those of us who tend towards introversion. Not saying it’s an excuse, but it does pose an extra hurdle compared to those who are social butterflies. I know what the key is, and I realize that I am the only one who can use that key to unlock the job search mystery – I can’t sit around and wait for someone to drop a decent job in my lap. However, knowing a fact and knowing how to use that fact are not the same thing :)

        I’m seriously considering quitting my current job (which has a ridiculously paltry pay anyway) and taking up taxi driving doing airport runs while I try to find a better job – crazy hours but it’ll be a financial improvement over where I find myself now. But the real payoff (I hope) will be the connections I can potentially make with businessmen going to & from the airport. It’s certain to be a much varied mix than seeing the same co-workers day in and day out at the factory.

        • @Askeladd: If you really feel introversion is limiting your ability to meet and talk with people, there are ways to learn the behaviors necessary without “selling out” your personality. (I’m not a fan of forcing anything.) I’m not plugging anything in particular, but I know people who have had great success (and fun) with groups like Toastmasters and the Dale Carnegie program. Both teach the steps necessary to “open up” and communicate comfortably and confidently. Some of us are forced into such learning. Early in life I was terrified to speak up anywhere. After being put in situations where I had to speak, and after freezing up and sweating more than once (!), I finally got the hang of it. Now I just keep talking until nobody wants to listen :-). Taxi driving might work for you, but don’t limit yourself. If you think something is holding you back, please consider learning how to break out of it — it could pay off handsomely. I wish you the best. And be careful out there if you’re taxi driving!

      • >As for #2, you’re saying you have no professional friends — but that’s tantamount to saying you can’t make any

        I think if you can’t make any professional friends then you won’t have any.

        I’m unsure on what exactly that phrase means if it is similar to an acquaintance in desired profession. Then I imagine it’s a lot easier in the kind of location and with the right kind of job. How do you meet these people if you can never get the time off work to attend the meetings?

        Or if your in a remote area? Perhaps there is an opportunity for an online version for introverts.

        I presume there are some introverted employers and hiring managers.

        Quite a few of my friends are quite active on reddit and open source email list(esp programmers)

        I’ve never worked out the networking aspect,but I feel like 70% is there.

  2. 1 & 2 are the only viable tools remaining.But the following are last century.

    “Talk to a company” Have you ever done a cold call lately? Many companies do not even have a central number. It is all online now. screened by bots and AI. Drop in? start with a trip the the city assessors office to find out who is occupying the premises. Maybe even do an FOIA (freedom of information act). Companies work in incognito now. Notice that many firms with a front office main door have a sign stenciled on main door “NO SOLICITORS” which means you will get a free ride to the police station in a cruiser if you persist, even if you don’t there is no receptionist to direct you.

    “Go to a professional event” There has not been one in the last 10 years around here. They are all online now, so you will never find about about it until it is over.

    • True that. I’m the executive assistant to the chairman/CEO and I can get a dozen cold calls a day. So many people want a piece of him. The phrase “well maybe YOU can help me” is guaranteed to get me to hang up on you. My executives will not take a cold call, ever, for any reason, and I’ve been told to get rid of those callers tout suite. I have the power to link you up with these folks, and even I don’t have a suggestion on how to do it! Stunts like showing up where they are are just creepy and guaranteed to get you banned from that location (our building security will bounce you fast) and will do much more harm to your name than good. Honestly, the only way I could think of to buttonhole one of my guys is to play golf (or be a caddy!), and most folks have neither the interest nor the funds to do that. Going to a professional event is still a viable idea, but I’d rather chew tinfoil than work a room. I suppose that’s just an excuse and I need more practice, but ugh…!!

    • @Eddie: Cold calls?? Who wants to make cold calls! Cold calls don’t work. They’re just as big a crap-shoot as applying for jobs online! If it’s a cold call, you’re doing it wrong.

      @Squeakalicious: You’re very good at your job, which is guarding the gate. Why would I engage with a guard at the gate? I’m not into arguing or fighting.

      And the idea that it’s impossible to get to anyone? The Internet and modern culture make it easier to get to anyone we want to — if we get off our duffs and stop relying on tech to make the connections!

      So there has not been a professional event “around here” in 10 years? Look up your chamber of commerce. My bet is they hold functions of some kind, in person. An event is online? Sign up and attend before it’s over. Or buy the download and listen to it to figure out who the movers and shakers are. Read the agenda. Who’s going to speak? Study up on them and the topic they will speak about. Then ask them about the substance of their topic before the event, or at the event, or after. They will talk to you. Speakers love to talk to their audiences about their topics.

      There is no “I can’t” or “it’s just not possible.” There is too much “I can’t be bothered to step out of my comfort zone.” Because then you’re not worth hiring. Sorry for how that sounds, but “Fill out this application and wait” is far worse.

      • More on professional events. Organizations that put on events have websites and Facebook pages. Go to them. They’ll post when the next event is. Most of the online only events I know of are commercial, from companies doing training. Professional societies still meet face to face.
        I hope that @Eddie doesn’t think that the CEO is the person to connect to. Try a hiring manager or a worker with a good reputation, say one who writes. I hate to say it, but calling the CEO is lazy.

        • @Scott: I’d rather talk to a sales rep, an engineer or an accountant. Anyone who will dish about the company and who knows lots of people in it. A CEO isn’t going to be very helpful unless you’re a VP :-).

  3. I looked down into the pit, and there, in the dimness, I could see two figures, a man and a woman, huddled against the far wall. On the other side was a ladder, underneath where I stood, that reached to the top, to freedom.

    The man looked up, saw me, and cried out, “Help us! Come down and help us!”

    “I’m not going into the pit,” I called back, “but there’s a ladder on this side. Come over to the ladder and you can get out.”

    “We can’t,” the woman whimpered, “we’re chained here and we can’t move.”

    As my eyes adjusted to the available light, I could more clearly see the man and the woman … the chain that bound them … and their hands, wrapped tightly around the chain, clutching it with every ounce of strength they had.

    “Let go of the chain,” I shouted, “Let go of the chain and you’ll be free.”

    “We can’t,” the man whispered back, “it’s too strong for us.”

    To the best of my knowledge, they are still in the pit. I was in the pit once, and I’m not going back down. But if they would let go of the chain and walk to the ladder, I would hold it for them as they climbed up.

    • “Oh, look,” my coworker whispered loudly. “Here comes that idiot that can’t seem to use his words to say what he means. I’m so sick of his stupid passive-aggressive allegories!”

      “I’m with you,” I laughed, rolling my eyes. “Let’s to Starbucks, shall we?”

      When we returned he was holding a ladder against the wall and muttering to himself. We kept a wide berth going forward.

    • Jesus spoke in parables so the uneducated and unsophisticated might understand. Confuscius used aphorisms because they were easy to grasp. The Brothers Grimm told stories to convey lessons. Chris Hogg told a story. The lesson is clear to anyone that is stuck in their own acquiescence. “Let those that have ears, listen.” The pit keeps people in.

  4. Another potential way to meet people is to volunteer for a non-profit organization that has a need for your skills. A) You are doing good for the world, and B) you may be able to interact with business leaders who also volunteer and/or serve on the board.

    My husband’s cousin is in marketing and he did this after being fired from a previous role. It restored his confidence and he met a business owner who was impressed with his ability and ended up offering him a job.

    Separately, Nick isn’t recommending cold calls. He says, “Pick your target company. Who do you know who knows someone who works there? How about the company’s customers, vendors, consultants, banker, accountant, or lawyer? I can almost guarantee you can find someone who will introduce you to an insider.”

  5. Where there is a will… there is always a way, though very often not an instant solution.
    Cold call a manufacturer? Call their tech support or engineering support. Ask a question about a product then try to get a bit more information regarding possible employment ops. from the company tech.
    Remember, this is a process. A means to an end. Think strategic and tactical. Like a job opportunity hacker and chip a “bit” of your search task away at a time.

    • Great idea!

    • You know, career counselors like to say “looking for a job is a job – so treat it that way!” I think that’s wrong. Looking for a job requires the skills you probably use when you’re working, so apply them to your search. Research, analysis, talking to insiders. Trying to use “job hunting skills” doesn’t work, because nobody hires you (or pays you) for your job hunting skills! This is perhaps why so many people get sidetracked. When I say, Talk shop, I mean make the work you do/want to do the focus of your job search. (Forget about reading through job listings.) The more people you can talk shop with, the more doors will open. What do you think it means when we say, Most jobs are filled through personal contacts? It doesn’t mean somebody called you and said, here’s a job for you! No — more likely they introduced you to someone who introduced you to someone else who thought you were pretty smart — and then recommended you to the hiring manager.

      • >The more people you can talk shop with, the more doors will open

        I like that given a certain value of “talk”. If I write a blog article full of shop talk and it gets a million views on reddit.

        How many people have I had a “shop talk” with? (Shop read and write? Shop Convo?)

        What if I ‘do the job’ then pay for a full page spread showcasing it in the newsletter of the city I’m aiming to get work in?

  6. Big data was mentioned. I used to work in this area, and a lot of people don’t understand it. Big data is big. Big data is looking at millions of Amazon orders or website hits. If you work in any kind of a specialty, there isn’t enough jobs out there for statistical methods to be accurate. (Though the job boards will claim they are.)
    Big data has a problem with outliers. But outliers (or people who can market themselves as outliers) are the people who get the jobs.
    If a job placement agency talks big data, check your wallet and run.

    • @Scott: That’s a Big Point! Big Data is thrown around like, uh, algorithm and AI by the job sites. It sounds good. It has nothing to do with matching people to jobs. It’s an over-statement that seems to mean, “We have loads of data, er, jobs, in our database! It’s BIG! Yah – Big Data!”

      I’ll never forget hearing Jeff Somebody Or Other, president of Monster.com, once say in a news interview that Monster uses “semantic processing” to match people to jobs. WTF??? (My training is in cognition and language — and Jeff’s use of the term is b.s.) He might as well have said “Big Data!”

      • @Nick Corcodilos

        Semantic processing in tech has a slightly different meaning.

        From the semantic web which is webpages both machines and humans can understand instead of needing two sets of data or processing (one for machines and one for the people)

        I’d give them algorithm since every computer uses an algroithm in every function.

        Just turning it on and off again launches the boot sequence and shut down algorithm.

        Spreading about big data and AI is going to make it much harder for people in those specalisms to find jobs that can actually use their skills rather than just being buzzwords.

    • I thought Big Data’s problem was that it relied on predictability but humans aren’t predictable, so it doesn’t always work.

      • @Mongoose: Exactly! No one has shown that any of all the “Big Data” predict a good job match. Here it is from cognitive scientist Dr. Arnold Glass at Rutgers:

        “It has been known since Binet and Henri constructed the original IQ test in 1905 that the best predictor of job (or academic) performance is a test composed of the tasks that will be performed on the job. Therefore, the idea that collecting tons of extraneous facts about a person (big data!) and including them in some monster regression equation will improve its predictive value is laughable.”

      • Big data finds patterns that people have trouble seeing. A classic example, IIRC, is that WalMart found a correlation between snow shovel sales and hot cocoa sales. Obvious once you think about it. They put hot cocoa by the registers during snow season and increased sales.
        How that has anything to do with job boards is what I don’t see. I’m not sure they even know who gets hired, I’m sure they don’t know how successful the hire was.

  7. Do you hate to network and/or to meet new people in general? It can be like a special circle of Hell for shy people, introverts, and people with social anxiety or autism. I often found it excruciating, and I’m sure that I’ve missed out on opportunities as a result.

    But in 2013, the Wall Street Journal printed a fantastic article entitled “How to Be a Better Conversationalist.” It literally provides step-by-step instructions for making small talk. Turns out that’s a skill, like anything else. Who knew?

    The article is posted online…I’m not certain whether you can read it without a subscription, but check with your local library for potentially free access.

    I am not related to the article’s author (nor to Rupert Murdoch, God knows). I have no vested interest in promoting the Wall Street Journal. But if I could have had this information as a youngster…say, back in 1973…it may well have been life-altering. I am not joking.

  8. ….this afternoon I meet with a mentor who is helping me figure out how to start a business. I am doing this while keeping my full time job. More importantly, because I am taking control, I am feeling a better sense of well being.

    I am excited about the possibilities. I am not waiting for my next job – I am creating it.

    I also find myself not worrying about getting laid off as much.

    It is a lot of work, but I am enjoying the process.

  9. @Askeladd and Nick:

    Askeladd
    “Why don’t these “recruiters” and “human resources” people see what they’re missing out on when they rely on technology to cull their candidate list?”

    Nick
    “Because they don’t have to. They don’t get paid to hire. They get paid to process keywords. They have no skin in the game. They don’t get paid to find you. They get paid to process you when an algorithm spits you out on their desk.”

    I have another view on this, a very cynical one. HR doesn’t want to give up on tech because that is what enabled them to stage their coup and take over the hiring process. Before the I-net, companies advertised jobs in newspapers and trade publications, and the smaller number of resumes ensured that they were passed on to the hiring manager (or the ad even included the name of the hiring manager and resumes went directly to them).

    Also, in many cases, HR does not have good intentions. They are after control and power and have an agenda to remake the work world according to their biases. A number of times I’ve been told after trying to use contacts that a particular company’s policy is that all applicants must go through HR channels and hiring managers may only interview applicants forwarded to them by HR.

    I suspect that’s what I’m facing right now in my efforts to get in with a newly formed outfit that is a joint venture of three major shipping lines, one of which I worked for before and left on good terms. I not only know one of the top VPs, but worked side by side with him on a major project of his (at his request). After I resigned from the company, he asked if I’d come work for him on a contract basis while I was conducting my job hunt. He has vouched for me and there are others in the company who will do so. But they are deferring to HR on the question of whether I get an interview or not. So a VP can recommend that I get an interview, but HR can apparently nix it. (You see, I have a gap.) The company lost $586 million in their first year of operation (keep in mind that this isn’t a startup, but a joint venture of three well-established companies). They are advertising a lot of jobs, and seemingly have a turnover problem. The HR doesn’t even have a careers page on their website to advertise openings. Instead, they are using LinkedIn, Indeed, and I think even ziprecruiter.

    Yet even though I have a good track record of major cost savings in the industry, have the endorsement of a VP and others, and the company should be desperate for good people, HR is still in control and I can’t get an interview.

    And why don’t managers (even top management) stand up to HR? Because they are scared of them. If you don’t prostrate yourself before the high priestesses of HR, they’ll end your career in a heartbeat.

  10. I found Nick’s website/newsletter in 2014 when I was laid off from a large defense company. After buying/reading his book on making a career change, I took the courses I needed to qualify for taking the CPA exams…passed the exams…then couldn’t find a job in my local area. With a referral from a CPA (family member) in the area where I wanted to move, I was hired as an accountant. (Just finished the CPA experience requirement.)

    Networking Case 1: I live in an apartment complex and have met a number of people because I walk my dog every day. I became friends with a few people. One is the CFO of an engineering company that makes products everyone would recognize. A few months after meeting this couple I was asked to submit a resume to the CFO’s company. They don’t have a current opening but I was told they are always looking for good people to hire. I was completely focused on finishing the experience requirement for the CPA, so I haven’t explored this opportunity yet. The CFO thinks I would be a good fit for their company because I am a licensed PE, having left engineering for accounting after a long career. (Yes, I am retirement age, but still healthy and active.)

    Networking Case 2: One night I was returning to my apartment with my dog and a second person told me he is starting a business and wanted to know if I would consider becoming his new company’s accountant. This potential opportunity is very interesting to me as it is related to a favorite hobby of mine and I would love working in that environment.

    Neither of these potential opportunities would have come about except for the fact that I engaged deeply with the people I have met here. I shared information about my life, careers, and motivations and listened well when they shared their experiences and interests with me. In neither case was I seeking to change jobs. Nick is right. His ways definitely work and I am grateful his materials gave me the courage to make a radical career change.

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