In the August 5, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a headhunter’s troubles reveal how job seekers can help themselves:

flounderingI just read your expose on CareerBuilder (Employment In America: WTF is going on?). I have used them over the years with very mixed results, and now they’re eliminating my discount and almost doubling my cost. A major disappointing rip-off.

I am a niche technical recruiter in a sector that has thousands of jobs not being filled because there is a lack of heavy-industry engineers. I am on Linkedin with up to 14 million connections to the 3rd level. There are some legit contacts, but the recruiter tools are a rip-off. And like CB and Monster, their sales people are relentless and care little for their customers’ results.

I have been doing direct e-mail campaigns and making calls, and I’ve been posting to niche boards. I got slammed by junk resumes on Indeed. Monster wants to sell me a $5,000 per month program, and I am hitting the wall. I have used some professional sourcers and it has been a struggle. One sourcer’s fee would be 50% of the fee a client would pay me.

I am floundering. All the techie features of these online systems can be a distraction! What else can I do to find good candidates for my clients? This is still about finding good people for good companies. Part of the problem is that the people I am searching for in heavy industry don’t publish, don’t attend conferences and don’t operate or participate on blogs. The companies that I work for trust me and they know their positions need to be filled with leprechauns riding unicorns chasing purple squirrels. Nick. I don’t want to be a lousy recruiter. It is still an important service that changes lives… hopefully for the better. Any advice is appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

I hope job seekers, whose questions we usually discuss here, can learn something from my advice to a troubled headhunter.

The solution is old-fashioned. You have to go where these people (candidates) hang out — wherever that might be. You talk to people who know people in the business – and ask for referrals to other possible sources. You do this primarily on the phone, but as much as necessary by e-mail, too. The point is to create a potent network of solid contacts so that insiders in heavy industry will know who you are and refer others to you.

LinkedIn is little more than a fancy phone book. Everyone is in it, but consulting it isn’t recruiting. As you can see, a list of 14 million people and their data is useless in itself. And the job boards deliver swill by the bucket. The reason a company uses a headhunter like you is that this takes hard work and there are no shortcuts. That’s where the huge headhunter fees originated – for all the hard work. Those professional “sourcers” you mentioned — they actually identify appropriate candidates in very challenging industries, and that’s more than half the work of headhunting. Of course they want half your fee! The online shortcuts just don’t do it.

I’m not trying to give you a hard time, just a reality check. Headhunting is 90% meeting and talking with people all day long. That’s where assignments and candidates come from. I know you know this, or you wouldn’t be telling me how all these “services” don’t really work.

You can start with your clients. Meet with them and ask them where their best hires have come from – what cities, what companies, what schools, where? Then I’d start cultivating contacts in those places.

Then go to heavy-industry engineers you have placed. What competing or related companies do they admire? Do they know engineers there? What continuing education courses do they take and where? Sign up for some of those classes — it’s where you’ll meet engineers and sources of good contacts. What conferences do they attend? Attend them yourself. (I don’t buy what you’re saying. Engineers congregate with other engineers. Your challenge is to figure out where.) Don’t just talk to attendees; talk to the organizers and presenters. They are great sources of candidates. Just don’t forget to return favors!

I’m sure you know people in manufacturing, finance, operations, marketing and sales. Many of them know engineers who know the engineers you’re looking for. That’s who those “sourcers” are talking to. Your job is to talk to them, too.

For the job seeker

How Can I Change Careers?Networking is not about using people. It’s about hanging out with the people you want to work with, where they hang out — talking shop, contributing to your professional community and making friends. The How Can I Change Careers? Answer Kit (36 pp., PDF format) provides tips and tools for career changers and job changers alike, including:

  • A good network is a circle of friends
  • The basics of good networking
  • How to initiate insider contacts
  • Tell me who your friends are
  • PLUS: Create your next job
  • PLUS: Put a free sample in your resume
  • PLUS: A crib sheet to help you explore, choose and research the right opportunities; tips on how to enter a circle of friends; how to define an employer’s needs and map your skills; and how to create a business plan for a job that will make you the profitable candidate in an interview.

I’m also sure you know quite a few heavy-industry engineers who are not looking to make a change. Buy them a nice lunch anyway and pick their brains — express an actual interest in their work. Become more of an expert in the field you recruit in, and you will start to see connections and opportunities you never saw before. Don’t ask these engineers for referrals; instead, offer them introductions to other people that might be beneficial. For free. Become a hub of good contacts without expecting any return and those engineers will start referring their friends to you because they will come to see you as more than just another headhunter who throws buzz words around — they’ll see you as a valuable industry resource.

For the job seeker

The best headhunters are looking for you in places where the best of your peers are talking shop. They cultivate potent networks of solid contacts — and job seekers can do exactly the same for themselves. For a more structured approach to how job seekers can meet and work with the best headhunters, see How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you (130 pp., PDF format). It includes these sections and much more:

  • htwwh1Why don’t headhunters return my calls?
  • How should I judge a headhunter?
  • What are all the different kinds of headhunters?
  • Are online job boards a good way to find headhunters?
  • What’s the secret to getting on a headhunter’s list?
  • What kind of resume will make me the headhunter’s #1 candidate?
  • How can I find a good headhunter?
  • How should I manage a call from a headhunter?
  • Should I divulge my salary to a headhunter?
  • How should I negotiate with a headhunter?
  • Can I boost the salary range for a job?
  • Can a headhunter hurt my reputation?
  • Should I tell a headhunter who else I’m interviewing with?
  • PLUS: How do I keep a headhunter from squeezing me out of negotiations?
  • PLUS: How do I avoid having my resume tossed in the trash?

Like good jobs, good candidates are found through relevant contacts and hard work. (Who is relevant depends on how creative and insightful you are. That’s another thing that makes those big headhunter fees hard to come by.) The contacts you need will grow out of your active participation in the professional community you recruit from.

I admire how seriously you take your work. But no one is going to do it for you, and no online service will replace you. Take that to the bank.

How do the best headhunters you’ve met operate? We’re always talking about what’s wrong with headhunters. Some of them are very good at what they do. What’s right about them? Please share your experiences. Let’s talk about how to use the best headhunters’ best methods yourself!

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  1. Huh, and here I thought the kind of headhunter you are talking about went out of style decades age.
    After multiple situations of having recruiters throw me at anything (did you even read my resume?) then promptly forget about me, I have come across a company that seems to do it the way I like it. I am currently on a temp-to-perm. They call me every single week to check up on things. They periodically visit the work site – both their hires and the people we are working for (and they bring breakfast for everybody). At both interviews I have had, they have met me at the client site before the interview to wish me well and to meet the interviewers face-to-face (and give them their cards). They get my feedback after the interview and let me know how helpful it will be to them for placing future candidates with that company.
    They make me feel like a valuable asset.
    So, when I get inundated with dozens of emails for the same job from fly-by-night recruiters, guess what I do. I send the job description to my guys and tell them I’m interested in it and find out if they can submit me for it. And if I go through someone else or apply directly, I also let them know about it.
    And I recommend them to any of my co-workers looking for a job.
    It’s all about relationships.

    Another simple hint for recuiters: please speak slowly and clearly when you leave me a phone message. I don’t care if English is not your first language, but I won’t bother to return calls that I have difficulty understanding.

  2. Nick, as much as I admire your advice, with regard to heavy engineers, there is some additional information that would be helpful to your recruiter correspondent. As someone who has worked for more than two decades with “heavy engineers” (nuclear reactor plant construction, maintenance, operations), what I know is that they way they get jobs is by talking to other heavy engineers.

    Also, at least for the nuclear world, it is a relatively small industry with only a few firms (dozens, not hundred) doing a majority of the hiring.

    Finally, many heavy engineers are specialists and more than a few have their Professional Engineer (P.E.) registration, so they can afford to be picky when it comes to responding to a recruiter’s siren song.

    One-on-one personal networking will be a path to success. The reason is that as a group of “no nonsense” folks, heavy engineers rely on “who do you know” as a validation check mark.

  3. The first recruiter I ever met was also the best. He recruited in a niche market (artificial intelligence). I contacted him regarding a position with a large defense contractor that had openings for AI researchers. He explained the position to me, what the company was looking for, who I would talk to, etc. He gave me a quick tutorial on how to ask and answer questions. I still use those techniques today. After the on-site interview, when I couldn’t get anyone at the company to return my call or give me a status, he contacted them for me and gave me feedback. He set my expectations for how a recruiter should act – needless to say, I’ve been pretty disappointed. Yo Dave, if you see this, thanks for help.

  4. To extend some of the advice, look to the professional organizations and conferences. Also, ask former candidates where they would go to look for possible positions. Every industry is different and changes over time so that sort of research is very valuable.

  5. Just a thought…look for expert engineers for litigation. These are the guys that testify for the parties to support their case. You should be able to find them on “expert” websites. Contact them and they may refer you.
    Ahhh, to have gone into an industry where there are jobs!

  6. @Nick, this is slightly off-topic, but is it just me, or is this article on finding employees pure nonsense?

    Could you decifer this?

    Employers are just starting to …

    (A)care about talent?
    (B)spend a buttload more money on pscychobabble
    (C)doddle and delay even longer before hiring?
    (D) spend more on training?
    (E) (Something else??)

  7. On a slightly different note, I recently got the strangest non-rejection letter from the HR department at a place where I recently interviewed.

    “the Program is currently working on an extremely large bid which if won, would see them grow exponentially. This has required the resources of the entire team to complete and is the reason for the delay in the panel reaching a decision for this recruitment.

    Please note, this is not a reflection of your performance, skill or application and we endeavor to communicate results as soon as possible.”

    I guess it’s sort of nice to update me on the status of an application that I forgot about (I’ve been working on writing and projects since), but it is pretty bland. haha

  8. Wow! My first mentor told me to treat people like people and to act as if I’d be in the business forever. I’m glad I have tried to do this. Carl, thanks for the pointer to Nick’s site. This may fill a void left when my favorite industry publication suffered after the founder retired. I have only read this page so far but what I see here makes me want to know more and it has me suspecting job-seekers would benefit from the books and articles here.

    This has made a great day even better in a number of ways. Thank you Carl and thank you Nick.

  9. In the Bay Area ‘Meetup’ is how I have met a few great recruiters.

  10. @Some guy:

    “business leaders increasingly recognize that the right talent is critical to bringing business strategies to life, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers”

    That’s about the dumbest piece of “marketing content” I’ve seen this year. Thanks for sharing it. Remind me never to hire PWC. What’s even more surprising is that anyone would print such PR claptrap.

    As for that rejection you received, more power to them for staying in touch. Note to other employers: See? It’s not so hard, is it??

  11. A couple of things come to mind…

    The traditional job boards and LinkedIn has already been tapped out. You’re just competing against other recruiters and your clients (if they have their own internal recruiters). And many people just classify most of the email as spam and ignore the phone calls.

    I would still not ignore conferences and publications. I have attended IT related conferences over the years and most of them have gotten at least 400-500 people and some upwards of 1,000. If you can’t find one person in that crowd to fill a position you’re working on, then I think your approach may have to be tweaked a bit.

    As Nick says, you may have to hit the streets for referrals and expand your net.

  12. Great advice, Nick. And here is my principal take-away: a good headhunter is a good networker, a good headhunter is a social butterfly (not in the bad sense, but someone who is an extrovert and pro-active), a good headhunter loves to meet people and hang out and talk with them.

    It is not a job for introverts, unless you have incredible self-discipline and can overcome your personal tendencies. My work is marketed the same basic way — I offer specialized consulting services to a niche market and find the only way to get clients is to make friends up close and personal. I like doing that, but often wonder what the hell I would do if I didn’t.

  13. @Larry Kaplan: When I worked in Silicon Valley, my best clients invited me to company dinners, parties and other events so I could better understand the organization and the people. They knew I’d never recruit from them or misuse intelligence I gathered for any purpose but to help them. A good headhunter is a confidant to the client and to the candidate. If we use it judiciously for the benefit of both parties, we win big. It’s a fun business if you’re honest and if you love talking with people and paying attention.

  14. @marybeth,
    Since you worked at a large state university, when I read this book review, I thought of you.

    @Nick, I’m sorry I am off topic here, but I’ve been reading your blog, as you know, and Marybeth’s posts for years and I wanted to share.

  15. Nick,

    Re your comment in the August 5 e-newsletter:

    “Networking is not about using people. It’s about hanging out with the people you want to work with, where they hang out — talking shop, contributing to your professional community and making friends.”

    This is the best definition of networking I’ve ever come upon. It takes ‘networking’ out of the realm of manipulating others, using them for one’s advantage and treating others as tools to climb to the top. Truly a step forward as a lesson to ALL of us on how to behave in business.

  16. Great column, Nick! In some ways, it is nice to see this kind of letter–and illustrates the challenges faced by those recruiters and/or headhunters who are ethical, professional, and want to do right by their clients and the candidates due to the warp-speed changes in technology as well as the procedural changes in the industry (generally speaking). Too much reliance on computers, software packages, unreasonable expectations (point and click et voila, you instantly get the perfect candidate at rock bottom prices).

    I, too, had a negative reaction to the words “networking” and “schmoozing”, probably because when people use them, they do have negative connotations. The vibe is a “he’s doing this so he can get something out of me” or “he’s trying to talk me into something, looking for a favor from me”. The impression is that it is one sided, and that one person is “using” the other person without any return of the favors. I think that is why people wince when told to network or to schmooze. It seems so fake. I took a look at the definitions of the words in the dictionary (wonderful reference tools, dictionaries) and they are much more neutral without any of the manipulation that people think of when they hear those words.

    I like how Tim summarized it, and that is a great way to think about it. Perhaps if more of us thought of it that way, we’d all do better. And, of course, remember to return the favor (someone gives you a tip, makes an introduction, etc.) or pay it forward. Maybe you won’t be able to give back to the person who helped you, but if you believe in some kind of karma, if we all pay it forward, we all benefit.

  17. Another possibility for desperate recruiter would be to check out veterans’ groups and any military connections he (whether he served or someone he knows served) may have.

    Cat also made a fantastic suggestion–check out expert witnesses (pick your field/industry) for litigation. Many times it is the same experts, but that means they’re knowledgeable and could steer him in the right direction (to others).

  18. LinkedIn was sued for non-payment of wages due hourly workers. They’ve been adjudicated as “deadbeats” and have agreed to pay up. Do they treat their customers better??

    NPR’s Morning Edition reported that employers may have to change their own behavior re picky, unrealistic hiring practices. The “news” appears to be just catching up with the rest of us who are actually well-informed on this matter.

  19. @marilyn How funny. I hardly ever tweet or update on LinkedIn. This was from Monday when I updated my Amex transactions on Quicken. Sry it’s a bit off-topic from the OP.

    Wow LinkedIn! Raise my price 36% and not even the courtesy to mention it? Maybe I’ll try that and see how it goes over with my clients.

  20. @Dave: BINGO!

  21. @marilyn, Dave Staats: See this new blog posting, which summarizes two big legal problems confronting LinkedIn:

    Does any of it remind you of TheLadders?

  22. Another source for the LW is to contact colleges and universities that offer engineering degrees. If it is a large university (like my former employer), then the school of engineering may have a career services employee working in the school, just dealing with the engineering students and alumni. If it is a smaller college, like my alma mater, then it might be useful to contact their career development office first. They may have an employee who just handles the engineering students and alumni. And even they may tell you to contact the engineering dept.–sometimes faculty and administrative staff will be more aware of who is looking for work, who has the skills, degree, certifications, etc. that you want. It isn’t just for soon to be graduates or recent graduates but at many colleges and universities, there is an active alumni association, and many times the career development office’s services are available to alumni too.

  23. @Lucille: thanks for the link, and for thinking of me! I’ve skimmed it (at work during a lull), and when I have more time tomorrow I’ll read it more closely. Academia is its own industry, and has its own quirks and oddities that can make it a challenge when job hunting, plus often very set ways of hiring. On one of my LI groups (Higher Ed Jobs) one of the current questions posted was about an adjunct faculty member looking for a headhunter to help him get a better job. I did email him separately, and told him about ATH and Nick’s commonsense advice as well as the fantastic posts from readers. No one who replied could steer him to a headhunter, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of schools using headhunters to hire faculty. Upper level administrators (provosts, chancellors, etc.) yes, but for faculty hires the depts. want to control that process.

  24. @marybeth: I’ve been around academic environments a lot, and I’ve never heard of a school using a headhunter to hire faculty. Kinda makes you wonder where someone would even get that idea.

  25. @Nick: Me too (I’ve spent the last 12 years in academic environments, and earlier in my working life as well), and like you, I was bewildered by the question. Many adjuncts today are the slave labor of academia, and many take adjunct teaching gigs to help pay some of the bills and get some experience but for many, once they adjunct, they find it difficult to nigh impossible to move to even a full time non-tenure track faculty job.

    All of the others who replied to this gentleman told him the same thing–for faculty positions, tenure track, non-tenure track, visiting, adjunct, you deal directly with the dept. No one had ever heard of an academic dept. using a headhunter to hire faculty. As a staff member at my last job, I sat on a number of hiring committees, including several that were for faculty hires (they were often required to have at least one if not two staff members on the committee), and I can assure you that it never even remotely entered anyone’s head to think out outsourcing the hiring of any kind of faculty in any capacity to a third party (e.g., a headhunter). I’ve seen it used (not too often) in academia for some very high, upper level administrative jobs, far above the school or program dean level (but sometimes for the dean of international students, or something like that).

    I wondered too, and although those who replied were kind in their responses, everyone told him that headhunters aren’t used for those kinds of hires.

    The only thing I can think of, and it is mere suspicion and reading between the lines, is that he’s frustrated with the lack of response from the depts. to which he is applying, and perhaps someone in another industry mentioned using headhunters, or that the new boss was found by a headhunter. You would think that even for an adjunct professor, he would be familiar enough with the academic culture to know that those who get interviewed and hired for teaching posts don’t come from headhunters. From other faculty, yes, from the dean, yes, from personally knowing the person (e.g., an alumnus/former student), yes. From a headhunter? No….

    His questions and remarks reminded me a bit of my parents’ comments to me not too long ago when they remembered that my brother had been contacted by a headhunter (even though they forgot or didn’t hear the bad outcome for my brother) and asked me why I didn’t just go out and hire a headhunter to find me a job. I explained that it doesn’t work that way, and later I printed out one of your more recent letters and advice to show them the next time I visit. Maybe reading the words of an actual headhunter will help.

    On the one hand, the frustrated adjunct’s question wasn’t so far off the mark. After all, headhunters are common in many industries and for many jobs, so I suppose that in some way it is logical to think that if headhunters are used elsewhere, why not academia. But that begs the point of this adjunct either not knowing, not paying attention to, or ignoring the academic culture, particularly when it comes to faculty hiring. I suppose it is possible that he just didn’t know, but his question made me wonder how observant he was, whether he had any kind of relationship with his dept. chair, program director, dean, or even the dept. sec’y (the latter would be a great source of info that he might not get from other faculty). It is also possible that he’s just clueless because as an adjunct, he may not have an office, access to secretaries and other support staff, serve on committees, or even know the other faculty in the dept. He might just show up for class, teach, and go home. I’m trying to fair to him too.

  26. @Nick: Not familiar with the behavior of Ladders but not happy to hear it reflects the same as LinkedIn. Short term gains continues to be the investor mantra, it appears, and in any way one can “get away” with it.
    Thx for the reference.

  27. @Lucille: thanks for the link! Funny article, but with many elements of truth.