A lot of readers ask me how to find a recruiter to help them find a job. In general, my answer is: Forget it. Headhunters don’t work for people who need jobs. Headhunters work for people who have jobs to fill.

The way this works is the hiring manager has a specific type of person he needs to hire, and that person is hard to find. The hiring manager cannot spend all the time it will take to locate this person, so the hiring manager pays a recruiter to find this special person.

“Few headhunters are in the talent management business,” says Terry Gallagher, of the search firm Battalia Winston International. “Most executive search firms only represent their client’s interests and executive staffing needs.” This means, recruiters start with a specific position to fill, not a specific candidate to employ.

Recruiters are expensive. Often 20% of someone’s starting salary. This is not peanuts. So you can be sure that companies do not hire recruiters to find people with general qualifications. General qualifications are easy to fill. If you are a generalist, there are lots of people like you.

So look, if you are entry level or you are changing careers, you are not going to be attractive to a recruiter. Entry level people do not have any special skill that would make them fit a job that retained recruiters get hired to fill. And people changing careers do not have specific skills in their new career, they have specific skills (at best) in their old career.

Headhunters don’t work with career changers. Headhunters work with superstars. And maybe not always superstars, but the less star power you have, the more of a specialty you have to have. Are you the only person in the world who knows how to build an inventory system like Wal-Mart has? Call a recruiter. Are you the number-one salesperson in all of Yahoo? Call a recruiter.

But the thing is that those people don’t need to call recruiters. Recruiters call them all the time. Recruiters know who the amazingly talented are. It is no mystery. So if you want to get on recruiter radar, you need to focus on making yourself look amazingly talented — in a proven-track-record way, not in a my-mom-says-so way.

If you think you are at place in your career where a recruiter would be interested, Michael Keleman at Recruiting Animal says, “Do a search of recruiters on LinkedIn. There are zillions of them there and some might indicate that they are in your area. Contact them and ask if they work with candidates like you. You don’t have to contact them through LinkedIn, just call.”

If you’ve got great experience, you might get special treatment from the recruiter. Recruiter David Perry, for example, has been known to represent candidates like they are movie stars. But most of the time, Keleman says, “You resume will go into a database until a company hires the recruiter for a seach you’re suited for.”

So go ahead and try getting a recruiter’s attention. But focus more on networking on your own, and doing great work, because those are the keys to getting good job opportunities.

Enter your name and email address below. No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

43 replies
  1. Erik
    Erik says:

    I think there’s a difference between using a headhunter on your current job hunt when you’re not working and keeping in touch with job hunters while in your current job.

    Headhunters can be very valuable at bringing you new opportunities that you might not otherwise be aware of, and this can be part of the continuous job hunt Penelope is always writing about.

    In this instance you are interesting to the headhunter as someone in her database who has a specific skill set that the headhunter may be trying to fill at some point in the future, but you won’t be calling every week to find out about the latest job openings she is trying to fill.

  2. Stephen Seckler
    Stephen Seckler says:

    While I think your characterizations are generally correct, there are exceptions. Recruiters tend to be looking for superstars and in general, cannot do much for individuals looking to make a career change; however, not all recruiters are simply peddling their listings.

    In my organization, for example, we only work with candidates we think we can place; but we do not limit ourselves to making introductions to firms that have a stated hiring need. We actively market our candidates to create more opportunities for them. If I have a strong candidate who has good credentials and a skill set which is in demand, I do not wait passively until a client articulates a need. I talk to the clients about the candidate to see if they are thinking about making a hire.

  3. Fred
    Fred says:

    Agents work for whomever is writing their checks. Job seekers can hire agents too. And headhunters most certainly do work with career changers.

      • Bobby
        Bobby says:


  4. Phil
    Phil says:

    Headhunters are transactional in how they conduct business. They are paid by their customers (companies not individuals) to find the right candidate. No candidate = no paycheck for that job.

    Most of the recruiters I’ve encountered love you while they’re trying to sell you to the customer. Once the customer decides you’re not it, then you get dropped like the proverbial hot potato. While it is unfortunate that such is the case, it is the nature of the businss, and nothing personal. Once the job seeker realizes this fact, then using recruiters in a job search becomes another tool in the process.

  5. Fran
    Fran says:

    I agree. They can be as nice as it gets if they need you. But the moment they are no longer interested, you’re out of the picture. It’s better if you do things on your own. You’ll be more ready to face the criticism.

  6. Roger Vanstone
    Roger Vanstone says:

    Yes recruiters work for who signs the cheque (the client, hirer) and does “get dropped like the proverbial hot potato” but only because if we talked to every candidate that we DON’T have anything (jobwise) to talk to them about we would never have time to speak to anyone else.

  7. Irene
    Irene says:

    It would be nice if it was easy to get the attention of recruiters. With the increasing number of people who are unemployed, it would mean a great deal to have a job. However, it will only make people more dependent on recruiters and will not decrease self confidence.

    • Kristine @ Retained Executive Search
      Kristine @ Retained Executive Search says:

      I think you meant will not increase self confidence. And I definitely agree. Just like this day and age we use computers to do all our bank transactions and social interactions, recruiters would then be our main source of way to get a job. Then job recruiters would be like web programmers/designers…”able to charge any price”.

  8. Aaron Erickson
    Aaron Erickson says:

    Understand that a recruiter sees candidates as marks – they are looking for an easy placement into a position, so they can get their commission quickly.

    If you want the attention of a recruiter, make their job easy. Have a reputation for being great at interviewing. Have an impressive resume. Have a reputation in your field (awards, public speaking, attendance at events).

    In other words, set yourself apart. Which, amazingly, is great advice anyway.

    Like Penelope says, you want to make yourself available to recruiters. One way to easily do so is to not only do a linkedin profile, but put your email address in your name when you do so. If you do that, and you have a reasonable size network in the system, you have at least set the table. If there is any market for your skills, you WILL be contacted.

    If not, at least you are in linkedin building a network. which in this economy, is the key to the really good jobs – not to mention the only real job security available unless you are in a big union.

    And a slight correction, there are NOT an increasing number of unemployed, as Irene claims. The unemployment rate is currently at its lowest level since 2000 – 4.5%.

  9. Dave Staats
    Dave Staats says:

    Penelope, I can’t wait to meet you in October. It’ll be huge fun. Commenter Aaron, “marks’ is an ugly word. If I saw people as marks I would not have 2 people I have placed 3 times,3 people I have placed twice,1 guy placed at the same company twice ,both times for a fee, a million dollar client who became a candidate, a candidate who took a counter-offer hiring a dozen people from me and many placed candidates hiring people from me later. My two oldest relationships in recruiting are the second guy I ever placed and another guy I’ll never place.
    Since this is all about ‘ideals’ Let’s stipulate that the best recruiters and headhunters only talk to the best people. The bottom 80% or recruiters/headhunters will certainly fall for tricks like ‘making yourself open and available on places like LinkedIn’ but looking like a top performer is not the same as being one. It is nothing more or less than humane to minimize one’s time with those we can’t help so we can maximize it with those we can…regardless of who’s paying whom. I need to get back to the phones but before I do I am going to go see if I can find a blog somewhere lamenting the fact that hairdressers don’t pay more attention to bald people because they’re too busy working with hairy people.
    P.S. Erik, if I see the phrase ‘using a headhunter’ once more, I’ll stick my finger down your throat. :-)

  10. Paula
    Paula says:

    I am using a “Head Hunter” now, she called me because of my resume on Hcareers. Am I only using her? No, I am still seeking the right position for myself.

    Head Hunters, sometimes know positions before they appear in print. It will be interesting to me, who gets me a new job first, me or my head hunter. I think you need to be proactive, use all the tools you have to get ahead in this world.

  11. Russ
    Russ says:

    Being a recruiter must be difficult in this economy, however, I do believe there is always opportunity. I am not really sure what the difference is between a head hunter and a recruiter is…

  12. jeff76
    jeff76 says:

    A lot of readers ask me how to find a recruiter to help them find a job. In general, my answer is: Forget it. Headhunters don

Comments are closed.