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The Professional Matchmakers

By Jim Carman
July 2005 Online

If you’re tired of tackling the job market on your own, job-placement counselors are more than happy to help — but learn more about them before making the call.

Any corporate executive will tell you the first rule of success is to find something you love to do, because you will have the passion to do well. Finding a niche in your post-military professional career that ignites your passion, builds on your unique skills and experience, and provides a reasonable economic reward is the key to a successful career transition. And successful career transitions begin with networking. But what if networking isn’t enough?

Then it’s time to call the professionals.

Retained versus contingent recruiters

Recruiters — also known as search executives, job-placement counselors, and the more familiar term headhunters — are professional matchmakers who earn their living by introducing job candidates to companies. This is the first and most important distinction to remember when working with headhunters: Depending on their relationship with the client, recruiters act as brokers or consultants to the firm that pays their fees, and the recruiters’ interests and motivation might not always align with those of the job candidate.

According to Dory Hollander, a nationally recognized workplace psychologist and president of WiseWorkplaces in Arlington, Va., “The recruiter may seem like the best friend of the uninitiated career changer, but that is rarely the case. The recruiter is usually all about filling an organizational client’s needs quickly and effectively, taking his or her cut, and moving on to the next assignment. However, recruiters are a valuable asset for accessing opportunities in the hidden job market and internal postings.”

Recruiters generally come in two varieties — retained and contingency — though some job search firms recently have begun to market themselves as a hybrid model embodying the characteristics of both.

Retained recruiters are consultants hired by a client to fill a specific job opportunity and are paid by their employer regardless of whether anyone they submit is hired, just as physicians get paid regardless of the patient’s outcome. Retained recruiter firms typically charge their corporate clients one-third of the estimated first-year’s compensation of the executive being sought.

Jackie Wilbur, director of graduate student placement at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is quick to point out that “retained recruiters are looking for experts in a specific field with significant private-sector experience. Therefore, career-transition job candidates are not normally attractive to retained recruiters.”

Approximately half the executive recruiting organizations in the United States are retained recruiters. Boston Search Group is a well-known name in retained recruiting and a leader in retained executive searches for emerging companies. The salary minimum for Boston Search Group’s ( retained searches typically is $120,000, and a sampling of current client needs is listed under “for candidates” on its Web site.

Ardith Myers, an associate with Boston Search Group who came to retained recruiting with significant private-sector experience and graduate degrees in business and social work, says retained recruiters generally look for a person who is doing the same job at one of their client’s competitors and doing it well. This arrangement “reduces risk for the retained recruiters and generally yields the most attractive candidates” for their clients.

Moreover, Myers cautions job candidates against “the danger of passively waiting for the right moment” when working with a recruiter. “It’s not the recruiter’s job to advocate for the candidate,” she says.

Hollander seconds this view: “If you match a requirement in a recruiter’s pipeline, they’ll love you. However, many recruiters tend to work in the moment, and a résumé that does not fit their clients’ current requirements may not get much attention. Candidates need to develop a relationship with their recruiter and keep in touch on a regular basis — probably every four to six weeks.”

Contingent recruiters, by contrast, have a broker relationship with their clients and are paid only when someone they submit is hired. The typical fee for a contingency search is 1 percent for each thousand dollars (up to a maximum of 35 percent) of the job candidate’s first-year salary.

As with retained recruiters, contingency recruiters tend to specialize in a single industry. They are geared for the efficiencies of a high-volume operation, and unlike retained recruiters, they might not have an exclusive job listing for employment opportunities with their corporate clients. Accordingly, contingency recruiters typically will show their corporate clients many candidates; the more candidates, the better the chances that the contingency recruiter will make a sale.

For people early in their career or just beginning a transition to the private sector, the job candidate’s self-interest and the contingency recruiter’s self-interest are matched neatly. The job candidate benefits from the wide network of the contingency recruiter, particularly if an appealing job listing is not widely advertised, the job listing is exclusive to the contingency recruiter’s agency (no other recruiters are attempting to place this position), or the job candidate has no internal contacts at the target company.

Whether retained, contingency, or hybrid, recruiters perform three important functions for their clients. First, they work with employers to precisely define the skills and experience required for a particular position and articulate these requirements to potential job candidates. Second, recruiters identify the most promising candidates from the large number of applicants that respond to mid- and high-level employment announcements. And finally, recruiters screen job candidates and present a short list of only the best-qualified individuals. Although their services are not cheap, recruiters repeatedly prove their value by saving their corporate clients time and money.

Three tips when dealing with recruiters

Know what you want. Hollander cautions job candidates to stay away from recruiters until they have a “good definition of their career goals and can support their career goals with facts, data, and accomplishments” from their previous work experience. Your network should include a range of mentors, including former bosses, college professors, and people working at or above your target level in your sectors of interest who can offer insight into the civilian job market, share their understanding of company cultures, and ensure your expectations are realistic. Although some recruiters make it a priority to provide job candidates with interview preparation and career coaching, other recruiters might be more interested in making an expeditious placement and moving on to the next candidate.

Be discreet. Discretion is the hallmark of a successful career transition. It’s important not to offend your current employer by carelessly job shopping with headhunters and mass-mailing your résumé. Be careful not to let any recruiter send your résumé to companies without your specific approval. Your networking, cover letters, and résumés should refer interested employers and headhunters to non-work-related phone numbers and e-mail accounts. Moreover, Myers cautions job candidates against indiscriminately circulating résumés around the Internet. “I consider a résumé to be a private and personal document and view résumés (posted) on the Web with suspicion.”

Ask who’s paying. Once you begin your discussions with a recruiter, check to ensure job candidates are not charged fees by the placement firm — job-placement fees should be paid by the potential employers who are the clients of retained and contingency recruiters. Also, reputable job-placement firms will not restrict your job search exclusively to their corporate client list and will not limit your flexibility to independently circulate résumés to contacts you generate.

The best advice is to view recruiters as another asset in the tool kit for a successful career transition. Along with career coaches, mentors, college and graduate school placement offices, and professional associations, headhunters can help you accurately assess your potential, access the hidden job market, learn about positions where you can be a viable candidate, and refine your interview skills.

Further Resources
The Directory of Executive Recruitment ( (Kennedy Information, 2005) is the recognized source for information on retained and contingent recruiters and is available in the reference section of most libraries. Search firms are cross referenced by geographic focus and industry specialization.

Rites of Passage by John Lucht (Viceroy Press, 2004) is a best-selling career planning tool containing a thorough review of the process used by retained and contingent recruiters.

Aurora Associates ( is a franchisee of Management Recruiters International — one of the nation’s largest contingent recruiters. Aurora is a small, veteran-owned firm with an emphasis on personal service and a specific focus on opportunities in the defense sector.

Triple Edge ( is a hybrid placement firm specializing in the defense and government sectors and promising a more candidate-centric focus. One of their goals is to “establish an agent relationship with job candidates and a partnership with its client companies.”

About the author: Jim Carman is a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management and a retired Navy Captain. He lectures and writes about career-transition issues.


The Strength of Weak Ties
Even the best networks need reinforcement. A helpful book discussing strategies to build an effective network is Never Eat Alone (Random House, 2005) by Keith Ferrazzi. Ferrazzi introduces readers to the term “super-connector” to denote people of several occupations, including politicians, journalists, lobbyists, fund-raisers, and corporate recruiters, whose livelihood depends on nurturing and sustaining a wide network of acquaintances. He calls these people super-connectors because they tend to know “many, many more people than the rest of us.” Ferrazzi says “super-connectors should be the cornerstones to any flourishing network.”

To illustrate the importance of a wide network, Ferrazzi cites a classic 1974 study by sociologist Mark Granovetter that surveyed a group of professionals in Newton, Mass., to determine how they found their current jobs. Granovetter’s research revealed that 56 percent of those surveyed found their current job through a personal connection. No surprises there.

However, Granovetter determined that among those who found their current position through personal connections, only 16 percent saw that connection “often” — as they would if the contact were a good friend — and 85 percent saw their contact only “rarely” or “occasionally.” People weren’t getting their jobs through their friends, they were getting them through their acquaintances.

In his findings, Granovetter argued that when it comes to finding out about new jobs, new information, or new ideas, weak ties always are more important than strong ties. Your friends, family, and colleagues occupy the same world as you. They most often work with you, live near you, and socialize with you. How much, Granovetter asks, would they know that you don’t already know?

By contrast, your acquaintances occupy a different world than you and have access to a wide range of knowledge and information unavailable to you. Consequently, they are much more likely to know something you don’t. To precisely define this paradox, Granovetter coined the phrase “the strength of weak ties.” Ferrazzi equates this dynamic with the Internet: “The more people who have access and use it, the more valuable the Internet becomes.” Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more connections you have, the more you will be able to give and receive information.

Just for MOAA Members

As an MOAA member or the spouse of an MOAA member, you have access to The Officer Placement Service (TOPS) for career transitioning help and advice, including:

* Resume critiques and one-on-one counseling;

* Informative booklets, pamphlets, and articles about career transitioning; and

* Access to MOAA’s Career Center, where you can view job listings and find Informational Networking Contacts in your field of interest.

About MOAA’s Informational Networking Contacts:

MOAA Informational Networking Contacts are not paid to fill positions in organizations, though they could receive a finder’s fee. Many of MOAA’s networking volunteers provide similar services outlined in this article to assist fellow members and their spouses who are in transition. They are in an ideal position to assess your potential in a specific field or organization, to provide information about opportunities where you might be a viable candidate, and to assist you in tapping into the mysterious “hidden job market.”
Visit the TOPS Informational Networking list on the Second Career section.

Upcoming Career Fair Events

MOAA/Corporate Gray Job Fair for the Military Community
Sept. 23, 2005, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Community Cultural Center
Northern Virginia Community College
Annandale, Va.

MOAA/Corporate Gray Security Clearance Job Fair
Oct. 21, 2005, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Job fair facility TBD
Arlington, Va.

MOAA/Corporate Gray Job Fair for the Military Community
Nov. 18, 2005, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Martin’s Crosswinds
Greenbelt, Md.

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