Why a Recruiter Probably Can’t Help You Find a Job


Not infrequently I am asked about the possibility of enlisting the help of a recruiter by clients who are looking to find a different kind of job. In just about every case my response is “Don’t bother.” And that response is usually met with at least some degree of incredulity. After all, isn’t that a recruiter’s role? To help place people in jobs?

Well, yes, but only certain types of people in certain types of jobs. And that’s because of the nature of the recruiting industry.

There are three main categories of recruiters: retained, contingency, and in-house*. Retained recruiters are hired for a set fee by employers to find appropriate candidates for specific job openings. They earn that fee irrespective of the number of candidates they identify, or their success in getting their candidates employed. Contingency recruiters are paid only if they wind up referring a client who gets hired. A simple way of differentiating these two types of recruiters is that retained recruiters are company focused while contingency recruiters are candidate focused. But both of these categories of recruiters will almost always work only with applicants who meet the criteria specified by their employers; retained recruiters because their reputations and thus future prospects depend on referring good matches, contingency recruiters because it would be inefficient to waste their time proposing candidates who don’t check all the employers’ boxes. In-house recruiters (full-time employees of an organization) might go a little further afield in proposing a less-than-ideal match because they have a somewhat greater degree of job security, but that will still be a very infrequent exception.

So unless the job seeker has a work history that clearly demonstrates success in the areas the prospective employer is specifying the recruiter isn’t going to work with that seeker. The concept of “transferable skills” isn’t going to cut it in these situations – even though the individual might in fact have the necessary skills to succeed in the position the recruiter is looking to fill, the absence of a bespoke track record will be a non-starter.

True there are exceptions to the above: senior executives with a track record of success will have a greater chance of being recommended for a top position even if their past doesn’t align that closely with the specs simply because the pool of candidates with experience that comes close to matching the ideal profile will be rare. Similarly, unusual requirements (let’s say, for example, facility in the Turkish language or detailed technical knowledge of an arcane governmental process) could well lead a recruiter to recommend a candidate who was missing a few desired qualifications.

But for most people looking to make a career transition or even pivot, or for anyone unsure of what career direction to pursue, don’t look to a recruiter for help.

* There are in fact two other types, outplacement and temporary, the former helping terminated employees find jobs, the latter obviously placing people in temporary positions. But again imagining that they will set you on a career path you haven’t trod before is almost certainly delusional.