This is the time of year when parents call our office to ask “Can you find a headhunter for my child, who’s just finished college?” God bless these parents, who have never met a headhunter, much less worked with one. Someone told them that a new college graduate needs to make friends with a search professional, sometimes called a headhunter, in order to get a job. We get to tell the disappointed parents that in all likelihood a headhunter can’t help their child.

You would think schools would teach kids a lot of things they don’t, like how to pick a career and how to get a job. You’d think we would teach kids how to work with recruiters a/k/a headhunters and lots of other things about the grown-up world of work and careers. We teach them a bunch of specialized subject matter knowledge that will be obsolete in five years, instead. We teach them almost nothing that could help them land a job and thrive in it. That’s shameful, but that’s how it is in 2014. Neither the graduating seniors nor their parents understand the recruiting profession, including the differences between recruiting and career coaching.

Headhunters, executive search consultants, third-party recruiters and search professionals are all different names for the same thing. Headhunters are people who work for themselves or work for recruiting firms, finding candidates for their employer clients.

Retained search firms (the minority) perform dedicated, exclusive searches for their corporate and institutional clients. Once an employer — for instance, Angry Chocolates — hires a retained search firm and pays them an upfront fee of about ten percent of the new hire’s projected first-year cash compensation, the retained search firm starts beating the bushes for talent.

They’ll earn another twenty percent of the new hire’s first-year cash comp as the search progresses, for a total fee of about one-third of the new hire’s compensation package. That’s good money, but their assignment isn’t easy. The retained search firm has to show up with at least one candidate who appears to have been raised in a Petri dish specifically to do this job, with every requirement the employer could dream of.

Hiring managers, as you know, can get pretty delusional when somebody else is doing the recruiting task for them. Their imaginations can run wild. The retained search is not complete until the employer hires somebody, no matter how many candidates have been presented.

Contingency recruiters work in a different way. Lots of contingency headhunters can work on the same job opening for the same employer, all at the same time. That means that a hiring manager can get resumes from five or six different recruiters for one job opening. Only one of the contingency recruiters will get paid when somebody gets hired. Whoever presented the ‘winning’ candidate is the headhunter who gets paid. Everybody else worked hard on the assignment and didn’t take home a dime.

If you haven’t worked in an environment like that, it might be hard to imagine. Contingency recruiters only get paid when their candidates get hired, no matter how many resumes they present to hiring managers. Now you can see why not every job-seeker is recruiter material.

If an employer could run a job ad and find candidates on its own, the employer wouldn’t need to hire a recruiter. They’d save their money. Contingency recruiters charge a fee of about 25% of the new hire’s first-year cash compensation. That means if the job pays $60,000, the headhunter’s fee is $15,000. That sounds like a nice fee until you consider that the recruiter might talk to fifty job-seekers to find that one person who eventually gets hired. And that’s if another recruiter’s candidate doesn’t get the job offer first!

Once you understand how recruiters earn their fees, three things become clear:

  • Recruiters aren’t career advisers. They don’t have time to share career advice with candidates unless they’re working with them on a specific job opportunity, and sometimes not even then.
  • The job-seekers who are most appropriate for a headhunter connection are the ones who have in-demand skills that employers can’t find through their own recruiting efforts. Often that means specialized technical skills, industry-specific experience or a mix of experiences that isn’t plentiful in the general job-seeking population.
  • Applicants with ‘quirky’ backgrounds don’t tend to be recruiter material. When a hiring manager designs a job spec (however fanciful) and commits to paying 25% of a new hire’s first-year compensation to a recruiter, the hiring manager expects the recruiter to show up with a candidate who jumped right out of the job ad.

Most new college grads are not recruiter material, unless they’ve got specific technical or scientific expertise employers are desperate for. Most all-around Marketing people (apart from social media gurus) aren’t recruiter material, either. HR people can be, if they have something employers really need (collective bargaining experience, for instance, or a background in a particular industry) and so can Finance types. IT and Engineering folks make up a disproportionate share of the global headhunter-friendly population.

Many or most of us will go through our careers without a headhunter’s assistance. That’s okay – there are other good job-search channels!

How can you determine whether you’re recruiter material? Reach out to a few recruiters in your area and ask them to glance at your LinkedIn profile. If you make overtures and don’t hear back, that’s a sign that you’re not recruiter material. After all, recruiters only make their money one way. They introduce candidates to employers and get paid when a match is made. If your resume screams “I’m place-able!” recruiters won’t ignore your calls.

If you’re not recruiter material, don’t panic. There are plenty of other ways to get a great job. Recruiters are just one channel in your job search strategy. Very few people can rely on recruiters to navigate and negotiate all of their job changes throughout a career. Most working people use two or three job search channels. The recruiter channel is only one of them, and only a part of their larger job search strategy.

Here are three job-search channels that every job seeker should become familiar with, whether the job-seeker works with a recruiter or not:

  • Networking into job opportunities — a must for every job-seeker!
  • The Whole Person Job Search – the direct approach we teach at Human Workplace, where you’ll send your Human-Voiced Resume with a Pain Letter directly to your hiring manager.
  • Working with your Career Services department (if you’re currently in college, or just out of it) or your alma mater’s Alumni Career Services team. You paid the tuition. You may as well get some job-search benefit out of the deal!

If you get interest from recruiters in your job search, remember how they get paid. As fun as it is to sit and discuss your background with someone, recruiters get paid by the transaction. It’s unlikely they’ll have time to strategize with you over your career choices, your job-search strategy or your branding. That’s what career advisers do, and what we do at Human Workplace. We have great respect for recruiters, not only because they get people into terrific jobs that never get advertised, but also because we know from the other side of a desk how hard it can be to find certain kinds of talent.

When I was an HR chief, I relied on my headhunter partners. It doesn’t matter how vigorously I might have advertised our hardest-to-fill positions; there are tons of job-seekers who won’t respond to job ads, no matter what. If their search buddy calls them up and says “I have a job for you to look at,” they’ll consider it. Otherwise, no.

Are you headhunter material? If you are, you may as well investigate the third-party-search channel and add it to your job-search strategy. Even if you’re not looking now, you never know when things will change. If you’re not, that’s okay. It’s good to know whether you’ve got a search-friendly resume or not, so that if you don’t, you don’t waste your time (and deplete your precious mojo) trying to get recruiters interested in you.

If a recruiter says “I don’t see opportunities for people like you very often” that doesn’t mean your background isn’t valuable. It just means that other job-search channels will be more productive for you. Rejoice! When one door closes, another one opens.