Cleary Consultants Cleary Consultants

Search firms can be valuable for job seekers

By Thomas J. Fitzgerald, Globe Correspondent, 1/13/02



Mary Cleary, CEO of Cleary Consultants, says more resumes have been coming into her firm since the economic downturn.

Paul Hands had just 10 weeks to hire 13 new salespeople for his company's new Boston office.

But rather than advertise the new jobs and do the hiring himself, the vice president for a UK-based company turned to a search firm.

"I needed that additional resource," said Hands, vice president of sales, Americas, for World Markets Research Centre, a business intelligence and information company.

He said the firm provided him with anonymity during the search, and more importantly, saved time in finding qualified candidates.

"That was immense on the front end," said Hands. So far he's hired 12 salespeople through the search firm, most of whom had been employed and working for his direct competition.

Talk to job seekers about search firms, and most assume that they only place executives at the top rungs of the management ladder. But many also help to hire workers for mid- to lower-level jobs. As Hands's experience shows, search firms can help a company land talent for key assignments outside the executive suite.

So does it make sense for job hunters to work with a search firm during an economic downturn?

Cambridge career coach and counselor Phyllis R. Stein said those seeking employment should explore all possible avenues, and search firms should be another one of those avenues. But, she cautions, "It's a very mixed bag."

"For some people in some fields, search firms may be the primary way they get their jobs," said Stein. "And for other people at a different level, in a different field, it may not be useful at all."

Determining whether it's worthwhile requires doing some upfront research, according to Stein. She said one way to find out is to ask around at your job level and the level above to determine which firms are effective in your industry.

To use search firms to your advantage, it's also important to know how they operate behind the scenes, according to Wayne Cooper, president and CEO of Kennedy Information, a New Hampshire company that publishes an annual directory of more than 14,000 search firms in the United States. Probably most important is understanding how they are paid.

"Search firms do not work for the job seeker," said Cooper. "They work for the [employer] . . . and their attention is fully focused on their client."

When it comes to getting paid, search firms typically earn a fee of one-third of the first-year salary of the open job, said Cooper, though the amount can go as low as 20 percent.

In no case should a search firm ask the job seeker to pay a fee. If they do, applicants should hang up the phone or walk away, said Cooper.

Also important to know are the types of searches a firm can conduct. If the firm is conducting a "contingent" search, it's paid only after the job is filled. If it's conducting a "retained" search, the firm has an "exclusive" on the job, and often is paid a fee regardless of whether it brings in the hire, acting largely as a consultant to find the right candidate.

Retained searches are used mainly for filling upper-level positions, in the $100,000 plus market, according to industry estimates, with contingent searches used more for mid-level positions in the $50,000-$100,000 range.

One savvy job seeker who used search firms effectively, twice, is Mary Schrader, vice president of compliance at Boston Bank of Commerce.

"It's a good way to network, and to keep in touch with industry trends," said Schrader.

Schrader said she went to a search firm about six years ago after earning an MBA. She had been working at the same company for 14 years and was ready for a change.

"I felt I wanted to move on and move up," said Schrader. "And I felt search firms were professionals in this area, and would have additional contacts."

After landing a new job through the search firm, and then making another job change, the same firm contacted her a few years later with another opportunity, which turned into her current job.

Schrader recommends having a clear idea of what you're looking for and knowing which search firms are effective in your particular field or industry. In addition, she said, updating your resume with your latest accomplishments and keeping it on file at the right firms is key.

The firm that Schrader used, Cleary Consultants Inc., in Boston, specializes in accounting, finance, sales, banking, legal and medical.

President and CEO Mary Cleary said the number of resumes she receives each week has shot up since the economic downturn.

But that should not discourage unemployed job seekers from contacting search firms, she said.

"Applicants who are already employed are more desirable to us," said Cleary, whose firm conducts both retained and contingent searches. "But employers realize that there is still quality talent from people who were laid off beyond their control."

Also important for the unemployed job seeker in a down market, said Cleary, is to be flexible in considering a temporary or contract assignment, often offered through search firms, which could lead to a permanent job. She also recommends staying in contact with the search firm after sending in a resume.

"You have to be a little more creative and aggressive when following up," said Cleary. "The ones who follow through are the ones who get more attention."

Read Mary Cleary's chat on job searches: Chat Transcript

In the current market, search firms are seeing a sharp drop in requests for searches from employers. Searches were down 15 to 20 percent in 2001 compared to 2000, based on a survey by Kennedy Information.

Cleary noted that she's seen a drop in searches but said that certain segments of the market, such as accounting, tax, intellectual property and biotech, are still strong.

Some search firms work with only a few employers at a time, especially in a down market, so sending a resume to a handful of firms may not be getting you in front of many employers.

"To be in the game, you need to be visible," said Cooper of Kennedy Information. "We recommend sending resumes to a broad group of firms. The more recruiters who know about you, the better your odds."

Tom Fitzgerald is a freelance writer. He can be reached by e-mail at