Don’t just search under the street light..!

In an earlier post “The Frustrating Lottery…” I compared the traditional job search of focusing on posted jobs to an opaque, poorly designed lottery that offered a very small chance of success for the job seeker.  I suggested that the alternative to squandering your precious time in a lottery-style job search was to turn the current “game” on its head and hold your own interviews to see what company should benefit from your unique combination of skills, experience, and personality. I further suggested that to succeed you must remove yourself from the “stampede of job seekers” and position yourself as the natural front-runner. Let’s examine the rationale for this approach more closely:

Most job searchers are familiar with the generally accepted statistic that only about 20% of all available jobs are “posted” (ie: visible to the general public via websites, job listings, help-wanted signs, etc.) and that the other 80% are part of the “hidden job market” – that is, they are positions that are just forming up and will probably never be formally posted for the general public. Given this, it would seem to make sense to spend a maximum of 20% of one’s time responding to posted opportunities, and the other 80% searching the “hidden market”. In reality, though, most people active in job search spend the lion’s share of their time on pursuing the formal postings, and only a small amount of time trying to work the hidden market – why is this?

The answer, unfortunately, is like the joke about the drunk searching under the street light… when asked what he is doing by a passerby, the drunk tells him that he lost his keys in the alley and so is searching for them. Of course the passerby asks the rather obvious question — why is he looking under the street light for them, rather than in the alley where he thinks he lost them? And the drunk provides a simple, but obvious answer – because this is where the light is best.

Remarkably, the job market operates the same way. Quite simply, most people find the hidden market very difficult to work for a number of number of reasons, and so we naturally focus on pursuing the opportunities we can see, even if they represent only a small sliver of the available options (the hidden job market), and even if they are frustrating to pursue and provide only a small chance of success (the lottery approach).

What makes the hidden market so difficult to navigate? I believe there are 3 primary issues here which combine to foil most job searchers: (i) the inability of the typical job seeker to convincingly articulate what they are looking for; (ii) a general discomfort with approaching strangers and engaging them, and; (iii) a lack of real belief in “the power” of the network. Taken together, these close the door to effectively working the “hidden job market” and so end up limiting the job searcher to executing on the obvious, painful, and frustratingly ineffective tactic of “searching under the streetlight.”

When you ask a job searcher what they are looking for, most start with “a job”. If you ask for more specifics, they’ll typically tell you something about what they used to do (“I was a hardware engineer in telecom, and I managed a group”) and suggest they’re generally looking for comparable work. If you keep pushing for specifics, they might share with you that they’ve worked in a lot of different roles and can do “almost anything”. While the information provided might be accurate, it doesn’t give the listener much to work with or provide any real clues about what they are searching for — most likely the job seeker can’t articulate it to themselves much better (“I just really want a good job where I can do interesting work and be rewarded accordingly”). And if one can’t be really clear in expressing what one is looking for, then one’s initial conversation when meeting new people is going to be…clumsy at best, and quite possibly downright painful. So not surprisingly, our inability to express ourselves confidently and identify what we are specifically searching for leads directly to a high degree of discomfort when approaching strangers. So now “networking” becomes much more painful and, while theoretically easy to understand, it becomes very difficult to use as an effective strategy in one’s job search. And of course, this level of personal discomfort now leads us to want to dismiss any advantage that sustained and effective networking might bring because we find it so difficult. So to rationalize our decision to not pursue the “hidden job market” with a sustained effort, we tell ourselves little stories like “this is a wasted effort, there are no jobs out there for me”, or that because there is a recession “there are no jobs”, or that “I don’t know anyone in that industry so I can’t get a job”, or that the network is inherently unfair and that “I’m not part of that clique, so I can’t get a job”.

But there really are jobs out there. Think of any organization with 1,000 people; how many are planning to leave at any given time and are creating a job opening? Think of your city with 100,000 jobs – how many are always in churn?

Unfortunately, it often seems easier and less demanding to impose limiting beliefs on ourselves, which brings us full circle and now lets us off the hook in terms of both (i) expressing with real clarity what we are searching for, and (ii) putting ourselves out there and letting others know what we are seeking, and asking them if they can help us in our quest.

How much simpler it seems to just search under the street light!

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