The Pay-to-Play Job Hunt

The Pay-to-Play Job Hunt

TCB's undercover job candidate, Jack Gordon, comes back—wounded, but still sardonic—from a month on the executive job-search Web sites.

Let me be more specific. By “good job,” I mean good by the standards of Twin Cities Business subscribers, something that pays in six figures—a management or executive-level job that could replace the one you just lost or that you fear might soon vanish, like your investment portfolio, into the sucking swamp of this ghastly economy.

And by “easy,” I mean that if you simply post your resumé on any free Internet job board, like Monster or CareerBuilder, you won’t need to look for people who are selling job-hunting services. They’ll find you.

This sets up a curious dynamic. All the world knows that job hunting is one of the most soul-crushing endeavors known to man. If you are desperate enough to engage in it seriously, you are most likely in code-red expense-cutting mode. The last thing you need is a new way to spend money. Yet here, suddenly, is a whole regiment of helpful e-mail correspondents, career experts all, assuring you that you’re nuts if you think the kind of job you’re after will ever appear in some free help-wanted column, on line or otherwise.

What’s more, they say, on the off chance that a six-figure job should turn up on a free employment board, what are you going to do about it? Send in your resumé? Your advisors hate to say it, but your resumé almost certainly stinks. It presents you in the wrong light. It lacks the “action vocabulary” or “power phrases” that grab recruiters and hiring managers by their shirtfronts and let them know you’re a force to be reckoned with. Hell, your resumé lacks even the right embedded keywords to sneak past the computer- scanning systems that employers use to ensure that no human eye will ever see it.

But suppose that, by some miracle, you get called in for an interview. Alas, even if you happen to be a marketing mastodon who could sell snow blowers in South Florida, you don’t know how to sell yourself in a job interview. Are you even aware that interviewing is an art as intricate and arcane as a Japanese tea ceremony? Do you know the correct responses to the “10 Most Toxic Questions Interviewers Ask”? (Answer: No, you don’t.) So while you’re paying hundreds of dollars to have your resumé professionally rewritten, you’d better pony up hundreds more for some interview-skills training.

Oh, and one more thing. Regardless of whether you pay to see elite job listings or to have your resumé blasted to every executive recruiter in the known universe, nobody gets the kind of job you want merely by sending resumés to strangers. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Your advisors can help you with that, too, for a fee. It’s all about networking.

Here’s the haunting part: Much of what your new e-mail buddies tell you is probably true.

A Modest Experiment

Pick a round sum that might remain in your nest egg despite the stock market’s collapse. Say, $100. Would you invest $100 in online services that promise to improve your chances of landing a six-figure job? I would, provided it was TCB’s money. And I did.

Actually, the tab came to $101.45. What that bought was the most basic (read “cheapest”) offerings from the three paid services that tried hardest to coax money out of me after I left evidence on the Internet (a trail of digital breadcrumbs, as it were) that I had management experience and was looking for a job. Namely, the Ladders, ExecuNet, and Resumé Spider.

The Ladders and ExecuNet cater explicitly to people seeking jobs that pay $100,000 and up. Resumé Spider does not. It is one of several services that offer to blast your resumé to hundreds of recruitment firms and job sites. But since employers generally don’t pay recruiters to fill burger-flipping jobs, the appeal clearly is to higher-end candidates.

The services (found at, and operate on different models, so “basic offerings” translated to a one-month membership in the Ladders and ExecuNet, and three blasts of my resumé (one every 30 days) to national recruiters and “direct hiring companies” by Resumé Spider.

Rigorous protocols attached to this experiment by TCB’s editors prevented me from buying anything but the cheapest offerings. That meant no resumé writing, no interview-skills coaching, no upgrades to extra-special membership levels (Resumé Spider), no online seminars with career-advancement experts or face-to-face networking events with fellow high-end job seekers in my geographic region (ExecuNet).

I did take advantage of the free resumé “evaluations” that were included with my memberships in the Ladders and ExecuNet. Both were surprisingly helpful. I expected little beyond disappointed tongue clucking, followed by a hard sell for several hundred bucks’ worth of professional rewriting. Instead, I got valuable advice.

Rob Haber, “executive resumé analyst” for the Ladders, deemed my resumé quite good, offered useful suggestions for tweaking it, and recommended that I not pay anybody to rewrite it unless my job search hit a dead end.

My free evaluation from ExecuNet, provided by Sally McIntosh of Advantage Resumés in St. Louis, included not only specific examples of relevant “keywords” for me, but the clearest explanation I have seen regarding why it is vital to salt a resumé with same: “Today, most resumés are copied into a database,” McIntosh’s e-mailed report said. “They are then read for certain keywords. If those keywords are not in the resumé or if enough of those keywords are missing, your resumé will not rise to the top and will not be read by a human being.”

A Plausible Candidate

At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I will tell you now that I have not landed a six-figure job. Or even a five-figure one. I have not been invited to interview for any job despite my investment in the pay-to-play services. No recruiters or employers have reached out to me in any way as a result of my memberships. None has so much as returned an e-mail.

What does that prove? Precious little, I suppose. For one thing, this experiment coincided with the worst job market since the Great Depression. My memberships in the Ladders and ExecuNet ran from mid-January to mid-February. During those two months, the U.S. economy lost more than 1.2 million jobs, and Minnesota lost about 49,000. As for Resumé Spider, my three blasts occurred in January, February, and March.

It’s also possible that the lack of return on my investment could mean that I was a lousy candidate for a six-figure job in my target field, which was, broadly, corporate communications: director of employee or marketing communications, media relations, public relations—like that.

For our present purposes, however, please take my word that I am at least a plausible candidate for such a job. True, I have performed corporate-communications and marketing work, per se, only as a freelancer. But I used to be the chief editor of a couple of national business magazines, which means that I have managed people and budgets. I have sat with top executives in strategic planning meetings to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—not to mention plotting how to milk the cows, shoot the dogs, shine the stars, and so on. I have worn a tie when necessary, and have practiced keeping it out of the soup while lunching with CEOs. Come to think of it, I once had dinner in Arizona with professor-author Peter Drucker, the “father of modern management.” Take that, other six-figure job seekers, you with your Harvard MBAs.

Here’s how I figured it. Any company looking for a senior communications person—and this is a given—will create a job description that reads as follows: Responsible for leveraging the synergistic implementation of customer-focused communication deliverables while overseeing outside-the-box interactive marketing strategies to ensure that the value proposition resonates within all content and solution messaging.

Now, if a hiring manager looks at that sentence with genuine, soul-deep satisfaction, then God’s mercy on the company. I can’t help. Nobody can help. But imagine a hiring manager who gazes at that job description and senses—even if only dimly, in some atavistic, reptilian quadrant of the brain—that something is profoundly wrong with it. Imagine one who senses, indeed, that if the organization wants to convey actual information to actual humans, then this might be an example of what’s broken and why the organization needs a communications director to fix it.

That was my target hiring manager. I didn’t find one. I still haven’t. But here is what I got for TCB’s hundred bucks.

Resumé Spider

Resumé Spider states its proposition like this: “Instead of taking the time to post your resumé to all the job boards, then hoping recruiters, employers, and corporate hiring managers will use the correct keywords to find your resumé, we distribute your resumé directly to those recruiters, employers, and corporate hiring managers working in your industry.”

A paying customer can sign up for Plan A, B, or C. Under Plan A ($39.95), my resumé and a cover letter were sent three times, at 30-day intervals, to more than 450 recruiters and 130 “direct-hire employers” deemed relevant to me. A money-back guarantee assured that my resumé would receive at least 50 recruiter “evaluations.” More on that in a moment.

Plan A comes with a caveat: “Remember, this account does NOT display the valuable name, address, phone number, company description, and Web site of the contacts on your list. You need to upgrade your service to access this helpful information so you can call the contacts directly and set up interviews.”

To get that contact information for the recruiters, I would have to pony up for Plan B ($69.95) or better still Plan C ($99.95), which also buys access to Spider’s “direct-hire list.”

So I can’t say I wasn’t warned that Plan A might be a suboptimal choice. But I didn’t learn just how foolish my selection had been until Spider’s CEO, Steve Shellist, followed up with a five-day series of advice-laden e-mails that he described as my “Career Boot Camp.”

Everything—and I mean absolutely everything—that Shellist had to say about effective job-hunting techniques, and how I could use Spider to employ those techniques, presupposed that I had access to the precious contact information available only in the pricier plans.

Here is the gist of what Shellist told me in five days of Career Boot Camp: I will never get hired just because my resumé is sitting in somebody’s database. It’s all about networking. Now that I had access, via Resumé Spider, to those hundreds of recruiters, I could call them up and befriend them. Explain my qualifications. You know—network. He suggested a script for me to leave on their voicemail so they’d return my calls.

Shellist never came out and said that I had been an idiot to choose Plan A. Or that by doing so, I had flushed $39.95 right down the old tube. Not quite.

From the bleacher seat that Plan A afforded, I could see the names of recruiters to whom my resumé was distributed (Abacus Service Corporation; AdXpert, Inc.). But in lieu of their contact information appeared the repeated message, “UPGRADE NOW!”

I also could see, after each blast, how many recruiters had “evaluated” my resumé. Two weeks after the third and final blast, the total number of evaluations came to 113. So I was out of luck on the money-back guarantee.

What Does “evaluated” mean? Here is what Spider describes as the “inside information” they provided to me about how each recruiter evaluated my resumé: “‘Reviewed’ is the default setting. However, the recruiter can change it to ‘Very Interested,’ ‘Potential Fit,’ ‘Stay in Touch’, or ‘Not a Fit,’ depending on their level of interest.”

As I understand this, when “reviewed” shows up in the evaluation box, it means the recruiter (or an automated system) opened my e-mail and maybe filed my resumé in a database.

Of my 113 evaluations, 111 said “reviewed.” Two said “not a fit.”

How thrilled would those recruiters have been to hear from me if I had paid for Plan B or C, gotten their numbers, and called them up? I’ll never know for sure. But I got a rough idea at the Ladders.

The Ladders

The Ladders operates much like CareerBuilder, except that it deals exclusively in jobs that pay $100,000 or more. You post your resumé(s), enter job titles and keywords (“communications,” “media”), and use menu options to describe more broadly the kind of job you want and where (marketing or accounting, Midwest or West Coast). The Ladders then sends e-mails as often as you like (daily, weekly) with links to openings that match your criteria. You can search the site for other jobs, as well.

Pricing is based on length of access to the service. A full year goes for $180. A one-month membership is $30, but I got a special introductory rate of $22.50. So this was the cheapest of the services I tried. It also was the one I found most useful. Call me an inside the box thinker, but if I’m looking for a job, what I want above all is some relevant job openings for which I can apply.

If I were more of an experienced marketing manager—one who has managed salespeople and run a sales operation in an industry like retail or finance or technology—a lot of the jobs the Ladders showed me would have been real possibilities. Especially if I were willing to relocate to, say, Chicago.

But I needed a marketing-communications job where the emphasis was on communications, and I insisted on remaining in the Twin Cities. Still, I found and applied for five plausible, local jobs that the Ladders coughed up. Two of them were also listed on CareerBuilder. But three were jobs I didn’t see advertised elsewhere.

Membership in the Ladders includes a “Find Recruiters” function. Specifying “Midwest” and “Marketing,” I got a list of 30 recruiters. I could search the jobs that each was trying to fill, though fewer than 10 said they were attempting to fill jobs during that ugly January-February period. The Ladders invited me to network with these recruiters by sending my resumé and a brief note. It warned that I might get a response from only about one in four of them.

I sent notes and resumés to 10 recruiters who said that they “welcome contacts from a variety of qualified people that allow me to build my network.” This evidently was a menu option they chose, as opposed to “I prefer to be contacted only about specific jobs.”

One in four? I went zero for 10.

It was wounding, of course. But it did ease the sting of having to settle for Plan A on Resumé Spider.


Career advisors urge you to treat job hunting as a full-time occupation. ExecuNet seems designed to help you do that—by communicating nonstop with other job hunters.

ExecuNet functions mainly as a networking service. The pitch: Members become “part of a private network of like-minded chief and senior-level executives.” They “join discussions” in which they share job leads and contacts, as well as “business knowledge,” with their peers. They do this both on line and at monthly get-togethers (at $25 a head) in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. The price of membership ranges from $39 for 30 days to $399 for 360 days (the “best value for ongoing career management”).

It is possible, I suppose, that ExecuNet members who have become friendly end up e-mailing one another all the time to say things like: “Hi, Shirley. I just learned of a $200,000 job opening. I don’t want it, but it sounds right for you. Call Bob at this number. He’s an old college buddy. I’ve already told him you’d be perfect.”

No sign of any such contact-sharing was evident, however, on ExecuNet’s online discussion boards, despite the fact that some members appeared to spend a lot of time on them. One representative discussion thread on the Sales and Marketing board had to do with the difference between “sales” and “business development.” The consensus after 20-some postings on the topic: “Business development” means “sales,” except when it doesn’t, in which case it never means the same thing twice.

That beats Tweeting about the fact that you’re eating a doughnut, I suppose, but it was hard to see how these discussion threads might lead anyone closer to a paying job.

ExecuNet members also are invited to spend time, and often money, in online seminars. Some, with titles such as “Winning Interviews,” cost $50 or more. Others (“10 Tips for Winning in Today’s Economy”) are free.

Like the Ladders, ExecuNet offers searchable job listings. But the pickings were slimmer, at least for an aspiring communications exec. During my month of access, I applied for only one long-shot listing—a public relations title at an unspecified company in an unspecified Midwestern state, which could mean anywhere from Michigan to Kansas. My application was greeted with the usual indifference.

Due to budget and time constraints, I did not participate in ExecuNet’s webinars or live get-togethers, nor did I contribute to the online discussion boards. What with monitoring three paid services, job hunting was pretty much a full-time occupation already.

It was cheering to imagine that some of my fellow ExecuNet members might actually have been willing to return an e-mail. But they’d be bound to ask if I had any job leads to share. The answer could only have depressed us all.

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