You're hard at work at the office when the phone rings. It is a stranger, an executive recruiter who says she is aware of your experience in your industry and wants to see if you'd be interested in a "job opportunity."
You are told that the job is in your field, in some far-off city, perhaps. You are given a broad description of job duties at a "major consulting firm." But the company's identity is withheld until the recruiter has met you and seen your résumé.
You hang up feeling a bit flattered - but unsure about how to proceed.
The next step is important: Check the recruiter's credentials. Ideally, this individual should have at least eight to 10 years of experience, specializing in your field. Also try asking about some of the recruiter's recent successful placements. (At least one recruiter says he's always open to naming some "satisfied customers.")
If everything checks out, you can e-mail your résumé, which the recruiter will then enter into databases it will use to help its clients fill openings. If the recruiter meets and likes you, she will send you to the hiring company. Recruiters estimate that only a half-dozen finalists are picked from an initial pool of a few dozen.
Recruiters can help a job hunter progress in salary and responsibility. Some "contingency recruiters" - paid only after a job is filled - start placing candidates at $50,000 salary or lower. But many more place candidates in jobs with salaries of $70,000 or higher. "Retained recruiters" typically work to fill jobs with salaries beginning at $100,000 or so.
"Being recruited really helped me out of a career slump," says Jenny Herring of Des Moines, Iowa. She worked with recruiter Tom Kellerhals, senior partner with the Westminster Group in Chester, S.C., to get a job at Principal Global Investors, a financial-services firm.
"I had applied for many, many jobs on my own without success," Ms. Herring says. "[Mr. Kellerhals's] contacts opened the right doors for me and helped me get a great job. He also helped negotiate an attractive salary and relocation package."
Decades ago, recruiters - or "headhunters" - focused primarily on top officials, such as chief executive or chief financial officers.
Many placement firms still specialize in filling corner offices. But recruiters today - some 5,000 such firms operate in the US - also comb the ranks of midlevel managers and specialized workers.
In addition to reviewing the résumés they have in hand, recruiters say they also scan news and industry trade publications to learn about promising employees and company reorganizations. Such practices account for many of the "cold calls" received by employees who have not made any moves toward changing jobs.
Between 1992 and 2000, the overall recruitment industry grew by "double-digit percentages" each year, says Joseph McCool, editor-in-chief of Executive Recruiter News in Peterborough, N.H. Industry growth has since cooled, he says, but he expects a 5 to 6 percent uptick this year.
Despite being bombarded with talent in a tight job market, firms often employ recruiters in order to keep job searches secret, or to locate candidates with specific, hard-to-find credentials. In many cases, human- resources departments are stretched too thin to conduct their own specialized searches. Some recruiters, by contrast, keep continuously updated databases of 50,000 to 100,000 names.
Should you become one of those names, experts say, find a way to become a standout.
"Listen to the recruiter's story [about a given job]," says the Westminster Group's Kellerhals. "Try to establish a relationship with a recruiter that would allow the recruiter to easily remember you. A great way to do that is to be helpful. Try to help the recruiter identify other candidates if you've expressed no interest in a job."
Job hunters can also contact recruiters themselves using such resources as Kennedy Information's "Directory of Executive Recruiters." The book cites recruiters by industry specialty, region, and most common salary levels. "I wouldn't be overly aggressive," says Mr. McCool. "It might be perceived as being desperate."
Keep in mind that the recruiter's loyalty is to the hiring firms. "You will only hear from them if they're doing a search in which the job title, job objective, and experience match what is on your résumé," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, managing partner at Career Strategies in Wilmette, Ill. "They don't work for you. They work for the person who pays them."
And companies can be very exacting.
"In this economy, the clients are more specific," says Rita Kohn, senior vice president in the Westport, Conn., office of executive-search firm Dawn Taylor Associates, in New York. "It requires a lot of flexibility on the part of even qualified candidates."