Jobhunting with Less Pain, Part 2

The first part of this article dealt with my motivations for writing it (very meta, eh?) and the basic steps you should take before starting out on the path to finding a new job - deciding what job you want, and preparing a CV that doesn't suck.

The CV section alone turned into a colossal beast of a thing, such that the originally envisaged single article turned into a multi-part series, the true extent of which will only be known once I've finished writing it. In this second instalment I'm going to discuss cover letters, the "hunt" itself, and perhaps round off with some words about recruiters, if you're lucky.

Covering letters: Following on from the earlier discussion of CVs, I made mention of their counterpart: the covering letter. This is a letter (as the name suggests) that often accompanies your CV, particularly when sending it to a potential employer as part of a "cold" approach (e.g. applying directly to them for a position, as opposed to being contacted by a recruiter acting on behalf of that company). The covering letter introduces you, summarises your profile and explains why you're applying to the company or otherwise looking to work for them.

When building your CV, you should be prepared to write a covering letter to go with it. The necessity of this depends largely on how you plan to find opportunities (more later), but if you're applying to companies directly, you'll 100% need a covering letter, and it will need to kick 110% ass.

Many companies value the covering letter far more than the CV they enclose, as the 37signals article I mentioned in part one illustrates. An employer looking at half a dozen CVs for an open position will likely be faced with half a dozen similar skill sets, and will rely on differentiators like the covering letter to help reach a decision. Your letter needs to convey genuine enthusiasm, interest and suitability - be absolutely sure that it does.

As with the CV, the covering letter should be formatted immaculately - search online for English letter-writing guides if you're not confident doing this yourself. If you're preparing tailored letters for each company you apply to (and you really, really should - being found out after sending the same letter to ten companies would be a major fail), be sure to keep the versions separate and use the right names/addresses for each.

After reading the covering letter, the potential employer should be left in no doubt as to what sort of person you are and what you've been up to all these years - subsequent reading of the CV should only flesh out the details for them.

Finding opportunities: Now that you've done all the prep work, the next stage is to find some jobs. Sounds simple enough, but there's a lot to this part - it can be the crux of the process, or not much at all, depending on your industry and how lucky you are in attracting offers. There are various methods by which you can connect yourself with available jobs, and you should be aware of the relative merits and demerits of each.

Use a dedicated job site: If you work in an industry where skills are easily measured quantitatively (e.g. IT), this will probably be the best approach. Sign up on a job website; I recommend Jobsite if you're in the UK - I believe it's the largest such site, and of all the sites I tried it generated the highest-quality leads and was among the easiest to use effectively. Create your profile, post your CV, then sit back and wait for the phone calls and emails. Alternatively, search the site for open positions and respond to them yourself. My engagement with Jobsite was zero once my profile and CV were posted, and I got around five new leads every day for two weeks from the day I posted. I cover advice on dealing with recruiters later on.

Apply directly to companies you'd like to work for: This approach involves the most work, but arguably generates the most valuable opportunities. The companies you apply to may or may not have specific vacancies advertised. You should always try to establish contact with a specific individual inside the company in order to get your voice heard - search their website for a PR/HR Manager or phone their switchboard. Sending your CV (with covering letter, of course) by snail mail is a surefire way to stand out from the email crowd.

Search job forums/classified ads: There are innumerable forums and discussion boards online where job opportunities are posted daily (Craigslist being one such example). Most newspapers and magazines also carry a substantial classified ad section where openings are advertised. Often overlooked as an old-fashioned platform, these ads can often lead to valuable leads.

Agencies: You can also submit yourself to a recruitment agency and let them do the legwork of introducing you to a job. Disclaimer: this method is the one with which I have the least experience, and additionally you can find yourself with financial liabilities towards the agent that places you. Proceed with caution.

Word of mouth: Worth a mention - ask around friends, family and (with caution) colleagues, and see if anyone knows someone with a position to fill. The value of this approach largely depends on the nature of your contacts, but it's always possible that you'll strike lucky.

Discussions with recruiters or potential employers should always take place over the phone in preference to email, as they'll be able to get much more of a feel for your personality, and you will probably find you can express yourself a lot more fluently and confidently without sounding as rigid and formal as you might in an email.

Recruiters: I'm constantly in two minds about recruiters - on the one hand they can be extremely useful, knowledgable and benevolent people doing a lot of work to link you up with exactly the right role; on the other hand they can be disinterested, insincere goons who'll pitch you any job going to get their commission and move on. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with one of the former, who ended up very professionally placing me in the job I'm now lucky enough to have. Your mileage, as they say, may vary - so bear in mind the following tips.

Only deal with recruiters that specialise in your industry. That way you vastly improve the odds that they'll know what they're talking about. This equals better understanding of your skills and whether or not you'd be suited to the jobs they might have on their books. When you speak to them (preferably by phone), pay close attention to how they describe the role they're offering. From the IT-centric perspective, I learned a lot from the confidence (or lack thereof) in the recruiters' delivery of the technical description of the role, particularly in how they grouped the various acronyms together. If you hear implied grouping of acronyms and terms that refer to dissonant subjects, alarm bells should ring. A recruiter that knows their stuff will confidently reel off terminology in appropriate groups. A bad recruiter will try to sell you jobs that aren't at all suitable - this is a time-sink.

When you're contacted by recruiters, log their details and brief information about the role in a spreadsheet so that you can easily keep track of them and their status (e.g. "needs follow-up", "declined", "interview scheduled" etc). After a while everyone sounds the same on the phone and you'll struggle to remember who's who, particularly as most agencies seem to have names based on three-letter acronyms. Additionally you may be contacted by more than one person from the same agency. For each lead, ask them to email you a copy of the job spec so that you've got a canonical copy of the details to hand.

If the recruiter has come across you on a job site, offer to re-send them a fresh copy of your CV, as they will often be looking at a version that has passed through their internal systems and been badly mangled as a result. This was the case for most of the recruiters I spoke with during my search - in a couple of cases, parts of the document were missing entirely. Make sure they're getting the complete picture - this goes for employers too.

Recruiters are usually frighteningly enthusiastic, and most will do their utmost to get you to agree to set up a phone- or face-to-face interview immediately. Be polite but firm. If you think a job is worth it, accommodate it in your schedule. If you don't, say so. Most of the time the recruiter would far rather you spoke your mind up front than pretending that you're interested out of good manners.

Don't allow yourself to be pushed into interviews for jobs that you don't think you're suitable for, or that don't interest you. The recruiter will argue that they're good practise - and they are, but only if you need it. I didn't do any, having been to what I considered to be enough interviews previously. There is, after all, a balance between practise and wasting your time.

Lastly, be sure to establish early on what the financial arrangement is between you, the recruiter, and the company on whose behalf they're working. Make sure that, if they're paid a finders' fee or commission, it's the responsibility of the company and not you.

That's it for now. Check in tomorrow for the third and (hopefully) final part of this article, where I'll attempt to cover interview technique and wrap up.