Secrets of the job search: Should you hire a career coach?
In 2007, Alexander Williams*, 38, was hating his job as a corporate attorney at a major law firm in New York City. Bottom line: Williams felt that his work was no longer fulfilling, so he hired a career coaching firm to help him figure out what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life.
A series of personality tests revealed that Williams had the potential to excel in more of a do-gooding profession, so he quit his lucrative lawyer gig and took a job as a public affairs director at a university.
There was just one problem. Six months into his new career, Williams found himself in the exact same position — feeling similarly unfulfilled, but also now underpaid. He wanted to go back to law, but the recession had just hit, so firms weren't hiring.
"I couldn't go back to my old law firm, because they were laying off people left and right," says Williams. And although he was getting interviews at other practices, the meetings weren't turning into offers. So when a friend told him about Karen Elizaga, an executive coach who specialized in helping people find what she calls their "sweet spot," he pounced on the idea. Maybe this time, he'd find his perfect match.
Of course, he wasn't making attorney money anymore, so hiring Elizaga — whose expert advice starts at $500 per hour — was a splurge. But Williams was desperate. "Even though the market was bleak," he says, "I wanted every possible advantage to make sure that I was coming across well in interviews and basically doing everything that I could to get back into legal practice."
Over the course of about five sessions, six months, and lots of hard work, Elizaga helped Williams to ultimately land a plum position with a firm in Austin, Texas, where he'd been dreaming of moving.
"When Alexander came to me, he was down in the dumps and thinking that his life had totally taken a wrong turn," says Elizaga. "So my number-one job was to get him to feel good about himself — and project that positive confidence to potential employers." Mixed in with the self-analysis was also rigorous practical work: Elizaga prepped Williams for interviews the way someone would train a prizefighter, recording him in mock scenarios and then playing back the videos to give him a blow-by-blow of what he was doing wrong.
Elizaga admits that her approach can seem like therapy, but Williams, who paid around $2,000 for her services, notes that he's proof it works. "I don't think I would've gotten my job if it weren't for Karen," he says. "She got me to focus on my strengths and helped me realize that I'd be a valuable asset to potential employers."
Paying … to get ahead
It may seem extravagant to pay for someone like Elizaga when you're on the job hunt, but experts say that shelling out money for an executive coach, a résumé writer, or even an image consultant can be money well spent — especially in this tough employment market.
"I think the cost of these services is relatively low, given what you get in return," says workplace expert Alexandra Levit. "[You need to know] what you're doing that's not effective in your job search and [what] may be setting you back substantially when it comes to having a résumé actually result in an interview or having an interview actually result in a job," explains Levit, who says she has seen a proliferation of career-coaching services on LinkedIn and similar job-hunt sites.
Levit believes that this increase in demand is due to people who are having slim luck with their job searches — and who therefore might be more willing to spare no expense to get a leg up. In fact, recent data suggests a slowing-down-again jobs market that seemed to be improving slightly in January, but showed signs of losing its nascent steam in July. Translation: People are likely hitting more walls in their searches as fewer companies create work.
But is it really worth it?
Dorie Clark, who studies workplace trends, says that whether these services are worth their salt in cost depends a great deal on the individual who's offering them. "There are people in this market who are fantastic, and there are some who aren't that helpful," Clark says. "So the consumer's job is to suss out the best options, to get referrals, and find someone with good experience."
Jerome Cleary, 41, a publicist and blogger who lives in Hollywood, knows a thing or two about trying to weed out the good services from the bad. In May 2010, Cleary was sending out his résumé for freelance marketing and publicity gigs, but he wasn't getting any hits. So when he saw an ad for a résumé writer for $250, he figured that the price was nominal enough to give it a shot. Unfortunately, he got what he paid for. "I could barely see the difference," Cleary says.
So when he spotted another ad for a service that offered résumé and cover letter writing, as well as interview coaching, he made it a point to thoroughly vet the service's credentials. This time around, the asking price was $1,000, so Cleary hoped that the higher price would also mean a better result. As it turned out, he was more than pleased: "I saw a jump in response right away — I got over $5,000 in new business within two months."
Today, Cleary still uses those résumé and cover letter templates — and they're still getting attention. "People say all the time, 'Your résumé looks great. I can see you're really qualified,' " he says. "That's something I wasn't hearing before."
Amanda Augustine, a job search expert for TheLadders.com, believes that if there's one thing job seekers should pay for, it's a good résumé.
"Everyone should get a résumé consultation or résumé help," she says. "There are just too many nuances for the average person who doesn't live and breathe this stuff." But she cautions that you should "avoid any service that makes big claims, like 'give me a million dollars, and we'll get you a job no matter what.' And steer clear of anything that's just going to blast out your résumé — you can do that on your own."
Augustine's advice? To ensure that you're getting the most bang for your buck, look for someone who's affiliated with The National Résumé Writers' Association or the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches.
The price of looking hirable
Some people are even paying big bucks for services that don't seem at all work-related — like expert fashion advice. In May 2012, Mike Wilkins, 33, was working at a small technology consulting firm and looking to make the jump to a larger company. The clients he worked with were "mom-and-pop stores," he says, so the dress code was casual — but if he wanted to make the transition, he'd need to look the part of a hotshot financier.
Wilkins, who lives in Philadelphia, owned plenty of suits, but he didn't own a single good one. As he puts it: "The pants mostly fit, the ties mostly matched — they were typical guy suits." So based on a friend's referral, he hired Brian Lipstein, of Henry A. Davidsen, an image consultant and custom tailor service. Lipstein helped Wilkins choose the best look for his body type in order to create custom suits and shirts for him. The entire process took about 10 weeks, including three fittings and two fashion consultations, and came in at about $2,000.
Wilkins looked at the expense as part of his job search budget — an expenditure that paid off, seeing as he quickly snagged that new gig. "When I showed up for the interview," he says, "the first thing they said was, 'Oh, good, you're well dressed. Every other guy we've seen has shown up looking like a schlub.' "
Of course, not every worker is happy to shell out to get a new gig. Take Roberta Jacobson, 61, who was working as a journalist in Greece when the country's economy tanked in 2010. The military veteran searched USAJOBS.gov to find a position back in the U.S. — and ultimately accepted a job with the Department of Agriculture in Des Moines. The catch: She had to cover her own moving fees.
"The good ol' days of people paying for relocation fees are over," says Jacobson. And judging by Jacobson's and others' career journeys, it appears that the pay-your-own way ethos is true in more ways than one.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the subject.
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