I seemed like a shoe-in for the job — even the human resources (HR) manager thought so. However, the company wouldn't consider me because I was already in its system. "What does that mean?," I inquired. It turned out I had filed my resumé on its website some seven years before. Because the firm didn't consider me qualified then, when it now reviewed resumés for the job it automatically rejected me as unqualified. After the conference call, I told the recruiter I was puzzled by the firm's dismissive approach. I have since learned that it's common practice.
So, my first piece of advice is never file your resumé on a company website — except when you're told to do so by a recruiter because it's the potential employer's policy. Posting it there doesn't set you apart. Your resumé likely is just one of a few hundred or more that somebody in HR will skim through. The odds the person actually will fish it out are slim at best. Instead, let the recruiter put your name forward, polish your image and interact with the company on your behalf.
My second piece of advice is not to respond to job openings that appear year after year from the same companies. Devote an afternoon every few months to read through the jobs advertised online. It won't take long to spot patterns; avoid firms that regularly relist the same openings. One Chicago company I watch has a habit of hiring a new process engineer every few years because it can't or won't promote and won't give raises. I talked to one engineer who stayed a few years and then left for better prospects. After you get to know a few recruiters, they'll help you steer clear of such firms.
Along the same lines, some job openings run over and over again. The description changes but that's all. You might think you should apply because the company's finally settled on what it wants. Don't be fooled. Many years ago I applied for a process engineering position in May and, soon after, a revised job description was posted. I thought I was rejected because the description had changed. After seeing another permutation, I chanced to talk to someone at the unemployment office; people there have to give you the straight dope — it's their job. She said the same job had been on its books for over a year. The office sent the company a stack of resumés every few months but nobody got hired. The HR manager was inexperienced and used the resumes to rewrite the job description. I called again a few months later. The HR manager had been fired and the new manager had revised the job description again. Don't waste too much time there.
While we're on the topic of job descriptions, be wary of those that are too specific. I generally send my resumé in anyway because few others will. Be extra-cautious during the phone screen. Ask who wrote the description. If the person says the engineering manager did, you may be sunk because the manager may want skills identical to those of the person who left; if a subordinate wrote it, the description may be designed to hamper hiring a potential competitor for promotion.
Recruiters can get you inside that door but sometimes they're just filling the race stalls. You want to put your time into jobs where you can be a place horse not a show pony. So, do some sizing-up over the phone by asking why the recruiter is interested in you. I once drove two hours in a blinding snowstorm only to find out I was there to give the chosen candidate someone to worry about. While he met the company president in the library, I was relegated to a closet. I was humiliated and told the recruiter never to call me again.
Continue to look even when you've interviewed for a job. Companies often act as though you've got all the time in the world. I was considered for an opening at a gas supplier. The process started in March and ended in September; I was a quarter finalist. Another firm interviewed six candidates for a corporate process control engineer position but then put everything on hold for over six months. The recruiter actually laughed in the phone when the company called back with its pick. Work as many opportunities as possible when the odds are long.
And, lastly, always ask why a job is open. Once, when I asked that during an interview with a company in Houston, I was told the firm had lost its plant engineer, process engineer and instrument engineer at the same time! Probing further got me nowhere. I was offered the job of plant engineer but turned it down.
DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can e-mail him at email@example.com