As they fight for jobs in a tough market, job hunters are getting more sophisticated in the way they look for work.
Rather than merely mailing a flurry of resumes or religiously answering newspaper help-wanted ads, job seekers now often are mounting well-thought-out campaigns based on the same marketing principles used to sell consumer goods.
''They are not making a job change or looking for a job. That was the old mental set. They now are marketing themselves as they would a product that performs a service,'' says Dulany Foster Jr., managing vice-president of Korn/Ferry International, an executive search firm.
''The job seeker is getting a lot less mechanical, (not just) answering ads or sending canned resumes. They are getting a lot more savvy in how they approach the job market,'' says Howard Bratches, a partner at the executive search firm, Thorndike Deland Associates.
''They are honing in on specific industries and doing more homework developing contacts with people in the company, rather than writing willy-nilly to the personnel department,'' Bratches adds.
There are a variety of reasons for the changes in job-seeking methods. A tight job market has encouraged a more thoughtful approach, as have books like Robert J. Jameson's ''Professional Job Changing System.'' Another factor is the growing number of managers who have been counseled by ''outplacement'' firms. An outplacement firm is hired by a company to help find new jobs for the managers it fires.
It's a good thing job hunters are getting more clever, since a recent survey conducted by Eaton Swain Associates, a New York-based outplacement firm, indicates that managers who do hiring are put off by conventional approaches.
The study found that 82 percent of the executives who responded to the survey thought job seekers either ''often'' or ''sometimes'' relied too much on resumes. Some 42 percent thought an executive could do as well without a resume.
Meanwhile, cover letters were criticized for overstating the applicant's accomplishments and for offering presumptious suggestions on how the job seeker could quickly solve a company's longstanding problems.
''The old ways are bad because the velocity of people sending out resumes and cover letters is greater than it has ever been before. (Older methods) are bad in the sense they are overdone, a cliche,'' says Robert L. Swain, president of Eaton Swain.
There even seems to be growing resistance to some newer methods of job hunting, such as the ''interviewing for information'' technique suggested by ''What Color is Your Parachute?'' a widely read book on job hunting by Robert N. Bolles. Interviewing for information is where a job seeker asks to speak to an executive to learn more about a company and industry while building a network of contacts for later use in a job search.
Some companies, like San Francisco's Levi Strauss & Co., ''batch their informational interviews,'' notes Frances Bolles, an associate at the National Career Development Project in California. ''They get 20 (informational interviewers) and do a presentation. . . . You don't get to know who the person with the power to hire is.''
Employment experts caution that there is no one right approach for every job seeker. ''We probably have as many approaches as individuals we are working with ,'' says James Milburn, senior vice-president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based outplacement firm. ''The main thing is to have the opportunity to interview'' with a prospective employer.''
Still, there are some useful guidelines for people who are trying to market themselves like a product. The first step is to identify special skills and conduct research to identify who the potential ''customers'' for these skills are, Foster says.
Often the most effective method, he notes, is to approach the company through a well-placed acquaintance at the firm. ''Being introduced to the potential customer is the best way. You come recommended to him.''
To arrange introductions, a job seeker needs to develop a network of contacts. ''If you use contacts effectively, you have a much better chance to see the person with the power to hire,'' Frances Bolles says. Experts suggest making a list of people the job hunter has met since high school. While these potential contacts may not know someone at a target company, they may know someone who does.
The contact route may not always succeed. The next step in a marketing-based approach is to ''use direct mail,'' or resumes accompanied by a cover letter, Foster suggests. Typically the response is similar to what other users of direct mail get or about two or three interviews for every 100 letters sent.
''The third best approach is using a middleman,'' Foster says. For individuals making under $40,000 a year, the middleman should be a personnel agency. The middleman of choice for those with higher salaries is an executive recruiting firm which will put the job hunter's qualifications on file and sometimes will interview those who send them resumes.
''The court of last resort is newspaper help-wanted advertisements,'' says Foster. ''It makes you feel like you are doing something,'' notes Challenger vice-president Milburn. ''But if the advertisement pulls 100 people, you are lucky if they talk to four.''
The time it takes land a job with these methods varies, but one month per $10 ,000 of salary is typical.
While it is far from a universally held view, the Challenger, Gray outplacement firm sees some improvement in the job market. The time it takes outplacement clients to find a job ''has been going down steadily for the last year, and more rapidly since the first of this year,'' Milburn says. The average search time is now 3.2 months.