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Insider's guide to the hidden job market

HUNTING for a job sometimes rates right along with paying income taxes as an unpopular activity. It's time-consuming and often nonproductive. Besides, ''There are no jobs!'' some people claim. Yet your brother-in-law got one. Your neighbor down the street starts next Monday, and your best friend made a successful change. They got jobs. You didn't.

What made the difference? Probably, all things being equal, each of them one way or another tapped into the hidden job market. You can do the same.

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By now you may have exhausted the standard ways of job hunting. You have made regular visits to the state employment service. You've pored over the help-wanted ads in the newspaper. You've filled out applications until your pen ran dry.

If you came away empty-handed, you have only two options left: (1) Give up, or (2) try new strategies. Until you've tried No. 2, No. 1 is unthinkable.

In the present labor market, getting a job demands breaking out of the old ruts and thinking differently. It's a buyer's market, and the employer is doing the buying. What worked 15, 10, or even 5 years ago is not working today.

There is work out there - lots of it. And as long as the employer has an unfilled need, you have a chance of getting a job.

First, get rid of the notion that all jobs are listed in the classified ads or with the employment service. (When did you last see an ad in either place for a college president or a high-wire artist?)

Statisticians for the Department of Labor will admit that the Employment Service probably lists between 10 percent and 20 percent of the available jobs. You, being a smart job hunter, can figure out that at least 80 percent of the jobs have to be found somewhere else.

Where are they? Jobs may be invisible for a number of reasons, the principal one being that the employer lists his job in a different way. He shops for applicants in what he has found is the most effective way to generate good prospects.

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To do this, he may list only through private employment agencies. If his is a union shop, he is under contract to hire by way of the union hall. If the work requires advanced academic training, he goes to professional societies and conferences or notifies universities.

Civil service agencies - city, county, state, and federal - all have distinct hiring procedures. In other situations the employer may prefer ''gate-hires,'' that is, he likes job-seekers to make direct application to his business, factory, or organization.

None of this is top secret. If you want to know how your occupation is filled by a specific company, pick up the phone. Talk to the personnel department or whoever hires for that kind of work. Ask. Professional job developers do it all the time.

When you get this information from one employer, however, don't assume the process is the same for every similar employer. Remember, each one develops his own way of getting applicants. These ways can vary even within an organization.

Strategy No. 1 for successful job-seekers: Find out where the employer lists his job.

Strategy No. 2: Learn alternate titles for your job. The employer may call your work by a different name.

Job titles are supposed to help. Often they just muddy the waters. The employer can call a cluster of tasks anything he wants. That's why the garbage collector has become the ''sanitary engineer,'' the general office clerk is the ''private secretary,'' and a bus supervisor might be referred to as the ''transportation administrator.'' These euphemisms may give the worker a greater sense of importance, but such prestigious job titles also confuse the job-seeker. You need to know alternate titles.

The United States Department of Labor issues a Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which describes some 20,000 occupations, their standard titles, and alternate titles. Few employers are aware of this resource, and still fewer use it. Instead, each names his job whatever he wishes. Consequently, when you look for work under the title assigned you in a previous position, you may have trouble making a match between the old job and the new. So you need more information.

Go to your public library or the employment service office. Look at the DOT (Dictionary of Occupational Titles). You may need some help with this, so don't hesitate to ask the librarian. Locate the kind of work you do. Then make a list of other names frequently used to identify this work. Now you won't pass up job openings because you don't recognize your work under a different title.

To illustrate: Maybe you've been a stock clerk. Do you also apply for jobs such as stock checker, stockroom clerk, storekeeper, storeroom clerk, storeroom keeper, stores clerk, supply clerk, and supply-room clerk? Or are you a machine builder? Then you are also a special machine assembler, a bench hand, a fitter, a bench machinist, and a vise hand. You might also be called a tool-machine setup operator or a fixture builder.

In a similar manner, a survey worker might also be an interviewer, a merchandising representative, a public interviewer, or another title an employer chooses.

Strategy No. 3: Read job descriptions thoroughly. Ignore job titles. This may seem a contradiction to learning alternate job titles. What it really means is: Don't be unduly impressed by names tacked onto job listings. I once saw a state civil service job posted at the employment service office with this title: ''Assistant Public Guardian Conservator.'' Most applicants walked right on by. Those who stopped to read further saw this first line: ''This is a new position with the coroner's office.''

That did it. No one read the rest. This was unfortunate in a university community where there were a number of new graduates with degrees in social service. The complete description indicated that the job was a kind of surrogate-parent position. Orphaned children or incapacitated elderly with no relatives require someone to oversee their needs. This was the role of the ''Assistant Public Guardian Conservator'' - a social-service job.

The moral of this story is: Read the job content. You may be surprised.