On the most basic level, a headhunter, or job recruiter, is somebody that works with companies and/or individuals to fill vacant positions. The reality is a bit more complicated than that, at least in most industries. There are different types of recruiters–most work on a freelance basis, but sometimes a company will hire a recruiter to fill a specific position or for a short period while they are trying to fill multiple positions, or a large company will have one on staff. This affects what you might get from a recruiter. The freelancers are paid based on the starting salary of the applicant, whereas the others may be paid a flat fee or regular salary, and this affects who they’ll work with and what they’ll do for you.
My experience has been that the freelancers will talk to everybody and keep every resume. They may call you back out of the blue (ie, when business is slow). But what they really want is to fill a vice president position every week, since this will make them very rich. In fact, the lure of large salaries led to a flood of these recruiters in some industries back when the economy was booming. In science, my wife and I would get calls every week from “executive recruiters” looking to build their resume bank or quickly place us, but many times you could tell the recruiter had no clue about the industry or hiring practices, or they would lose interest if you asked them to do any real work for you. Not every freelancer is a noob looking to make a quick buck though, and finding a good one can get you a job you’d never have found on your own. However, they will usually only work with mid- to upper-level candidates who have unique skills or training. If you’re a CFI, forget it. But if a company is looking for a bilingual JAA/FAA CFI with an advanced degree and 2500 hours to train cattle musterers for a multinational ranching conglomerate, and you have those qualifications, you might be getting a phone call. More than likely, freelancers are going to work with pilots who have unique training/skills (significant Skycrane, IFR, or military time, for example), or for pilots who are getting out of the cockpit and into management positions. If that’s you, then yes, a headhunter is going to be very helpful. You can also develop long-term relationships with these recruiters (again, if they think you’re somebody that will pay off for them down the road). When you’re looking for a job, you should call or email them early in the process. And expect them to check in with you occasionally to see if you’re still happy where you are.
The contract recruiter is uncommon. A company that’s new or rapidly expanding will hire them, and they’ll usually find you through a posted resume or mutual contact. They know exactly what they’re looking for, and know that they need to fill the position(s) and will move on when their contract ends. Expect these recruiters to work intensely with you if you have the qualifications, but once they figure out that you aren’t what they’re looking for, they’ll forget you pretty quickly.
I’ve seen some HEMS companies hire an HR person that also serves as an on-staff recruiter. In this case, there’s the balance between high demand and a shortage of qualified pilots to fill HEMS jobs that justifies hiring somebody into this role. This is a good person to network with, since they can help guide you into the position if you don’t yet meet their minimum qualifications. For a national company, they may also work with you a bit to find a position and location that works for both of you.
Those are the types of recruiters that are out there, but can they help you find a job? If you are mid-career, have some specialized training or unique skill, or are looking at management-level positions, you should include contacting recruiters as part of your ongoing job search strategy. Let’s look at that statement more closely. First, recruiters, plural. Having several recruiters on your side expands your network and increases the chances that one will hit on an open position that will fit your needs. Also, many recruiters will tell you they’re working 24-7 for you, but take that with all the credibility you’d give anything a car salesman tells you. Second, part of. Recruiters are one tool. If you’re actively looking or unemployed, having even the greatest recruiter doesn’t exempt you from continuing your networking and job searching. Remember that recruiters have their own motivations, and feeding your family or paying your loans isn’t one of them. Third part, ongoing. Even if you are happy and content, touching base occasionally with your recruiter, or returning their calls, isn’t a bad idea. You don’t know what else is out there that might improve your pay or lot in life. Management, business model, or operational changes with your current employer can also happen quickly, sending you from fat and happy at work, to fat and unemployed on the couch. Passively seeing what other jobs are available is a defensive strategy. Whatever headhunting a recruiter does should be anonymous, but you should always remind them of this when you are currently employed.
One other situation a recruiter can help you with is a career fork. Say you’re currently a pilot, but are unemployed or need to get out of your current job. You are interested in a management position, if you could find the right one, but you’d be just as happy to keep flying. Dealing directly with a company in this situation can be difficult, since applying for both positions makes you look confused and/or desperate. A good recruiter will be able to run interference for you here, since they’ll screen jobs and optimally pitch your qualifications for a position to employers, then they’ll leave it to you to decide which opportunities to pursue.
Can a recruiter help you if you are looking for entry level positions? No. A 200 to 300-hour CFII or 1000-hour pilot is easy to find, and these are employer’s markets. Companies won’t pay for recruiters, and without that incentive, no recruiter is likely to do anything for you beyond dispensing a bit of career advice. It’s unfortunate, because an entry-level pilot is probably most in need of help finding a job, but that’s the economic reality. You can make the contact, and keep in touch with the recruiter over the years, but it probably isn’t worthwhile for either of you. Getting your first job is going to be your sole responsibility.