I was hoping you might be able to help me finally put to bed a long-running argument between me and my mother about the proper way to find a job. For almost as long as I’ve been job hunting, she has insisted that it’s a good idea to apply to places that aren’t actively hiring, just on the chance that they might begin hiring and pull your application off the stack.
This advice has never really sat well with me. I find applying for jobs fairly stressful, and my gut instinct has always been that it’s a waste of time and effort applying to places that aren’t actually hiring. At best, you would give a future hiring manager that many more outdated applications to sift through once a position actually opens up.
Am I in the right here, or does my mom know something I don’t? And if I am in the right, can you give me some arguments to help shut her down the next time she decides this is an argument we need to have again? I’ve been job searching again for the last few weeks, and it’s been going well, but I can tell she gets annoyed whenever I mention that there aren’t many new job listings in a given day. (For context, we’re sheltering together after my school closed down the dorms following Covid-19.)
There are some fields that operate this way—usually very small businesses—but most don’t.
Most places advertise their job vacancies if they want outside applicants. If they don’t post a job opening, it’s generally because they plan to hire internally or from their existing network, and the chances of you being the perfect fit for a job you don’t know about and which they haven’t described to you are pretty slim. And many companies, especially larger ones, aren’t even set up to accept applications that aren’t directed to a specific and current job opening.
And that stack of applications that your mom is picturing employers turning to when a position does open up? It usually doesn’t happen that way. Employers do keep applications on file because of record-keeping requirements, but it’s relatively uncommon for them to hunt through old applications for candidates rather than just advertising when a job opens up, especially if those candidates hadn’t applied for a specific role in the first place. Some employers will do it! But most don’t. You see it more frequently when someone has an unusual or hard-to-find skill set, in which case an employer will be more motivated to make sure they remember you the next time they need that skill… but if you’re not in that category, your chances are much lower.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your mom’s strategy never works. Occasionally it does! That’s why you’ll sometimes hear reports of people who found jobs this way. And if there’s a company that you’d really love to work for where you feel your qualifications would be especially well suited, by all means, go ahead and try it. But it shouldn’t be a major focus of your job search, because most of the time it’s just not going to pay off.
What’s more, on the relatively rare occasions that it does pay off, it’s often because the place that hires you doesn’t have great hiring practices: They’re going for what’s easiest—an application they already have—rather than ensuring that they’re hiring the best person for the job. That can be a sign of other problems; do you want to work with colleagues who were all hired because their applications were close by? That’s not always the case, of course. But it’s true enough of the time that it’s worth factoring into your approach.
It’s worth noting, though, that your mom didn’t make this advice up out of nowhere. It’s been floating out there for a while—in part, I believe, because it helps people feel like they have more control in their job searches. Career counselors and job search coaches want to be able to suggest strategies other than “respond to job postings” and this provides something else to recommend… despite the fact that the payoff is low.
But again, if you want to contact a handful of companies that aren’t hiring as a supplement to your main job search strategies, go for it. It won’t hurt you and, who knows, maybe you’ll happen to email at the perfect time with the perfect skill set. But you’re better off putting the majority of your time and energy into applying for jobs that you know for sure exist and are hiring.