Finding Jobs in the Hidden Jobs Market

Richard Nelson Bolles was born in 1927 in Wisconsin, USA, and is famous for his groundbreaking job search book “What Color is your Parachute”, which has an initial copyright date of 1970. It has been updated and re-issued most years since then. Bolles writes in a clear style and has often been quoted as the authoritative author on everything job search. In 1980, the New York Times quoted him as saying

“Eighty percent of jobs are never advertised…Instead, you have to search for a job through contacts”.

This 80% figure has been in careers guidance folklore ever since and is parroted by many, often prefixed by “Research has shown that…”, but no one has found the original research, if it ever existed…

ballon.jpgAlso, even if the 80% figure was accurate in 1980, university students in 2016 are living in a very different world (the Internet, social media, legislative and employment law requirements, a world recovering from major economic quakes etc) than I was back in 1980 when I could apply speculatively and successfully as an undergraduate for short-term jobs in butchery, psychiatric nursing, publishing and warehousing. Health and safety was pretty casual in these days – there was no formal training. You learned not to cut towards yourself when you had a shank of beef in front of you. And if a psychiatric patient was violently out of control in the dining room? You rugby tackled them to the floor, several of you sat on him until he was exhausted and then you offered him a cigarette and lit it for him.

So what is the hidden jobs market?

What scale does it reach compared to advertised vacancies, and how can a job seeker target it with applications? Many advertised vacancies are going to be extremely competitive so if you can bypass a lot of that by successful speculative applications, it makes good sense to hive off some of the job search activity to such approaches.

Coming from a social science background, I well understand the need to put a number on something, a figure which will define and nail down the issue. But at the same time, I know that there are truths which lie outside empiricism. And the reality of the hidden jobs market is one of them. You cannot possibly put a percentage on its relative size. Yet you can still take account of many of the factors which create it and capitalise on them by approaching your job search through a number of strategies. Don’t just have one strategy and certainly don’t make it a waiting for compelling advertised jobs to appear.


The hidden jobs market is a percentage of the overall jobs market.

To take an example, the life sciences in Scotland account for about 32,000 jobs and the annual sector staff turnover rate is about 10%. Its particular hidden jobs market could therefore be:

3,200 + sector growth – advertised jobs = hidden jobs

Although sector growth as a piece of the jigsaw can’t be predicted with huge accuracy, there will be precursor events and trends such as investment and development  decisions  to suggest future growth. For instance, a number of small to medium sized companies (SMEs; companies with fewer than 250 employees) such as Aridhia taking up their space in the new QEUH will enter into collaborative research to expand the boundaries of life sciences and this will create some new jobs largely because of the new co-location.

That’s about as empirical as you can get. You are then in an area of great complexity these days when it comes to applying for anything which is not advertised. No one job search technique is always going to work for you or fail you, for life sciences or any other sector. It may be a mystery as to why an approach works or doesn’t. But a lot of life science SMEs, and SMEs generally, welcome speculative applications! In 2016 Aridhia, for instance, says,

“We welcome direct speculative applications and candidate enquiries, so if you don’t see an exact fit in our current vacancies but feel that you have valuable experience to offer, please e-mail a detailed CV and covering letter”.

You should consider this speculative approach and usually it looks like a two-page CV and one-page cover letter when applying for graduate jobs. In the letter, make sure it’s clear why you want to work for that particular company. Be aware that this type of approach can work very soon or later on for the same company. If your speculative CV passes muster it will be kept on file and at a later date, when a new contract has been won or your area of work has been prioritised, the CV database will be revisited and a short-list for interview will be selected. For many SMEs, it is only if that process fails that hirers will think about advertising the jobs.

There are other ways as well to connect with employers through LinkedIn and third parties such as recruitment agencies, some of which may specialize in the sector you are especially interested in. See for a very extensive directory of agencies. But it is networking both online and face to face which has become so important when it comes to the hidden job market. Using LinkedIn to market yourself, your skills and experience while simultaneously growing your online network is a very powerful tool and I know a number of students and graduates who have been offered very attractive jobs purely because of their LinkedIn activity.

hidden.jpgAnd by attending employer events on and off campus, you are always meeting recruiters who are in candidate hunting mode and very interested, at on campus events, in meeting you because you are a student at that university. In some cases, these employers have specific university targets for numbers of candidates to apply and get through the different stages to final job offer. Yes, we’re into the non-hidden market now but networking is a good strategy for that as well. Conversations with employers who are advertising and running events on campus will help you customize your applications and target the competencies sought.

When you are in an organization, new types of hidden jobs can appear! These can be on internal vacancy memorandums, databases and registers. The company wants to retain and redeploy talent. Employees are also encouraged to think of potential candidates for a new post from their external networks. All this is hidden from the general job seeking public. You need to be already known by colleagues or by someone in your network who is working on the inside. Again though, this gets me back to LinkedIn. Through it, you can already be on the inside at least as far as employer forums are concerned and other professional networking groups which the employer considers important. You can become someone who is already known.

“What Color is your Parachute” is an excellent book. I recommend it for its many useful tips on finding a job and finding a balanced life as well. I looked at it again the other day for the 80% figure and it wasn’t there. Richard Bolles is moving with the times.


One thought on “Finding Jobs in the Hidden Jobs Market

  1. Pingback: Getting a graduate job in Arts, Culture and Media | University of Glasgow Careers Service

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