Career Coaches: Should You Hire One?

Tips for finding that right career coach and that new job.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

Nov. 20, 2008 — -- You've sent out 500 resumes, hit every job fair in town and contacted everyone you've ever met in your life to see if they know of any job openings.

You're not just pounding the pavement -- you're pulverizing it. And, yet, here you are, still unemployed.

It's enough to make even the most confident person wonder if it's not the crummy job market, but you: Is your resume selling you short? Are you flubbing your interviews? Asking for too high a salary? Completely unaware that your breath wilts plants and makes small children cry?

Unless they work in human resources, friends and family can only offer so much feedback. As your unemployment benefits begin to dwindle, you might begin to wonder if you should hire a professional: a career coach or career counselor to weigh in with his or her objective opinion and expert advice.

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

But how do you find a career coach you can trust, and can hiring one ensure you land a job before your savings run out? Read on.

Beware of Scams

You don't need me to tell you that when the going gets tough, the scammers come crawling out of the woodwork.

"They play on your desperation," said Margaret Dikel, who publishes The Riley Guide, a free directory of online employment information. "And the more desperate you are, the more careful you should be."

Red flag No. 1: A career coach or career marketing firm "guarantees" that working with them will land you a job.

Yes, a good career coach will advise and guide you through the job hunting process and teach you to be more effective at finding gainful employment. But coaches aren't recruiters, and no honest coach will guarantee you a job.

Red flag No. 2: A coach or firm tells you that they have "access to the hidden job market" -- as in, super-secret job leads you won't find anywhere else.

This is another empty come-on, Dikel warned.

"Everybody has access to the hidden job market: It's called networking," she said. "And you can do it for free."

Red flag No. 3: You're asked to pay a flat fee of several thousand dollars up front, and you're pressured to make your decision -- and fork over your money -- now.

"It's like those crazy infomercials in the middle of the night," Dikel said. "The harder they push you, the more you need to take a step back."

A good coach won't give you the hard sell or a one-size-fits-all rate. Instead, they'll charge you by the hour or session and will tailor their services to the kind of assistance you need: resume makeover, interviewing techniques, help making an industry change.

Fees vary greatly among coaches, from about $100 an hour to several hundred. Time spent with a coach can range from one or two sessions to multiple sessions over the course of several months or a year, depending on your needs.

Where the Credible Coaches Are

Rather than going with a big career-marketing firm, I recommend working with a small career-coaching firm -- or better yet, an individual career coach or career counselor -- so you know exactly who you're hiring.

No one governing organization of career coaches exists, which means anyone can wake up tomorrow and call themselves a career coach. To further confuse matters, several organizations offer credentialing programs for career coaches, with the National Career Development Association offering the most rigorous program of the bunch.

But just as good and bad doctors get their degrees from Harvard, the market is rife with both good and bad coaches who have credentials. That's where getting a referral from a friend or colleague comes in.

If no one you know can recommend a career coach (credentialed or otherwise), check your local newspaper's business events calendar. Coaches often lead job hunting workshops and networking events. Pick two or three free or low-cost events that look interesting and check out the Web sites of the coaches leading them. Bonus points if they have a blog or book you can peruse.

If you like what you see, go to those events, introduce yourself to the coaches, ask a couple of your top job-hunting questions and size up: Does this person sound knowledgeable about the job market? Is this someone you'd feel comfortable paying to mentor you? Or is a little voice inside of you screaming, "I need to get as far away as I can from this woo-woo quack"?

Such spelunking worked like a charm for Erica Hamilton of Stamford, Conn., a marketing manager who was laid off in May. Before hiring the career coach she's working with, Hamilton sniffed her out at a networking event.

"Seeing the career coach make a presentation allowed me to assess her coaching style before getting into the relationship," Hamilton said. "Because she was so available in the market, I knew what I was getting."

Make Sure It's a Good Fit

Once you have a coach in mind, ask to see his or her resume or CV if they don't list one on their Web site. Yes, 10 years experience working as a corporate recruiter in their former 9-to-5 life is impressive. But you also want a coach with extensive experience working with people in your field -- and industry and the references to prove it.

A reader of this column I'll call "Terry" learned this the hard way. A Seattle Web developer who works for the software industry, Terry has a high aptitude for all things digital. Unfortunately, the career coach he hired to help him find a new job in 2007 did not.

"Much of my coach's advice was best for paper applications, physical networking events, face-to-face meetings," Terry said. "We argued a while about search engine optimization of resume terms, having a generic resume permanently up on the Web and leveraging Twitter and other online networks. She learned a lot from me."

It's perfectly acceptable to ask a coach for a few unpaid minutes of their time to suss all this out before you reach for your wallet. In addition, you'll want to know if your coach prefers to meet in person, by phone, by e-mail, or a combination of all three. Like rates and experience level, these will vary among coaches.

Get the Most From Your Coach

You'll get the most bang for your buck if you enter into a coaching relationship with a specific goal in mind, be it revamping your resume so you can move from the nonprofit to corporate sector or learning how to better negotiate salary.

Hamilton, the laid off marketing manager, hired her coach solely to help makeover her resume and develop a more effective cadre of cover letters. But there was an added bonus: "Working with her on my resume opened my eyes up to different position titles that I had not been using in my job board searches," Hamilton said.

If you hire a career coach, be prepared for brutal honesty. If your goal is to land a new job and the person you're paying to help you do so says that your cover letters stink or your interviewing skills are sorely lacking, take heed. Make the changes he or she suggests and do the homework he or she gives you. You hired this person to help you step up your game. Let them.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,