The Vanishing Hidden Job Market

There is a very stubborn statistic in the world of job seeking, or more specifically, networking: 80% of jobs are (supposedly) never advertised.

And that is commonly referred to as the "hidden job market". Search for that phrase on Google, and you will soon find that 80% number again and again. From reputable sources (such as Forbes or CBS).

Since so many experts agree, it's probably true, right? But where does that number come from? Curiously, no one seems to know. Research is never quoted to back that claim. It seems to be "true" simply because it's regularly echoed by enough experts.

So I decided to investigate. And I found fresh data that strongly contradicts the experts...

Where (or when) does that figure come from?

It's far from a new thing. With Google Books, I found material from 1990, 1993 and 1997 already using that figure. But no one knows where it comes from.

However, in "Writing a CV that Works" (1997), Paul McGee had the clarity of mind to say: "The exact figures are difficult to come by, but it is commonly accepted that around three quarters of jobs available are not advertised." Even 20 years ago, the source of that important piece of advice for your job search was lost in time and space!

To push my investigation further, I even subscribed to the New York Times archives. (Yup, I was that determined to seek out the truth!) Their online tool is called the TimesMachine... Now that's a cool name! And check out this beauty, from the New York Times in 1980:

80 percent of jobs not advertised - already in 1980!

So our 80% figure isn't just a bit old. It's a blast from the past. (A distant time where tech geeks would brag about their brand new VCR). The expert quoted above, Richard Bolles, is the author of What Color is Your Parachute?, a great career coaching book which is still around.

The godfather of networking advice

The old wiseman who started all this, as far as I can tell, is Mark Granovetter, a Harvard sociologist. He wrote a book in 1974 studying a very new thing for the time: social networks. The book is called Getting a job: a study of contacts and careers. (Yeah... Professors aren't that good with book titles.)

His key findings about people who had found a job: 56% used personal contacts, while 37% used a more typical approach (sending out resume or applying on a job post). Not only was the networking aspect more important, but both job seekers and employers felt it brought more quality – the right person for the right job. He appeared in Forbes magazine, saying that almost 75% of all successful job searches are the result of informal contacts. And that is probably the “original” 80% figure. You know, 75% rounded up.

Maybe this was true back then (more than a generation ago).

However, these were early efforts and the research, in retrospective, seems to be painting with broad strokes. One thing becomes clear when we look for hard data on the job search: there are many fuzzy areas and it's hard to come up with clear statistics. (More on that below.)

"Hidden job market" didn't mean the same thing around 1980

Already in 1999, before social media, we could read: "For at least twenty-five years, career advisers have been reminding the job seekers that only a small fraction of all available jobs appear in the "help wanted" ads, and have urged people to go digging in the "hidden" job market. The Internet has changed that somewhat. [...] Much of the hidden job market is not as hidden as it used to be. This is a tremendous benefit to you, and not to be underestimated." (That's from The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century.)

Some people realized that the internet was having a major impact on the job search. But that old statistic is very stubborn. And probably quite useful to career advisors. So it survived the internet boom and is still thriving today. But I will not let my readers be the victims of such overcooked non-sense. With all the automated tools involved in the job search, we do have new data, that reflect the job market of 2016. Let's have a look.

The vanishing hidden job market

The internet has dramatically transformed how people look for work. Recruiters can find you on LinkedIn. Companies have their own career sites. Job ads can be posted very quickly to generalist and niche job boards (everywhere at once -- which is amazing! -- thanks to the magic of the internet). And job postings also appear on job search engines/aggregators (like indeed.com), where they let you search jobs posted on thousands of websites.

That's so much better than ads in newspapers or monthly trade magazines! The internet has revolutionized recruitment. Jump straight to the image below if you don't want to go too deep in the numbers.

Here are a few interesting bits from 2014 Source of Hire study, from CareerXRoads. (The results below are averages over 3 years: 2011 to 2013).

Top sources of hire - CareerXRoads

Referrals, 24%
Career Site, 17%
Job Boards, 18% (indeed.com, careerbuilder.com, linkedin.com - as a job board -, monster.com, many niche job boards...)
Direct source, 9% (when they keep your resume on file or do some proactive recruitment on LinkedIn)
College, 8%
3rd party, 4% (recruiting agency)
Others, 20% (temp-to-hire, rehires, etc.)

These categories aren't always clearly defined (remember when I said things were fuzzy?). Direct source, for example. If a recruiter finds you on LinkedIn, have you found a job by networking or by updating your online resume? We can't always put everything in a nice bucket. However, the 80% figure already seems way out of line.

There's another company who is crunching data to help us along our investigation. It's SilkRoad, a talent acquisition software. They've reviewed data related to almost 300,000 hires, which were monitored with their system. Here's the data from their 2015 Top Sources of Hire study.

Top sources of hire - SilkRoad

Referrals, 22%
Career site, 11%
Job search engines, 16%
Job board, 12%
3rd party, 12%
Current employee, 12%
Other, 15%

Notice that they have a separate category for "current employee" (meaning someone getting a promotion). Their data says 12%, but CareerXRoads says 42% for the same data (they've decided to exclude these numbers from their top sources of hire study, to focus on the other, more useful, categories). Now that is one huge discrepancy. However, does it really matter that much for job seekers? Internal promotions are often jobs that are pretty much out of reach for outsiders.

So let's leave that aside. If we redistribute the 12% of "current employees", to help us compare apples to apples, we get the following.

Top sources of hire - SilkRoad (after gross redistribution)

Referrals, 24%
Career site, 12%
Job search engines, 18%
Job board, 13%
3rd party, 13%
Other, 20%

Fresh statistics, hidden job market

These numbers are a bit harder to analyze than if it was only referrals vs job ads... But they reflect the complexity of hiring. Both companies don't track the same elements, and sometimes their definitions are different.

Referrals are a big chunk, but nowhere near what we hear from the hidden job market conspiracy. If you add career sites and job boards (the online channels), you respectively get 35% and 43%. So it's reasonable to say that about 40% of hires come from these online sources.

A last big piece of the puzzle comes from SilkRoad's Top Sources of Hire. Of all the recruitment sources in their study, online sources produced 59% of all interviews but only 42% of all hires. Which means that people who sent their resumes through job boards or company's career sites got more than half the interviews. But they don't get as many hires. Referrals and those who went through recruiters had a better batting average. In other words, they were more trustworthy.

So what's the conclusion?

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Networking is the better option...

Networking is quite powerful. Being referred by someone does make people trust you more. That's why it's still the most reliable channel.

Also, a CareerBuilder research has demonstrated that employers like it more. It's where they start: before posting a job, 72% of employers will first look at internal resources (referrals, their own resume database, the talent community/network).

And a general rule is that networking becomes more valuable as you're aiming for higher positions, especially at the executive level.

... but it's not a secret garden of magical opportunities

Getting interviews is hard. And this applies both to networking and replying to job ads. If you're only working your network, you might be missing out on MANY more accessible job interviews given to online candidates.

A great job search strategy commits serious efforts to both sides.You want to have many streams of networking going (LinkedIn, industry events, informational interviews...) while sending tailored resumes and cover letters to relevant job postings (where you meet 75%+ of criteria).

While the 80% figure used to suggest that networking was categorically better, the data we now have, in 2016, points to a balanced approach.

Experts, take note.

If you like this article, let your connections in on the new data regarding the hidden job market: share it on LinkedIn or Facebook!

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