by Tad Mayer 

The answer to this question boils down to what you want to achieve with your job search and what kind of background you have. If you want to reach the next logical step in your focused career progression, a recruiter may be the way to go. If you want to explore options and pivot your career, you may want a career coach. It’s somewhat of a continuum.

Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about.

Who are career coaches? First and foremost, they are coaches, which means that they are going to help clients identify goals and provide processes to achieve them. To work through the processes, coaches will ask clients probing, open-ended questions. Coaching does not assume that clients are broken and need to be fixed. Instead, coaches believe that clients hold the answers, but do not know how to discover, release, organize, or make sense of them. The practice of questions and answers brings order to the chaos so clients can see how to move forward. Often, clients who seek out coaches describe themselves as stuck or unclear.

As would make sense, career coaches are focused on the professional journey (unlike, for instance, life coaches who usually address much broader issues, or leadership coaches, who focus on clients becoming the leaders they want to be). Unlike a real estate brokers who can represent either the buyer or the seller, career coaches are only hired by job seekers. On the flip side, recruiters are only hired by companies.

Who are recruiters? They are engaged by hiring companies to fill open placements. Recruiters are looking for the best talent to meet the needs of their clients. They will identify, recruit, and interview candidates to see if they are good matches for open positions. Some recruiters will also use assessments in this process. One of the top talents of recruiters is to be able to see beyond the résumés and backgrounds of candidates to the core potential fit between the candidates’ personalities and skills, and the job requirements and company culture. Recruiters spend extensive time with their clients to understand what they are looking for in successful candidates so they can make informed determinations of who to present to the clients. Candidates who work with recruiters often talk about wanting to move to the next level on their set career path.

In the end, recruiters have access to open positions and most career coaches do not. Recruiters want to work with candidates who will fit the needs of their clients and career coaches will to work with virtually any job seekers.

What you want to achieve with your job search

If candidates have pinpointed next steps that make perfect sense in terms of what they have done previously, recruiters may be very interested. If the recruiters have clients with openings that fit what candidates want to do, it can make for a very efficient and successful process. In addition to helping candidates prepare for interviews, recruiters often negotiate the terms of the offer for the candidate (in close communication with the candidate), taking some of the pressure off.

Candidates that may use recruiters one day should get to know them now, or at least before they are desperate for a job. Because of the targeted nature of the process, timing is tricky. If recruiters already know candidates, recruiters will contact them with possible fits when they arise. If candidates approach recruiters only when they need a job, the timing may work or not.

If job seekers have no idea what they want to do next, or if they want to shift, or pivot, their professional paths, career coaches are a great fit, while recruiters typically will not be interested. Career coaches may utilize exercises, personality tests, leadership assessments, or more questions and answers to help their clients find opportunities that make good fits. They also help their clients focus on impact and fulfillment, build their personal brands, tell their stories, gain information about fields, test-drive potential roles or industries, expand and interact with their networks, and prepare for interviews and salary negotiations.

Your background

As you can probably guess from the section above, if your background tells an obvious story of directed progression, you may want to speak with a recruiter. For instance, let’s say you studied business undergraduate, landed a job as a marketing analyst and then manager, then went to business school focusing on marketing, and after moving up you are now a vice president of marketing for a firm. If a recruiter is looking for a senior vice president of marketing in your industry or sector, they may be anxious to meet with you. You have proven experience and a story to tell about your marketing skills and accomplishments.

Now let’s say that you were an undergraduate English major, you became a copy writer at an advertising agency, realized it was not for you, so you went back to school to get your Masters in English. After graduating, you put out your shingle as a text consultant and now focus on copy editing and proofreading. And, you don’t like it. And, you don’t know what you want to do, but it probably does not involve writing all day. You feel stuck, so you keep doing what your doing. A career coach can help you figure out what’s important to you, get past any roadblocks, and untangle your competing interests, values, and pre-conceived judgments. With your newfound direction, they will help you build your access and get the work that you love.

In between the extremes

If you’re in between the two extremes, check-in with both and see what they can do for you. Research and then interview appropriate career coaches and recruiters and see how their services line up with your needs. The greater number of each that you speak with, the better chance you will find a good fit for you.

Let’s say you’ve been a business manager for years. You want to at least change companies, but you may want to transition to a new role—you’re not sure. Test the water with some recruiters to see what positions may be available. At the same time, work on finding a coach who can help you decide what you want to do. With the results of both interactions, you will gain information to help you make a decision of how to move forward.

What if you are new to the workforce or you have a significant gap in your resume due to family obligations? For those new to the workforce, there are recruiters who specialize in entry-level positions. For those reentering the workforce, if you are going back to the role that you left and you have kept up with changes in best practices, a recruiter may be able to help you. In both situations, coaches will help figure out the landscape of the field you want to join, and build the skills to network your way into an opportunity.

Depending on your intentions and experience, either a career coach or a recruiter can be valuable to your job search. Now go contact either or both of them and get started on landing that new job!

TADTad Mayer is a co-author of Own the Job Hunt (due out in 2017), as well as a negotiation consultant, mediator, facilitator, trainer, and coach. He recently taught as an Adjunct Professor of negotiation at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. You can reach him at