Agents? Call Them Career Customizers

Agents? Call Them Career Customizers

"An employee with coveted skills may have no trouble finding a better deal, a better fit or just a fresh challenge. But few have much time to scope out their next moves."

The New York Times By Elaine S. Silver

Rajiv Muradia was ready for a new gig. At 36, with 13 years’ experience as a telecommunications software engineer at Nortel Networks, he knew he could get another job easily. But he wanted more than that. He wanted THE job.

He called Erika MacPhee, told her what he had in mind — a start-up in a related field with strong management and fewer than 50 employees, where he could make a big difference — and set her to work sifting through dozens of potential employers to find him a good fit.

She did the legwork, set up interviews and guided Muradia through salary negotiations. In May, he became vice president for research and development at Coventus, which develops online aids for travelers.

So she is a talent agent and he is her client, right? Not exactly.

MacPhee works for TalentLab, an executive recruiting firm in Ottawa, and her client is technically Coventus, which pays it a retainer. But at a time when job offers fall like ripe summer peaches into the laps of the technologically savvy, who works for whom in the recruiting and hiring landscape is getting hazy.

An employee with coveted skills may have no trouble finding a better deal, a better fit or just a fresh challenge. But few have much time to scope out their next moves. So intermediaries are plunging in to help — traditional-style talent agents in some cases, but also Web sites, career counselors and recruiters like MacPhee, whose most assiduously cultivated relationships are not with her corporate clients but with her "players,"like Muradia, on whom she lavishes agentlike services.

In fields where agents have long been common, like sports, entertainment and the arts, the agent-client relationship is simple: The athlete or singer or author pays the agent’s fee, and the agent’s sole duty is to the client. But for untraditional intermediaries like MacPhee, it gets complicated.

Mike Hornby, also 36, was happy in a vice-president post at Ubiquity Software, which makes Internet-telephony software, when MacPhee approached him about an opening at Sedona Networks, whose products manage high-speed links between local networks and the Internet. "I talked to Erika about how, if I left, I would be letting people down," he said. "I was working with a great team." They discussed the Sedona opening, he said, and she agreed that he would be better off staying put, even though it was in her client’s interest to pry him away.

Sedona asked MacPhee to approach Hornby a second and then a third time with ever-better offers, and he finally bit on one that he said would get him close to being set for life. "Erika was almost like a counselor to me," he said.

There is a second vital difference between a traditional agent and a someone like MacPhee: Recruiters usually don’t have exclusive relationships with their players.

David Robertson, a scientist working on drugs for neurological diseases, checks in regularly with several recruiters. "They are the glue in the industry," Robertson said. He is happy as a vice president for research in central nervous system medicine at Pharmacia, in Kalamazoo, Mich., he said, but it is important to stay plugged in.

All the more reason that recruiting firms want to cement relationships with sought-after workers by acting more like agents, said Peter Uber, a specialist in human resources management for Towers Perrin, the management consulting firm.

Traditional agents are also moving into fields where skilled people work on project assignments rather than permanent jobs. Aguent Inc. in Boston represents graphic designers, Webmasters, art directors and project managers much the way the William Morris Agency handles movie stars.

After Tom Grace, 23, passed Aguent’s vetting process and became a client, the agency placed him at a pharmaceutical company doing personal computer support and troubleshooting. He soon switched to graphic design, and after two years was eager for Web design work. The agency had him attend a seven-day training program in exchange for his agreeing to accept assignments only through Aguent for six months. If he does well, said Betsy Swan, an agent at Aguent, the agency will place him in progressively more challenging assignments.

Employees on the nonsuperstar rungs of many industries can ask a less personal kind of intermediary for career-management help: Employment Web sites like, and Their main attractions are job listings, but they also offer services like worker-employer matchmaking and, for freelancers, help with billing, collection and health insurance, at a monthly fee.

Not all the new career advisers place people in jobs. When Alma Derricks’ management job was eliminated in a reorganization at The Los Angeles Times, she called Neal Lenarsky of Strategic Transitions. "My job is to figure out a person’s passion, so they can catapult into the next several levels," Lenarsky said. A personal inventory helped Derricks consider new possibilities, and she found an e-commerce job at the Scient Corp. "Neal helped me evaluate the job and helped me see it had breadth," she said.

On the other side of the table, personnel executives at major technology companies said that on the whole, the trend toward employees using career advisers is positive for employers, because employees are more likely to be satisfied in a new job afterward. But one human resources executive expressed worry that some people jumping into the field lacked appropriate qualifications. "I have to trust that the candidate did that homework," she said.

Still, in a world where fewer and fewer people expect to stick around for the gold watch, and where opportunity doesn’t knock, but just briefly honks the horn, many people feel a need for guidance and support, whether from an agent, lawyer, career coach or recruiter. Rajiv Muradia is quite pleased in the fast-paced start-up Erika MacPhee helped him find — but he still keeps in touch with her, just in case.

A Cast List for Employee Placement

TALENT AGENTS — Although formerly common only in sports, entertainment and the arts, a few agents now represent people in other in-demand professions, lining up assignments, planning career strategy and sometimes handling negotiations. Agents are hired and paid by the represented employee (by flat fee or a percentage of earnings)

CAREER COACHES — These are consultants who help their clients plan career goals and polish job-seeking and networking skills with recruiters. They are generally hired by the employee and paid by the hour.

OUTPLACEMENT CONSULTANTS — Offering services like those of career coaches, these consultants are hired by companies to help laid-off employees find work elsewhere.

EXECUTIVE RECRUITERS — Generally paid by companies to fill openings, many now try to build long-term relationships with people they recruit by providing agentlike services. They may be paid a flat fee or a contingency fee based on the salary of the position.

STAFFING AGENCIES — These firms advertise openings and screen candidates on employers’ behalf for permanent or temporary jobs. They are generally paid a fee by the employer. Some specialize in technical fields or short-term executive assignments.

JOB WEB SITES — These databases of job openings and résumés also offer services like matching of workers and assignments.