Richard Pimentel — The Hidden Job Market

Circa 2008

When I first entered the field of training and placement, I believed that the most-qualified applicant would be hired. I had been taught that the optimum way to help persons with disabilities seek employment was to match their qualifications with the large data base of available job openings. On paper it made sense, in reality it didn’t work.

The bigger problem is that the vast majority of persons with disabilities who are looking for work, depend almost exclusively on this imperfect system. Fortunately, there are alternative job-search methods that can be used by persons with disabilities, as well as by the training and placement professionals who work with them.


Whether it is an employment agency that opens its doors in the morning, an internet service that posts to the World Wide Web, help wanted ads in the newspaper, or three-by-five index cards posted in a school’s placement office, the principle is the same: A company seeking to hire someone agrees to allow a “job bank” to refer candidates. This is the most common way that people look for jobs.

When an opening appears, here is what we generally know:

1. The applicant must meet a minimum set of criteria and qualifications to be referred.

2. The employer will have a start and an ending date during which they will accept referrals.

3. The employer will interview a number of candidates for the job and select from that pool.

4. The employer will generally not see candidates after the interviewing window has closed.

5. After the order is closed, the job will be removed from the bank.

Unfortunately, this system does not serve candidates who have serious or multiple employment barriers, such as disabilities. These candidates often find themselves not only competing with other candidates for the job, but also competing for referrals.

If the interview process at this stage were simply a measurement of skills and abilities, then persons with disabilities would do as well as candidates who do not have disabilities. But experience shows that this is not the case. Hiring is a process of first impressions, and for many employers the first impression of someone with a disability is one filled with questions and concerns.

While these can be addressed and resolved over time, the problem with a competitive formal interview process is that there isn’t much time. Decisions are made on the fly, and deciding not to hire a candidate is often made within minutes of the first meeting. The first wave of candidates finds themselves in a screening process, not a selection process. Those who are hired are usually chosen during a second or third interview. Persons with disabilities are too often screened out in the first phase.

The good news is that persons with disabilities have a resource that they may not have tapped: An alternative hiring system that is being used every day by successful applicants.

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If you’re a person with a disability, the best way to look for work is to understand how employers recruit, as well as how they make hiring decisions.

Long before employment agencies or websites know about an opening, an employer knows about it.

1. The easy way to fill the position is for the supervisor or manager to hire someone that he or she already knows.

2. The second approach is to ask other employees if they know someone whom they could refer or recommend. For many companies, this is the number one way to recruit new hires.

3. The third angle is to review persons who have already been interviewed by human resources or personnel.

Consider that at this point, having moved through the first three ways that employers go about filling a position, a lot of people have been hired, yet not one job-order opening has been registered with any employment agency, website or job bank. The openings that go into the job bank are the ones that employers cannot fill on their own. It is estimated that less than 20 percent of the available openings are filled through job banks or newspaper ads.

4. The fourth approach is to refer to the job bank.

5. The fifth way is to place an ad in the newspaper.

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The Roaring 20’s was the heyday of American gangsters, with John Dillinger arguably the most famous. A reporter once asked him why he robbed banks. “It’s where the money is,” he told him. Why should you concentrate on the hidden job market? It’s where the jobs are.

The hidden job market can be found in steps 1, 2 and 3 of the recruiting and hiring process. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of all hiring happens at these stages. The good news is that this arena is a friendlier one for persons with disabilities. It is friendlier because of the following factors:


The employer is looking to find someone who can do the job, so they do not have to interview a lot of people. The employer wants to know if the candidate can do the job and not so much how he or she compares to 10 others.


These interviews tend to be more focused on the applicant and the employer getting to know each other, rather than just going down a checklist of qualifications. This gives the employer a chance to focus on who the applicant is, rather than what the applicant has (disability).

LESS RUSHED. Traditionally, competitive interviews with persons who have visible disabilities are 30 percent to 40 percent shorter than interviews with persons who do not have visible disabilities. If a person with a disability is entering the applicant pool at steps 1, 2 or 3, he or she can use this additional time to discuss any concerns or questions the employer may have about any accommodations needed to effectively do the job.


Even if you are not hired for the position, you are now known to the people who make hiring decisions. The chances of you coming to mind when something else opens up are greater than your chances of getting hired through the job-bank system in the first place.

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First of all, do not stop using the job-bank system and the newspaper. People do get hired that way, and you should utilize all your job-search options. But to enhance your job prospects, you need to access the hidden job market. Here’s how:

1. If you have the drive to do it, call employers who hire for the positions you want. But do not talk to the people in human resources. Ask to talk to the supervisors who make the hiring decisions. Don’t be turned away with the “we do not have any openings” line. Instead, ask for an informational interview. It does not matter if there is an opening.

2. Okay, step one can be a bit intimidating. So how about this? Don’t talk to the supervisor; instead talk to someone at the company who does the kind of work that you want to do. Ask for an advice call. During the call ask questions about the field, get to know the person and have them get to know you. There may not be a job for you now, but there is one person there who will remember you when something opens up.

3. Recruit a mentor to help you look for work. Use one of the people from step two to recruit a mentor who can give you advice and support you in your job search. You may be surprised at the number of people who are willing to do this. A mentor can help you with the company that he or she works for, and at other companies as well.

4. Offer to do Job Shadowing (unpaid or subsidized time spent at the company to learn about the company or job). One of the biggest reasons companies are reluctant to hire persons with disabilities is not that the employers fear that an applicant cannot do the job, but that the applicant will not fit in. A few days of job shadowing allows a potential employer to get to know you, and can put any fear to rest.

5. Tell your rehabilitation professional or job developer that you want to access the hidden job market. Tell them you are willing to do informational interviews with employers who do not have a current, active opening. Tell them you are willing to do job sampling or job shadowing. Most of all tell, them you want to be an active part of your own job search, and that you would like to have some job-search related task to work on. This will not only help you, but it will also make the counselor or job developer work even harder on your behalf.

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Be willing to talk about your disability in a positive way to help employers voice and resolve any fears or concerns they may have about how you will perform the essential functions of the job. If you will need an accommodation, research it so that you can educate the employer about it. If you have trouble with this step, talk to a rehabilitation professional or use the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) to assist you.

6. Last but not least, take charge of your job search. There are some great organizations and professionals that help persons with disabilities find jobs. But the key word in that sentence is “help.” Don’t sit at home, passively waiting for someone else to find you a job. Organizations can only help you find an opportunity to sell yourself and get hired. The rest is up to you.

The more you do to access the hidden job market, the more successful you will be. Don’t be one of the 80 percent of job seekers who are only competing for 20 percent of the jobs. Be the one who competes for them all. Make John Dillinger proud.

by Richard Pimentel

For more information on the Job Accommodation Network, go to: or call 800-526-7234 (V); 877-781-9403 (TTY)

Also visit:

Pimentel’s Publications include:

Developing the New Employee: A Trainer’s Guide for Retaining and Enhancing a Diverse Workforce

Return to Work for People with Stress and Mental Illness

The Return to Work Process a Case Management Approach

What Managers and Supervisors need to Know about the ADA

The Workers Compensation ADA Connection

Windmills Trainers program—Hiring and Working with People with Disabilities

For more information on Pimentel, go to:

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