Whether you begin your job search by your own choice or because of downsizing, the world of contract work awaits call center analysts, database analysts, network administrators, developers, and even technical writers.

Of course, there’s more contract work available in some locations than others. The only thing between you and a great contract gig is the technical recruiter. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in dealing with technical placement firms in the last year. This week, I’d like to share some of those mistakes, to help you avoid repeating them if you’re ever in similar situations.

Make yourself perfectly clear
Technical recruiters are just people, so like in all professions, you’re going to communicate and get along better with some than with others. The thing to remember is that the recruiter’s job isn’t necessarily to find you a job; it’s to sell a qualified candidate to their clients.

That’s sell something. You’re dealing with salespeople, not fellow computer geeks, and they may not be as forthcoming with information as you’d like. So your job is to make sure you get answers to important questions.

Here are some questions I should have asked and mistakes I wont’ repeat. If you’ve made similar miscalculations and would like to share your job-seeking tales, please post it here.

Rule 1: Never interview without knowing the rate
When the technical recruiter says he or she has a great job for you and wants to know if you can interview tomorrow, say, “How much does the job pay?”

If the recruiter says, “I don’t know,” then you say, “Call me back when you find out.”

After all, no one wants to waste valuable time by interviewing with an employer who can’t or won’t pay your minimum amount.

This point ought to be obvious to experienced job seekers. Sometimes, you’re so relieved to get a call, you respond too quickly. When the recruiter said, “I don’t know the range yet,” I should have said, “Call me when you find out.” Instead, I was Mr. Proactive and Mr. Confident and said, ” Well, I’ll just have to go and create value in the interview.”

It turned out to be a great interview, and it would have been interesting work. But the rate wasn’t even close to my range. I should have known better.

Rule 2: Never let two agencies submit you for the same job
Unless one technical recruiter specifically asks or requires you to work with them exclusively, and you’re willing to go along with that condition, it’s perfectly acceptable to list your resume with more than one technical recruiter. You want the extra coverage, because some hiring companies work only with certain agencies.

Other hiring companies send out a blanket call for talent to all the usual recruiters. Your rule of thumb for those jobs should be: The agency that calls me first gets to represent me for that job.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot calls for the same jobs. I’ve had two or three recruiters call on the same day, “It’s a great nine- to twelve-month contract…” I’ll say, “and it’s with [Company X], right? Sorry, I’ve already been submitted for it.”

If you’re not sure whether an agency might submit you a second time for the same job, ask as many specific questions as you can and get the client name.

As a reminder, you don’t have to tell the other recruiters which agency got to you first. I made the mistake of being Mr. Honesty and telling one recruiter the name of the recruiter who had already submitted my resume. The rebuffed recruiter muddied the water with the client company over who should have the rights to me. I never got an interview, and although I can’t prove it, I believe it was because of the recruiters’ bickering.

Rule 3: Know your rights if you apply online
The best way to explain this rule is to describe what happened to me.

  1. In December 2001, I went to the Web site of one of the top twenty employers in my area and applied for a full-time position.
  2. I never received an e-mail acknowledgement of receipt of my cover note and resume. Nor did I receive a “Thanks, but no thanks” letter via snail mail.
  3. In April 2002, a technical recruiter called and said, “I have a contract job that would be perfect for you. Would you be interested in a technical writer position for [Company A] in six to eight months?” Yabba-dabba-do, I’m interested.
  4. Later in April 2002, the recruiter called me and sheepishly asked, “Have you applied for a full-time job with Company A within the last six months?”
  5. I said, “I don’t know. I could have.”

It turns out the full-time position for which I had applied in December was with Company A. According to the recruiter, Company A has a policy not to consider anyone for contract work if that person has applied for full-time employment within the previous six months.

A close review of the Web site reveals absolutely no mention of that “policy.” You could argue that Company A has a duty to mention such a policy on the Web site, but they don’t.

You could argue that the recruiter should have known about the policy and informed me of it before they submitted my resume. Even if they had asked me (and I had remembered), I probably would have asked them to submit it anyway, just in case the six months had expired.

I had no idea I’d be applying for a contract position five months after I applied online for the full-time job. You can bet the next time I apply for a job online, I will read the fine print closely looking for such “contract blackout periods” for applicants who apply for full-time work.

The lesson is you can’t do too much homework when it comes to researching a potential employer. What you don’t know might keep you from getting the job.

Dealing with talent brokers

What’s your track record dealing with contract or temp-to-perm placement agencies? To share your opinions with fellow TechRepublic members, post a comment below or write to Jeff.