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Is paying for career help worth it?

Key takeaways

  • Hiring a pro to help with your job search could be costly, but it could boost your confidence while applying and interviewing.
  • Recent grads, career switchers, and people who've worked for the same company for years might benefit most from a career coach's help.
  • Doing your due diligence before you take on a coach could make the experience more helpful, even though pros can't guarantee you'll land a new job.

Greta Hoderny, 33, was burned out from being a social worker but was eager to stay in the field. With a greater need for mental health professionals since the pandemic, Hoderny was having trouble finding a new position that allowed for work-life balance. "I was hitting a lot of dead ends in my job search," says Hoderny, who lives in Kiel, Wisconsin.

So she decided to work with a career coach. For $2,250 for a 6-month retainer, Hoderny has spent hours with her coach poring over her work experience and transferable skills and fine-tuning her resume. Next up is sharpening her interviewing skills. In the upcoming months, she plans to apply for leadership roles. "Working with a coach has helped my self-esteem and anxiety and allowed me to understand the value of the work I do," Hoderny says.

Hoderny is one of thousands of clients paying for career coaching around the country, an industry that's only grown since the pandemic. With average rates of $170 per hour, the undertaking requires a significant investment of both time and money.1 But recent data on the return on investment of career coaching is scant, possibly because it's tough to tell whether job seekers landed roles because of what they learned from coaches. On the other hand, while many candidates might feel more prepared for job interviews after coaching, they still might not get offers. There's one encouraging stat from resume-writing service TopResume: In 2018, recruiters thought candidates with professionally written resumes were worth 7% more than applicants who didn't get pro help.2

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Seeing the benefits

Despite the dearth of data, recruiters and human resources pros are generally positive about career coaches, saying that coaching allows job seekers to become more attuned to their needs. Recent graduates, career switchers, and those who've spent years working for the same organization might see extra benefit from reworking their resume or refining their interviewing skills, says Julie Schweber, senior HR knowledge advisor at SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management. "You might be the best engineer on the planet, but if you're unable to mention career highlights and what value you've added, it doesn't matter," says Schweber.

For Caroline Evatt, a 22-year-old economics graduate in Orlando, Florida, hiring a coach has made it easier to stay resilient in a tough job market. "It's disheartening to get rejection after rejection, but I've learned tools that have built my confidence," says Evatt, who is still applying for jobs. The coach has focused on interviewing skills and identifying strengths and weaknesses, plus job titles Evatt should pursue.

Evatt's coach, Betsy Jewell, in Watchung, New Jersey, finds coaching is critical for recent grads who couldn't access resources during college. She often helps young clients narrow down career choices and reconsider what their ideal job looks like. They also come away with the language to speak about what they can offer to a potential employer. "A lot of them struggle with translating their skills—it's about marketing themselves and telling their story," says Jewell. How do jobless recent grads afford career coaches? At least in Evatt's case, her mom, who knows Jewell, is helping foot the bill.

Lucia Shorr, 22, found a more affordable option. Instead of hiring a private career coach, she instead tapped into her university's career offerings. In addition to helping her build a resume, a counselor surfaced various interesting roles that Shorr didn't initially think her background in education and social policy would fit. "It was helpful learning about opportunities I wouldn't have found on LinkedIn," Shorr says. A few months after graduating, Shorr started as a management consultant at a major New York City consulting firm. Shorr credits her university career counselor with helping her be more purposeful in applying for opportunities.

Acknowledging the downsides

Not everyone thinks hiring a coach pays off.

Matt Cetta, a 39-year-old who paid $1,900 for career coaching, has yet to see results. He found his coach's recommendations were "fine for about 20 years ago" and didn't get him past the AI resume filters. The generic recommendations focused on conveying confidence in interviews and writing convincing cover letters but lacked the personalized help Cetta expected. Though the coach came highly recommended by a family friend, he was often unavailable for questions and didn't respond to Cetta's emails about interview preparation. "You pay a lot of money, and they send you premade content," says the food photographer and blogger who's looking for a role in the food and wine industry. "I didn't get personal coaching—I could've googled what I got."

It wasn't a complete waste. Cetta, from Poughkeepsie, New York, says he picked up some useful tips, including making his resume and cover letter more targeted. That's made him more confident in seeking out new roles. And he was finally able to get to the final round of hiring for a role, though it didn't lead to an offer. "The coach had good levels of insight on cover letters and resumes, but in the end, it didn't lead to much," Cetta admits.

Those in more technical or science-based careers might find hiring a job coach unnecessary, says Cody Futch, VP of recruiting for Merritt Hawkins, a division of AMN Healthcare Physicians, a physician search, recruiting, and staffing firm in Dallas, Texas. When Futch considers applicants, he often looks for specific licensure or qualifications. "There's not the same level of selling yourself," he says. "It's more ‘do you check these boxes or do you not?'"

Futch has seen overly coached candidates come across as inauthentic during the hiring process, which could backfire for both the company and the job seeker. "If people get too much coaching or are too scripted, they might describe career goals that aren't their own and might get hired for a job that isn't a good fit for them," he says.

Getting the most from a coach

If you're part of the groups that stand to benefit the most from a coach—or want to work with one anyway—it's important to do your homework. Ask a potential coach about cost, of course—many coaches charge a set fee that gives you access to the coach and materials for a certain timeframe. But also check about 1-on-1 time, their professional background, and how they've kept their skills current, suggests Cetta. Speaking to others who've worked with the same coach, especially if they have similar career backgrounds or goals, and hearing about their results could be more useful than skimming cherry-picked testimonials on their site, Cetta adds.

Keep in mind: Few career pros promise you'll land a job, and there's no guarantee you'd be better off than when you started. Refunds are also not the norm. That's why it's critical to research and speak with several coaches before you hire one. What should you ask? How they'll give you fresh ideas on landing jobs, given increasing AI capabilities, says SHRM's Schweber. Ultimately, "you want an objective set of eyes to help you with building your best image and professional brand," so you could ask how they've helped past clients achieve that.

Once you start, be prepared for months of effort before seeing a payoff, cautions Judy Busby, a former executive and business coach who now leads executive search for the Jacobson Group, an insurance-industry search and staffing firm in Chicago. Completing assignments that delve into transferable skills, concisely stating career goals, and comparing your current skillset against in-demand skills are common, Busby says. "To really get the value out of it, you have to do a lot of work—it's not a one and done."

For Hoderny, the money she's spent is worth it, even as her job search is just restarting. She knows the guidance will help her land a position that she can stay in for the long run. "My goal is to find a dream job that would accommodate work-life balance," she says. "The more work I put in, the more likely that is to happen."

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1. Page 42, table 3.2 “Summary business indicators: Coaching services,” 2023 ICF Global Coaching Study, International Coaching Foundation, 2023. 2. Page 3, “The Dollars & Sense of a Professional Resume,” TopResume, 2018.

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