Job Search

Job search can be defined as the specific activities through which effort and time are expended to acquire information about labor market alternatives. Stated more simply, job search is the pursuit of employment. There are few well-developed models of job search. This scarcity results in part from the tendency for organizational scientists to focus on job seekers after job alternatives have been generated. Thus job search is generally viewed as part of a larger model encompassing the job evaluation and choice processes. Specifically, job alternatives generated through job search are evaluated to arrive at a job choice decision. Such decisions include choosing among job alternatives, remaining with the current employer, or withdrawing from the labor market.

Measuring Job Search

Job alternatives generated through job search activity are a function of (a) the sources used and (b) the level of intensity in pursuing those sources. Accordingly, there are two typical approaches to measuring job search. The first approach is to examine the number of behaviors (e.g., prepare resume, telephone a prospective employer, fill out a job application) an individual engages in over a period of time, where a higher number indicates greater search activity. An alternative approach is to assess the intensity or effort put into job search. For example, an individual is asked to rate his or her frequency in carrying out an array of job search behaviors over a specific period of time.

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A trend in the job search literature is to consider the nature of job search behavior. A particularly useful and well-accepted approach is distinguishing between preparatory and active job search behaviors. Preparatory search behavior involves assessing whether desirable alternatives exist and would include such behaviors as talking to friends or relatives about possible employment leads or reading job postings in a newspaper, in a journal, through a professional association, or on the Internet. Active search behavior is the attempt to determine the actual availability of those alternatives to the individual and includes behaviors such as sending one’s resume to a prospective employer or contacting a search firm, employment agency, or state employment service. Research has generally found that preparatory and active search are distinct dimensions with different antecedents and outcomes. For example, preparatory job search tends to precede active job search, and active search is a stronger and more proximal predictor of job choice decisions.

The Job Search Context

People search for employment opportunities in a variety of contexts, including job market entry (or reentry) following a period of full-time education, unemployment because of job loss, or seeking alternative employment while currently employed. The job search determinants, processes, and outcomes are often quite different depending on the specific context of focus. That is, how a recent college graduate goes about searching for a job, what factors drive his or her search, and the relevant search outcomes are typically distinct from individuals who have been laid off from a job or from those seeking alternative employment opportunities while already holding a job. As an example, an important outcome for unemployed individuals (whether unemployed because of job loss or following full-time education) is simply becoming employed. Yet employed job seekers may not necessarily be searching to obtain a job, but may actually have other motives (e.g., to establish networks, to demonstrate marketability to current employer) driving their job search activity.

Predictors of Job Search

Although the relevant predictors of job search can vary across contexts and samples, job search predictors can be classified broadly as person attributes, situation attributes, and market attributes. Person attributes reflect relatively enduring characteristics about an individual. This would include personality traits (e.g., self-efficacy, Big Five personality factors) and biographical (e.g., gender, race) and human capital (e.g., ability, experience, education level) factors. Recent research suggests that individuals who are more extraverted, conscientious, and open to experience engage in more job search. Self-esteem and self-efficacy are also strong predictors of more job search. The strongest biographical/human capital antecedents are education level (positively related) and job tenure (negatively related).

Situational attributes change with particular employment and personal circumstances or may reflect individual reactions to and perceptions about a particular situation. In regard to predicting job search activity, these would include motive-related antecedents such as financial need and commitment to employment, as well as social support variables. For employed individuals, characteristics of the current employment situation play a significant role in predicting search activity as well as other retention-related constructs (e.g., intent to quit, voluntary turnover). Examples include general work attitudes such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment; objective factors including pay and benefits, type of work, and working conditions; and perceptions of and reactions to these objective variables (e.g., perceived fairness of pay, feelings toward one’s supervisor and/or the work environment, and person-organization fit).

Finally, market attributes affect the relative supply of and demand for labor and thus can influence job search. Relevant factors include alternative opportunities, cost-benefit decisions, and the industry or the type of job sought. Existing research on the effect of perceived alternatives on job search activity is somewhat equivocal and deserves further discussion. Specifically, it has been argued that those perceiving more alternatives should have greater confidence in their ability to find a new job and thus search more. Yet those with greater marketability may require less search either to locate suitable alternatives or to acquire needed information. As noted, empirical research findings are mixed, and the nature of the effect is likely to depend on the job search context of focus.

Job Search Outcomes

The general notion of job search success is often of interest as a dependent variable. For new job market entrants as well as unemployed individuals, simply whether one is employed (i.e., employment status) following job search is particularly relevant. Other criteria of job search success include number of interviews and/or number of offers following job search, with the assumption often being that more is better. That is, more interviews and/or more offers are generally seen as indicating job search success. Some research has questioned this perspective, recognizing, for example, that efficiency in the job search process may be more desirable. As an example, an individual who has 10 interviews leading to 2 job offers is not necessarily more successful than an individual who interviews with one company and receives a job offer, particularly if the latter individual receives an offer from his or her employer of choice.

Another measure of job search success is the quality of the offer(s) received or job ultimately accepted. The challenge researchers face in assessing the quality of employment is that there are many job attributes that may reflect the quality of a job (e.g., pay, location, work culture, advancement opportunity). The assessment, as well as importance of the various attributes, is often in the eye of the beholder.

The duration of job search is another potentially relevant outcome variable. In this case, the focus is generally on time (e.g., weeks) from the onset of search (e.g., loss of job) to employment, with shorter duration indicating higher job search success. Duration of job search is particularly relevant for unemployed individuals, whether unemployed because of job loss or following full-time education. The longer it takes to find a job, the more likely an individual may be to drop out of the labor market, which has important societal and policy implications.

The basic finding in the job search literature is that job search intensity increases one’s probability of and speed in finding employment, although not necessarily the quality of employment. In terms of different job search sources, research suggests that job seekers are more likely to use and find employment though informal sources (e.g., friends, acquaintances) than through more formal methods (e.g., employment agencies). Length of service in a job, another indicator of job search success, also tends to be higher when informal job search sources are used. More research attention on the use and consequences of various job search sources is certainly warranted, particularly with the growing reliance on the Internet for job search purposes.

In the context of employed individuals, job search is often seen as a precursor to voluntary turnover. Indeed, the traditional turnover model assumes that employee dissatisfaction leads to withdrawal cognitions, then a search for alternatives, followed by an evaluation of alternatives, and ultimately a decision to quit or stay. Thus, search is seen as instrumental in leaving an organization for alternative employment. Consistent with this model, job search activity is one of the strongest predictors of employee turnover, although job search tends to explain a modest 4% to 6% of the variance in turnover. Of course, not everyone who desires to leave and searches for an alternative job can find available opportunities that are necessarily more attractive than the current employment situation, and some individuals quit without searching at all. Both of these factors provide explanations for the moderate (albeit significant) relationship between job search and employee turnover. Yet, as indicated previ-ously, research has begun to recognize that individuals engage in job search for reasons other than to leave the current employment situation. Considering the motives behind an individual’s job search, beyond the assumption that individuals search to leave the current employer for a new job, will help contribute to better understanding to the consequences of employed individuals’ job search activity. Interestingly, there has been little research on how job search affects such things as subsequent work attitudes, social relations (with supervisors or coworkers), and work motivation and performance outcomes, particularly when an employee searches but does not end up leaving the current employer.


At any given time, many people are searching for employment opportunities. The nature of their behavior and the context in which they search can be quite varied. Yet whether search is viewed as part of the job evaluation and choice process or within the framework of employee withdrawal and turnover, the objective of job search is typically to investigate and generate job alternatives. Whether an individual is successful in that respect, and the resultant outcomes, is a function of the person, the situation, and the larger labor market.


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