The recession may be leaving millions of people unemployed, but for one profession it’s been more of a boom: the job guru field.

This growing legion of self-styled employment experts say they’re dedicated to getting America back to work. Some have carved out their own job-search niche, focusing on nothing but resume overhauls or interview preparation. Others bill themselves as do-it-all career coaches, taking clients from deciding on an industry to negotiating salary. There are even “personal brand specialists” and Ari Gold-style executive agents who promise to open their golden Rolodexes to a few high-powered job seekers. Fees range from just a few dollars for group seminars to $500-an-hour coaching or even – you guessed it – a cut of your salary.

Gurus, of course, think they’re worth the money, especially in such a daunting employment climate. According to career coach Paul Bernard, people should plan for at least a month of searching for every $12,000 to $15,000 they want to earn. Employment professionals say their knowledge of the recruiter perspective gives job hunters an insider edge they’d never have alone – especially if they’re among the 55-and-over set with rusty job-hunting skills and a skyrocketing unemployment rate (at its highest point in 60 years). Many job seekers are trying to transition out of distressed industries into new, unfamiliar fields. Some need help rehearsing for the rigorous, multistage interviews now standard in many screenings. Others aren’t sure how to leverage online resources like networking Web site LinkedIn.

Sorting through the maze of these various employment mavens is, well, a job in itself. Government regulation of this $400 million industry is practically nonexistent, and gurus themselves admit there’s no third-party policing organization. Instead, they rely on industry certifications, which critics say are a dime a dozen. In fact, trade group Career Management Alliance recently counted a total of 48 possible certifications, ranging from “certified workplace development professional” (cost for the credential: $75) to “certified career management coach” ($2,295). Liz Sumner, the group’s director, recommends that job seekers not just accept the alphabet soup of credentials but also check references and ask for samples of their coach’s work. To gather some samples of our own, we dusted off our resume, put on our interview duds and (don’t tell our boss) hit the pavement to meet a few of the most popular types of job gurus.

RESUME WRITERS

Because nothing provokes quite as much angst as creating the perfect resume – Amazon.com lists more than 268,000 titles on the subject – it’s not surprising that a resume writer is many job seekers’ first hire. When it comes to qualifications, they often tout backgrounds in human resources or recruiting and, of course, those industry certifications. Some focus on senior executives and charge between $800 and $1,500 per resume, but according to the Directory of Professional Resume Writers, the majority work with a range of clients, charging an average of $350.

But resumes have become more than a sheet of paper. A recent survey by recruiter network ExecuNet found that 86 percent of job recruiters said they use search engines to find out more about prospects, while a whopping 44 percent said they’d actually eliminated a candidate based on information they turned up online. For resume writers, this has meant a slew of new Web-oriented offerings, which can include an online “audit” (determining what face you present to the world in cyberspace), along with authoring or editing clients’ online profiles. It also might entail damage control if the audit turns up anything that could spook an employer – spanning from the minor (old marathon results that broadcast your age) to more-sensitive details about lawsuits or political donations.

To get help punching up our own resume, we visit Barbara Safani, owner of Career Solvers, a New York-based career-services company, whose average resume-doctoring fee runs more than a thousand bucks. Her first reaction? “We need to kind of sexy it up,” she says. Like too many CVs, she explains, this one reads like a laundry list of responsibilities rather than a bouquet of specific accomplishments. The document has no “headline” and is woefully short on style – no catchy graphics, shading or boxes setting off the key information. Even the font isn’t right. “Boring,” she says.

First, she suggests, we should kick off with a summary of our profession and skills. To play up our accomplishments, we should add the number of “hits” tallied by our online articles, to show measurable results and play up our Web savviness. To start building toward the next step in our career, Safani also suggests highlighting any management experience. (Does bossing around interns count?) And it seems we need to beef up our online presence; our Twitter account is practically tweet-free, and that personal Web site we’ve been talking about for years still hasn’t created itself. Safani also diplomatically points out that our Facebook photos could be “a little more professional.”

By far the most important  thing she could do for us, Safani says, is build out our LinkedIn profile, which we could use to start bulking up our networking contacts. Including it as a link in our e-mail signature is “the best way of saying ‘look at my resume’ without actually sending it,” she says.

CAREER COACHES

Inside the cavernous public atrium of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper after work hours, tourists mill about snapping pictures, a coffee bar blares hip-hop music and a janitor loudly drags around a mop and bucket. Not exactly corner-office ambiance, but in the midst of it all, a dozen or so job seekers cluster eagerly around a motley group of cafe tables, straining to hear their “coach” for the evening.

A petite, girlish Aussie casually dressed in a pink T-shirt and stretchy fabric headband, our presenter is causing eyes to widen as she describes one job seeker who sends Monopoly money with his resume, along with a cover letter describing how he’d make a company boatloads of the real stuff. She’s also instructing attendees in how to track down and call decision makers at a target company, even if a job description expressly forbids it. “Every no,” she says, “gets you closer to a yes.”

This guerilla-marketing pep talk is part of a two-hour group session entitled “Using the Detective Approach to Land Interviews,” overseen by Chandlee Bryan, owner of coaching company Best Fit Forward. Unlike resume writers, coaches generally cast themselves as catchall advisers on all aspects of clients’ careers. But as membership in the International Coach Federation has more than doubled to 17,000 over the past five years, some have tried to set themselves apart by homing in on a specific niche, like “C-level” executives or career changers. As do many coaches, Bryan typically charges fees of $150 per hour for one-on-one attention, but she often recruits new clients by offering affordable alternatives like these group meetings. The price for this one: $13 a head.

The session focuses on bypassing the online-resume black hole by perfecting the fine art of finding – and cold-calling – actual human beings. We get a handout listing line-by-line scripts to use in an e-mail, voice mail or in the “best-case scenario” of talking to an actual person.

Some tips, like practicing our spiel on voice mail to hear how we sound or standing up to make our voice sound more energetic, seem useful; others, less so. (Do we really need three ways to say, “I was referred to you?”) As for our presenter’s take on the toy money, “There’s no harm in trying.” Fellow attendee Denise Gerstenfield, laid off from her job as customer-service director in January, doubts she’ll use all the advice from the evening – or upgrade to full-price coaching sessions. But she says she definitely plans to add some of the suggestions to her job-search routine. “I left feeling motivated,” she says.

INTERVIEW COACHES

Role playing. Videotaped practice sessions. Flash cards. All are part of the fun of interview coaching (typical range: $75 to $200 an hour), a key part of many career gurus’ bag of tricks. For the last leg of our career counseling, we’re sitting in the hot seat on a Monday morning, decidedly not ready for our close-up. But that doesn’t stop interview coach Paul Bernard from peppering us with questions, from the predictable “Tell me about yourself” to the more panic-inducing “How would you fire someone?” As we stumble through this hour-long interrogation, we can’t help feeling self-conscious – probably because of the camcorder capturing our every “uh” and “um” for posterity.

Bernard considers interviewing “a lost art,” particularly for job seekers who’ve been out of the market a while and can “forget even the basics.” So he likes to start off with a video session to identify any nervous tics or body-language problems, then switch to audio recordings that clients can listen to later. The ideal interview, he says, should be about 80 percent rehearsed responses and 20 percent ad-lib. “You can’t memorize all your lines or you’ll sound like a robot,” says Bernard.

Turns out our problem is not about sounding canned; it’s our tendency to ramble. While the ideal response to the dreaded-but-popular “tell me about yourself” question should run about 90 seconds, he says, ours takes well over three minutes. Rather than prattling on about your childhood (guilty) or mentioning every job you’ve ever had, he suggests answering open-ended questions with the so-called “inverted pyramid.” Start broad, with a quick summary of your professional experience, then drill down to three specific skills, then briefly highlight a few accomplishments. We also flop when it comes to asking our own questions – crucial for showing seriousness, he says. Bernard suggests showing up to an interview with a minimum of three.

And of course, it’s not just what you say that matters. Bernard noticed that we tend to lean forward in our chair when we’re not sure how to answer a question, a clear “tell” of our discomfort. (So much for our career on the pro-poker circuit.) Plus, he’s not thrilled with our interview outfit, suggesting we lose the boots and black tights in favor of something a little “higher end.” A bit humiliating, sure, but Bernard says he’s seen worse – at least we’re not the job seeker he had to coax into ditching his toupee.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Syndicate