One of our correspondents sent me an article yesterday called, “You’re not working because you’re not networking.” Which is kind of a catchy title to say out loud. But the point of her piece was that the number one job search strategy that people who are out of work should be employing is networking.

I haven’t published that story yet, because I worried that on some level it could be misleading to people who are actually looking for employment. The fact is that if you suddenly find yourself without a job, you can’t at that moment decide to start networking and connect your way into a new one.

Networking isn’t something that is effective on the spur of the moment. Building your professional network takes time, years even.

Networking is a fantastic, essential, long-term career development tool. It just doesn’t begin when you lose your job, and it doesn’t end when you find your next one.

I’ve seen estimates that anywhere from 40% up to 80% of available jobs are never actually advertised to the public. This is called the hidden job market. (And if the numbers at the higher end of that spectrum are accurate, then there are a lot of opportunities out there – because there are 50,000 open positions advertised on Workopolis alone right now.)

Those unadvertised jobs in the ‘hidden job market’ tend to be the more senior positions in management and executive roles. But even for those jobs that are advertised, most employers still prefer to hire someone whom they know and are confident can do the job – or who comes recommended by someone that they know and trust.

And that’s why networking isn’t a job search strategy.

You don’t know and have confidence in someone who once struck up a conversation with you at a seminar. Just because Bob the accountant handed you his business card last month, doesn’t mean you’re prepared to recommend Bob to your friend Sue who’s looking for an accountant.

Many jobs are filled through word-of-mouth contacts, but these are almost always from people recommending others whom they’ve worked with in the past, whose skills and work ethic they think highly of and are willing to recommend.

Those advocates for you career success are your real network, and they are built up over the course of your career. In fact, in many ways, they can be the real wages of your first jobs. It almost doesn’t matter where you start your career – part-time and entry-level positions allow you to prove that you’re a team player, willing to work hard, have a great attitude, can learn on the job, think on your feet, and go the extra mile.

People remember those things about a person and it makes them want to work with you again or be happy to recommend you to others. That’s where career growth and advancement comes from.

You can’t suddenly build a network through networking. You build a network through working. That is how you establish a professional reputation and valuable relationships in your field.

Getting hired through networking almost always means that your contact knows you professionally; can speak highly of your work and is willing to put their own reputation on the line to vouch for you. Most people are unlikely to do that for a stranger whom they’ve met once or twice at group events.

So should you be networking?

By all means. Speak with people in your industry, or in the industry you want to work in. Find opportunities to participate in events or activities. See how you can develop the in-demand skills, and demonstrate your knowledge of these to relevant contacts.

Be positive and professional on the job and in all of your encounters. Similar to how major companies launch and build their brands, creating your own network of believers takes time, effort, and repeated interaction with your target audience.

That’s why it’s not something you can suddenly start to do when you find yourself needing a job. Just as the best time to look for a job is when you already have one, if you don’t start your networking activities until you’re out of work, you will have a harder time making the connections that can land you your next opportunity.

Networking essentials

To be an effective networker you need to get your name out there and interact with people around you. Networking is a two way street – and people remember those who went out of their way to help them in the past.

Keep in touch with your network. People stop taking phone calls from someone who only contacts them when they need something. So update your connections with what is going on with you, and make genuine inquiries about how they’re doing.

Make sure your social network information matches your resume. You don’t want to claim a degree on your application that your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles show that you don’t have – or that your previous coworkers won’t confirm. (See the What most employers think you’re lying about (and what you should actually lie about). Employers have also been known to double check that the dates of employment you list in your resume match with your profiles.

Pay it forward. Be there for your network too. Offer to help other people whenever possible. Even if it’s just spotting a job posting that sounds perfect for a contact, send it to them with a message that they’d be great at it. Even if they’re not looking, they’ll appreciate the compliment and that you were thinking of them.

Talk to people in your industry. Set up informational interviews, ask for advice, take any opportunity to meet with and get to know people with careers in your field. When someone has reached out to us, and asked us for help, we generally feel connected to them, and willing to lend a hand whenever we can.

But all of that is career maintenance. You can’t suddenly build a network from scratch when you find yourself between jobs. Pay attention to the people you know and those that meet all along your career journey.

Most of all, remember keep it real. Networking isn’t about collecting business cards and schmoozing. It’s about having a positive professional reputation and being in touch with lots of people who respect that about you.