The return of multiple job offers

July 18, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

Jobs are still hard to come by – unless you’re part of the elite group of job seekers who are fielding not one but several competing opportunities at once.

FORTUNE — After he was laid off from his job as Burberry’s director of construction in March 2010, Gary Rissler’s outlook seemed bleak. “I was tired of hearing ‘You’re overqualified,’ ” he says. “I heard that over and over.” Yet early this year the tone shifted — abruptly — to “We like your expertise.” Before long the 30-year veteran had four offers.

The jobless rate is still stubbornly high — 9.2% — and many employers remain cautious about adding jobs. It’s particularly tough for blue-collar workers, but even for white-collar employees there’s a strange dichotomy emerging between those who struggle for one job nibble and those with a wealth of choices. “It’s a very schizophrenic market right now. I’ve seen many candidates get multiple offers,” says Jeff Zinser, owner and president of Right Recruiting in Blue Bell, Pa. “On the other side, there are other candidates who are still struggling and may never get their careers on track.”

For the lucky ones, however, it’s 2007 all over again. “It’s incredibly competitive out there for talent, incredibly competitive,” says Kim Shanahan, a Korn Ferry partner in Reston, Va. Her searches for human resources executives have been “over the top — insane” because demand is so strong and candidates are becoming more selective. Adds Jeff Hodge, the San Francisco-based vice chairman of Diversified Search, a Philadelphia firm: “It is almost as if there’s been a floodgate opened, a material change since December.”

Korn Ferry (KFY) recruiters estimate that currently about 5% to 10% of executive candidates are ending up with multiple job offers within three or four months of starting their search. That might not seem like much, but competition is fierce for that group, and big signing bonuses are becoming common. In certain areas, including R&D, human resources, product development, and Java J2E software expertise, the talent wars are well underway, while elsewhere the job world is a frozen wasteland.

So who’s landing multiple offers? Those who show demonstrated results — and can prove they know how to grow businesses. Brian Sullivan, chief executive of CT Partners, uses the example of a CEO his firm placed at a Silicon Valley turnaround. In nine months he got the company on track, then sold it. “He now has three different offers from three private equity firms to go into one of their portfolio firms,” said Sullivan.

Successful job seekers tend to have an abundance of former colleagues ready to provide references. It also helps if you have a reputation for exceptional leadership or creativity or amazing sales prowess, and awards to prove it, said Korn Ferry’s Shanahan — particularly if you are coming from a marquee name that could improve your new employer’s pedigree.

Even if you’re not yet a superstar, certain trends are on your side. Last year one in five companies expected to add to their executive ranks; now it’s one in three, according to ExecuNet, which sees some companies “trading up” for better talent from competitors. Multiple offers could also increase as a growing number of boomers retire. And a recent Society of Human Resource Management report identified another issue: Many people are burdened with devalued homes and cannot relocate. One HR manager says she lost out on a candidate because another company was willing to buy the home and offer a full relocation package.

For his search, Rissler turned to his huge network, cultivated in 30 years in construction management and retail. He never mentioned that he wanted a job, instead asking for advice or introductions to others. He also began to facilitate a job-search group for fashion and retail types and passed many names along to recruiters. When jobs didn’t materialize after six months, Rissler started a consulting company and built a website, getting work from acquaintances. His luck turned when a woman with whom he’d worked for a year referred him for a job.

After his hunt heated up, Rissler narrowed down the four offers to two by writing down “only the cons.” One job’s salary and another’s work-all-the-time culture eliminated two choices; the third was promising but reported to the CFO. Last March he signed on as director of store planning and construction for Stuart Weitzman, a fashion-shoe company, where he reports to the CEO and, he says, “the chemistry was perfect.” For the first time in a long time, Rissler had the luxury of choice.

This article is from the July 25, 2011 issue of Fortune.