CHICAGO -- Dale C. Miller, general manager of the Edina Country Club in Edina, Minn., served in the Air Force for 25 years, managing clubs and recreational programs.

In 1988, when he was 44, the lieutenant colonel decided to retire.

''My former Air Force buddies who had retired suggested I contact an executive search firm because that's how they got their jobs,'' said Miller, who has a bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from the University of Arkansas.

''I knew that a search firm works for employers, not job seekers, but I hoped it would be a way to put me in touch with some private clubs. I figured I had nothing to lose because you don't pay a fee, the employer does.''

He called John Sibbald Associates Inc., an executive search firm based in Chicago that specializes in the hospitality industry. ''They told me to send in my resume and that they would be in touch,'' said Miller, a native of Rochester, Minn.

But things moved quickly. Miller retired in December, and in January the search firm came up with the interview for his current job. In April, Miller started at a salary in the upper five figures.

''Most people hesitate to contact a search firm if it's not looking for them, but it's an easy way to expose yourself to job openings and should be investigated,'' he said. ''But you have to contact a firm in your field or it's a total crapshoot.''

Most job seekers don't contact headhunters, and most headhunters don't want them to. Instead, you're supposed to wait for headhunters to find you to fill a job opening for their clients. And job seekers who do contact search firms usually are not as fortunate as Miller, though he had excellent credentials. His salary was more than $50,000, the bottom line for most executive search firms (though many put it at $70,000).

''To think that any recruiter is going to jump through hoops for you ... is naive,'' said John Sibbald, president of the firm that bears his name and author of ''The Career Makers: America's Top 100 Executive Recruiters'' (Harper & Row, $22.95). ''The chances of your unsolicited resume fitting an ongoing search is probably less than one in a hundred in the largest search firms.''

Nonetheless, Sibbald agrees with Miller that it's important to try.

But there's a way to get a leg up, he said.

''Just aimlessly sending resumes to a list of search firms will not work,'' said Sibbald, who said he gets an average of 75 unsolicited resumes every day from people being paid $40,000 to $400,000. ''Most end up in wastebaskets. But I do place people who have the right qualifications. The critical thing is the cover letter, the packaging on the product. If you don't have a good handle, it simply will not get picked off the shelf.''

Your odds of success, the headhunter said, may be low, ''but your resume may start a relationship with a headhunter, and you will be able to build on it over the years.''

And make sure the headhunter works in your field.

Sibbald's book has been getting national attention because it rates the top executive recruiters, based on his survey of the nation's top businesses. That helps employers seeking qualified executives.

But there's another important aspect to his publication -- for job seekers. Sibbald includes an invaluable list of the top recruiters' specialties, covering 25 fields, ranging from aerospace to packaging. It's important information, because it helps people direct their resumes to the right headhunter around the nation.

For instance, Robert W. Dingman of Robert W. Dingman Co. in Westlake Village, Calif., specializes in associations and nonprofit organizations; Gerald R. Roche of Heidrick and Struggles Inc., New York, specializes in banks and financial institutions.

Charles P. Beall of Beall & Co., Roswell, Ga., does searches in the communications industry; Mary E. Shourds, of Houze, Shourds & Montgomery Inc., Long Beach, Calif., specializes in computer software; and Stephen A. Garrison of Ward Howell International Inc., Dallas, finds executives for the energy field.

''You try everything when you're looking for a job, and I knew someone who got to know a headhunter who knew the headhunter I sent my resume to and who placed me,'' said John W. Sylvester, a vice president at Linbeck Construction Corp., Houston. ''It's difficult for a job seeker to use a search firm, but it can be done.''