When it comes to job-hunting advice, look no further than the past. A recent Wall Street Journal story profiled several depression-era job seekers who found work the old-fashioned way: by forging personal connections. Some went looking door-to-door; others asked neighbors for job leads or had friends and relatives advocate on their behalf for open positions. 

Showing up at offices unannounced with a resume in hand would probably not fly in this age of electronic communication and lowered face-to-face interaction, and most applicants are careful to heed the “no phone calls” addendum on nearly every job posting. Still, there is something to be said for maintaining — or forging — personal connections that might give one job seeker the edge over another, less visible “virtual” applicant.

That may seem obvious, but the Journal story cites a Brookings Institution paper which found that “today’s job seekers devote little time to their networks: Only 9% of their job search is spent contacting friends and relatives to find work, while 51% is devoted to finding ads and sending out applications.”

“It is certainly the case that personal connections play a huge role in finding jobs,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “A classic study in the 1970s concluded that over half of professional and technical workers had found employment through personal connections. We recently surveyed Wharton MBA alumni and [learned] that when they moved jobs after graduation, around 50% of those jobs were [landed] through personal contacts.”

The Journal story points out that those connections often entail social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook — today’s version of going door to door, only faster. “Social networking tools can help by providing a way for information to move quickly through people’s networks,” says Bidwell. “A friend of mine found her job after her sister saw a request for potential hires that someone posted on Facebook. Because people update their status regularly, sites like LinkedIn can provide an easy way to check which of your friends are in positions where they might be able to help. Indeed, LinkedIn markets itself substantially as a resource for looking for jobs and for hiring.” That said, Bidwell adds, “it remains an open question whether the ease of contacting people over these sites limits the sense of obligation people have to their contacts, or makes people less ready to help them.”

Job seekers also should not underestimate the power of their connections to get them in the door of a company that might not hire them otherwise. “Most research on hiring suggests that employee referrals are taken very seriously,” Bidwell notes. “The big problem that employers face is learning how good candidates really are. Sure, they have the resume, but it tells them little about the intangible characteristics that they really care about, such as attitude, ability to work with others, etc. Recommendations from previous employers are supposed to help provide this information, but given concerns about litigation, those recommendations are often hard to obtain and even harder to trust. Against this background, employers are likely to take employee recommendations seriously.”

And, because employees will often have to work with the new hire, they are likely to be careful about whom they recommend, Bidwell adds. “That gives employers more confidence in what [these employees] say.”