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When the computer says 'no'

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Most large employers in use so-called applicant tracking systems to find qualified candidates, but some experts blame these systems for eliminating qualified candidates and for contributing to a shortage of skilled workers.

Most large employers use so-called applicant tracking systems to find qualified candidates.

Most large employers use so-called applicant tracking systems to find qualified candidates. Photo: Sheridan Randall

The emailed rejection came as no surprise to Bill Skibinski, though he believed he was more than qualified for the entry-level job he'd applied for online.

After spending two years seeking full-time work, Skibinski is convinced that the computerised screening systems most companies use to hire actually work against job candidates, no matter how qualified they are.

"It is a frustrating and unfair process," said Skibinski, who is working part-time as a contractor while completing a master's degree in environmental planning. "You don't hear a thing through the web process, but that's really the only way you can" apply for a job.

Most large employers in use so-called applicant tracking systems to find qualified candidates. Increasingly, smaller companies are turning to them, too. Software screening is designed to help employers manage overwhelming volumes of applications and eliminate applicants who lack the required skills.

But some experts blame these systems for eliminating qualified candidates and for contributing to a shortage of skilled workers — a problem companies say they face even in a market glutted with job seekers.

More than a third of US employers in a June CareerBuilder survey said they currently have positions they can't fill because of a lack of qualified candidates. And that's hurting business: A third said vacancies lead to overworked employees and a lower quality of work.

Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business, argues in his book Why Good People Can't Get Jobs that employers can't find qualified workers not because of a "skills gap," but because employers' hiring requirements are unrealistic, salaries are too low and overly rigid applicant screening keeps most people out.

"The problem comes with employers trying to use these systems for more than they're capable of doing," said Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources. "They have so constrained their criteria, they end up with nothing. They want skill sets that don't exist."

Cappelli says the software often is inflexible and can't determine "all the different ways that somebody might be qualified" for a job. Instead, he said, candidates are asked a series of yes-or-no questions designed to find someone who's already doing the precise job the employer is trying to fill.

"It explains why employers feel that there's nobody for them to hire, even though any objective observer would say there are hundreds of people who could do your job," Cappelli said.

For Skibinski, a 36-year-old Army veteran who switched careers in 2006 after being laid off as a field engineer and project manager in the lottery industry, the computerised job-application process is full of stumbling blocks and frustration. He said his status as a veteran hasn't helped him.

In the past couple of years, Skibinski has applied for graduate assistantships, entry-level planning positions, jobs at Wal-Mart, Target and Starbucks — anything to bring in a paycheck.

The result? Either no response or a rejection note, even when he met all the minimum requirements.

After he applied recently for a planning position at a government agency, an emailed reply said, "You did not meet one or more of the experience requirements and are therefore considered ineligible at this time." He tracked down an HR representative and talked to her about his background, and she agreed he met the requirements, Skibinski said.

"That's when she said they can't interview everyone," he said. "She could not tell me specifically why."

Melanie Woodfolk, a 34-year-old who was laid off in April when her position as a marketing manager at a Baltimore publishing company was eliminated, said she'd always been able to find jobs quickly.

Now, after months of online job hunting, she's still looking.

"I feel like my resume just goes into an abyss," she said. "I've submitted my resume to jobs that match me perfectly and hear zilch.

"What's most frustrating is knowing there isn't anybody to follow up with," Woodfolk continued. "These systems are looking for certain keywords, and if I don't have that one keyword they're looking for, I'm excluded even if I'm highly qualified. They're looking for a reason not to hire you, more so than a reason to hire."

But for companies trying to sort through an avalanche of applications at a time of record unemployment, tracking systems can be a "godsend," said Dawn A. Haag-Hatterer, a human resources advisory consultant. She said the systems help companies weed out "the folks who truly don't belong in the applicant pool".

Companies began shifting from paper to electronic applications in the 1990s to make it easier for people to apply and to save on recruitment costs, Cappelli said. Because it's so easy to apply online, companies have been inundated with thousands of applicants for every opening, he said.

But the systems have their limitations, acknowledged Haag-Hatterer, president and CEO of Consulting Authority LLC.

"You've got to spend the time to get the right system in place, customise it and set up the criteria that will best give you the return you're after," she said. "And that can be a moving target. You don't just implement software to parse through hundreds of resumes."

Most large companies have comprehensive screening systems in place. Now smaller companies have begun testing the waters, using recruitment software systems that look for specific keywords in resumes and cover letters.

Haag-Hatterer, however, warns that employers that do little more than rely on keywords may hurt their chances of finding the right people.

"If you're picking out words that everyone uses — strategic, budget, planning, something that's an ambiguous term — you're not doing yourself any good," she said. "All it tells you is how to beat the system, and qualified applicants may be left out of the selection process."

The bottom line for companies, she said, is how comfortable they are allowing a tracking system "to parse through and make a decision on who you follow up with and who you don't."

Baltimore-based sports apparel maker Under Armour, which is growing and hiring, said it decided last year to overhaul its applicant tracking system to speed up searches. The company gets, on average, 35,000 applications a month.

Troy Barnett, Under Armour's director of HR process and technology, called the new system "extremely effective," allowing the company to divide applications by division: retail, corporate, international and distribution, and then assign them to specific recruiters.

"Once we find candidates, we have the ability to create questionnaires and rank resumes and candidates to get the best candidate for the position," Barnett said. "It gives the recruiters more information when they're looking at a particular candidate, and (the ability) to ask those tough questions sooner than later."

At Under Armour, about 85 per cent of candidates for a particular position move to the next level of review, where recruiters try to match responses with job descriptions, he said. The company usually interviews about five to 10 people by phone before narrowing the field for in-person interviews.

"The biggest thing we do is educate our recruiters and hiring managers to work as a team to understand what a job is calling for," Barnett said. "There are situations where someone may not have the exact experience we're looking for, but something in a resume triggers their being a person for the next step."

Like the private sector, public agencies also rely on computerized tracking systems. HHS Careers, the US Department of Health and Human Services' recruiting system, posts federal job vacancies to USAJOBS, the government's official online job site.

"Top talent is quickly identified, speeding up the federal hiring process," according to the department's website.

But many applicants who regularly use the system complain that applications rarely move on to hiring managers and never lead to interviews.

Applicants said the government system offers little chance to highlight their strengths and provides little or no feedback.

Elaine Sarao, a Washington resident who has worked in foreign affairs since 1994 and currently serves as a Franklin Fellow in the US State Department, said she has applied for both lower- and upper-level federal jobs at various agencies since 2007.

"I have not gotten one interview," Sarao said. "They are so narrow in the way they look at people. If they are looking for a lima bean counter and you've counted pinto beans and black beans, they'll say they can't hire you because you've not counted lima beans."

MCT

104 comments

  • This really fires me up too!
    If companies are looking to hire someone who fits into a small box, then kudos to them. Its the people who meet criteria and have diverse experiences who will add-value.

    Commenter
    Ayesha
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 10, 2012, 11:15AM
    • Everyone, listen up! If you find an employer using one of these systems, lie! As big and as fat as the system needs to get you through their door. Tell it just what it wants to hear. If it wants a Lima bean counter (as mentioned in one comment) tell it you have counted Lima beans. It is only when you get to the real bean counter that you will be considered for the job anyway. Better yet, talk to everyone you know and tell them what you are good at and what you are looking for. Most companies prefer to hire someone they know, or someone someone knows, whether they have the skills or not.

      Commenter
      OpenWindow
      Location
      VIC
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 1:23PM
    • Indeed, I've always been able to get my foot in the door and that is literally by looking at what employers are looking for and "twerking" my resume to include the keywords.

      If you have to completely lie, leave it. Small lies here and there are better to keep up with in an interview than outlandishly lying.

      Bestest yet? Call HR and get some raport with them, they're most likely to remember you and they're be able to give you a heads up with what they're looking for specifically. Then you can tailor your resume to suit.

      Commenter
      Caveat
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 10:40AM
    • OpenWindow is correct.

      Everyone in business lies to a greater or lesser extent.

      As a management consultant, I worked with many snr execs. and suspected many of them lied about their abilities, especially the ones who were such limited performers.

      The limited performers made damn sure they never hired anyone who was better than them, one reason they brought in external consultants.

      Commenter
      Jack Smith
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 1:06PM
  • I'd like to see an explanatory article on how these keyword matching algorithms typically work - otherwise it looks to me like a gamble - either you match the keywords it's selecting for, or you don't, in which case your resume goes into the ignore list

    as a programmer I used to see ads with a random list of IT skills saying 'must have 3 years experience' - as a new graduate I saw such an ad for a job 100 metres from where I lived - was put off by the 3 years requirement until a week later I decided to call - they said 'we gave the job to a new graduate'

    so if the wish list of skills is not actually a genuine requirement, how do they parse/weight the actual experience they want - just by matching keywords ? I don't see it.

    Commenter
    frank
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    October 10, 2012, 12:16PM
    • Part of the issue here is, or may be, that the recruitment agencies involved with the process aren't necessarily completely informed by the client. I would say that typically the recruitment agency will have a tentative relationship with the client - essentially the client would rather not use the agency if they can avoid it. This lack of co-operation and communication leads to errors in the selection process.

      May not be exactly relevant to your example but it is an important factor.

      Commenter
      davedrastic
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 12:31PM
    • IT is especially bad for recruitment. In the crash of 2002 the automated systems really took off because every job had 400+ applicants and unemployment across the industry was 18%, according to the ACS, rising to 35-50% in some skills. With so many applications, and recruiters who have never worked in IT, the automated systems were used very stringently to weed everybody out. Employers put down huge lists of requirements, and only the ones which met each got looked at. Despite the massive job shortage, that resulted in an increase of foreign hire at the time. Of the ones that get looked at at all, the average time a recruiter looks at a CV in IT is 20 seconds before being discarded (I have heard figure that from a number of recruiters).

      Commenter
      TimF
      Date and time
      October 13, 2012, 5:34PM
  • This is extremely frustrating. What adds to the problem is the useless recruitment agents (no, I won't call them consultants as this title is too big for them. Recruitment agents treat potential candidates well and tell them anything they want to hear. If it works, they are your friends. If not, they give you silent treatment. On top of that, they are really generally unqualified. If you are IT specialist you will know what I mean - talking to a recruitment agent is a massive waste of time. I hope one day we all get over that and companies start investing in their own HR team. We need to weed out the useless elements of job seeking.

    Commenter
    Sam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    October 10, 2012, 12:28PM
    • Sam, I agree with you on this one. I would personally prefer to apply for a job with the company directly. I have been looking for work over the past month and have been to see numerous agencies that have not been of much help to me at all. Any job I have applied for, I either haven't heard anything from them (nothing new there) or I am not suitable qualified for the job (even though I know I am and my resume shows this in abundance). Is it too much to ask for me to be in a job that I enjoy most days and am willing to be there for more than a year or 2?

      Commenter
      Cath
      Date and time
      October 10, 2012, 3:03PM
    • Exactly Cath, I've experienced the same. We're not the only qualified candidates facing this problem. I have been doing a lot of reading on that. I think enough is enough; we need to get this corrected and it needs a unified approach. I was even thinking of developing a website for those that experienced this problem to share it - or even a facebook page. This way perhaps recruiters take notice of their shortcoming and maybe they realise they need to treat people better. And, it could also be a good network for job seekers by job seekers. I wonder if I could post my email here!?

      Commenter
      Sam
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 10, 2012, 4:44PM

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