Job candidates are being urged to think like a search engine when writing their resume or risk being left at the recruitment software gateway.
Computers, not people, now shortlist most candidates, and just as website owners use search engine optimisation (SEO) to boost their rank in Google search results, so too must job candidates – according to those who build and use the systems.
This means including crucial keywords, repeating them often and avoiding graphics and links in order for applications to pass through the filters of applicant tracking systems (ATS).
An ATS uses artificial intelligence to interpret, code and extract data contained in resumes, according to Ben Fuller, the sales director of Bullhorn Australia, a recruitment software maker.
The recruiter then enters one or more Boolean search terms and a list of candidates best matching the role will appear, ranked in order of relevance, he says.
There is an unfortunate spin-off, though, says Andrew Cross, managing director of Ambition, Technology: strong candidates can slip through the net if their resume fails to tick certain boxes.
IT manager Aaron Harch got his first taste of the so-called recruiting black hole last year when he applied for 30 jobs or more over the space of three months, but every one of them vanished into the vortex.
“I was applying for jobs on Seek and meeting with recruiters and I got nowhere,” says Harch.
Things changed when he paid for a consultant who suggested, among other things, tweaks to his resume. He snared interviews for three jobs in quick succession and landed the third.
It's a common scenario, according to Bronwen Kaspers of Limelight resumes and career coaching, the company that helped Harch.
"We get a lot of IT people approaching us because recruitment is not working the way it used to, so they look to us for help," she says.
The recruiters who use these systems say they are necessary to manage the volume of applicants submitting resumes via online job boards such as Seek.
Peter, a senior data analyst who's currently between contracts, feels this rigid approach underestimates the importance of softer skills such as communication and creative thinking, and leaves people like him out in the cold.
"These days I feel like I'm constantly beating the bushes for work. It shouldn't be this hard," he says.
Some employers, including Nick Holcombe, managing director of computer consultancy Dorchester Computing, agree that resume scanning misses some crucial nuances, such as cultural fit.
“I like to hire people I think I could sit in a car with for eight hours,” he says.
However, because most job applicants will continue to be shortlisted by a computer, says Cross, it pays to know the rules.
Recruitment experts, ATS vendors and resume specialists share the following tips:
Cross suggests you examine the job ads you're applying for and the LinkedIn profiles of those in your niche to get a feel for the best buzzwords. To save time, paste text into the keyword extraction tool at wordle.net.
Resumes are ranked for relevance according to the number of times key words and phrases are repeated, so pepper the important ones throughout, says Kaspers.
Ditch the detail
When used in a shorter resume, the same number of keywords will rank higher than in a longer one, notes Daryl Keeley, managing director of Macro Recruitment, so cut it down where you can.
Be more specific
Recruiters' experience with your field will vary, so it pays to spell out your area of expertise, what your role involves and your achievements. Stick to standard usage when it comes to job titles and technologies, advises Fuller.
The latest software allows for a contextual keyword search, says Fuller (for example, Oracle and SAP and project three words near to management). You can capitalise on this, he says, when applying for specific jobs.
An ATS will sometimes assign more weight to keywords found in headings, says Cross. This is a double-edged sword, he says, in the ever-changing world of job titles, but still worth knowing.
Don't leave out location
Recruiters usually search by location, so include your city and state. If you're willing to move, mention this so it comes up in searches, suggests Kaspers. Don't use full stops, advises Keeley, as older software may not recognise abbreviations such as "N.S.W.".
The latest software can handle things such as bullets, centering and italics, but you should avoid graphics and web links, as these may confuse the system, says Linda Trevor, executive general manager at IT recruiter, Candle.
Recruiters are increasingly scanning social media sites using the same software tools, so all the above principles apply to your LinkedIn profile, says Fuller.