The Failure of Keywords in Applicant Tracking Systems and Recruiting

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The Failure of Keywords in Applicant Tracking Systems and Recruiting

Scott sent me an email and to ask what he should do about keywords on his resume. He has been a client for about 5 months. His schedule is hectic and filled with international travel. His job search was taking time – as we expected. He was involved in a technology group in Seattle, and many of the other technologists in the group were talking about keywords. They were talking about how important keywords were to applicant tracking systems [ATS].

I spoke to Scott as he was driving into work. He was curious about whether his friends’ comments were correct. His real question was, “Is this something that I should be worried about?”

Initially I was upset that Scott had asked me this. The question implied that Scott was applying to positions without making personal connections. Scott is a CIO candidate — he is too senior to apply for jobs without having an internal advocate. Together some 3 months prior, Scott and I had worked out a plan for him to network with personal and professional contacts and become more active in local technology groups to raise awareness regarding his skills and availability in the technology community. The return rate on the time taken to fill out applications is very low. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, candidates heard back from a company recruiter about 5% of the time. It is lower in 2019.

“Scott, that’s a great question. Your resume is full of keywords. You hire people, correct? From your perspective, how well does your company’s recruiting process work?”

“Hmm. Not very well. It’s painful finding new team members. In fact, I can’t understand what recruiting is doing. I realize that I’m looking for technology folks, and that is more challenging than looking for most other candidates but finding and recruiting talent for my teams is a slow and difficult process. ”

“Yes, that’s what I would expect. For most companies, but not all, recruiting individuals in engineering or information systems or any specialized area is painful. I am not saying that it was ever easy, but it has become much more challenging.” And then I explained how keywords, job descriptions, and applicant tracking systems worked.

Applicant Tracking Systems, Job Descriptions & Keywords

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are wonderful systems designed to digitize candidate applications and resumes. In the past, companies had to capture applicant information within paper forms and keep files for years. And we are talking about confidential files. Applicant Tracking Systems move the process from paper files to digital formats. This has lifted a tremendous burden from HR departments in terms of government compliance, cybersecurity, and physical storage. But applicant tracking systems were sold to companies based on the fact the company could pay for them by getting rid of those pesky expensive recruiters, “any $15-an-hour person can recruit with our system.” And to some degree that’s true. For a major hospital complex that hires 30 med techs every month, their $15-an-hour recruiters can find those 30 med techs – because that is their core business area. But the $15-an-hour person is challenged to find rare technical, clinical, and information systems individuals.

“Scott, have you seen job descriptions for your own positions?”

“Our job descriptions are 2 to 3 pages long, and most of the information is irrelevant to the position. Last week I looked at a job description for one of my positions. Except for the title, even I couldn’t match the description to the job I had open.”

“Exactly. Most hiring managers are working with job descriptions that are 8, 9, 10 years old. In fact, even as an inside recruiter, I have sometimes read a job description and could not figure out what I was supposed to be looking for. How many times has an internal recruiter made an appointment with you to discuss your open position?”

“I know I have been called by an internal recruiter to discuss a position, but I can’t remember how long ago that happened. In fact, I think it’s only once in the last 3 or 4 years.”

“When a hiring manager submits a job and it is approved, it is automatically posted to certain sites and resumes begin coming in. As the recruiter assigned to fill that position, I won’t look at those resumes or interview candidates for that position until the hiring manager and I have had a conversation – because I know the job description isn’t telling me what the hiring manager really wants.”

Think about that. The recruiter cannot figure out what the position is about. The description is filled with information such as “must be able to lift 35 pounds.” What keywords is the recruiter going to search against to find candidates? What if the hiring manager tells the recruiter specific skills to search against – which are not in the 8-year old job description? As a candidate, what keywords are you going to highlight in your resume to apply for such a position? What is the expectation around keywords when the job description is hazy to the hiring manager and lacking any true guidance for the $15-an-hour recruiter? How does the system work in this all-too-typical situation?

It doesn’t work. The $15-an-hour recruiter assigned to work this position is going to focus on other, easier to fill positions. And 3 weeks later, when the hiring manager calls up the recruiter and asks, “What’s going on with my position? Do we have any candidates?” the $15-an-hour recruiter answers, “Oh, yes. I was just about to email you. We’ve finally gotten some resumes. I’m going to send some this afternoon.”

The recruiter scrambles and checks the candidate queue for the position. In the first 3 weeks, 300 candidates have submitted resumes. What is the recruiter going to do? If the recruiter has keywords, then a search against keywords can be conducted. But here’s the thing about keywords from the recruiting perspective: Unless you actually know what you’re looking for, keywords alone are usually not very helpful. Instead the recruiter picks a dozen random resumes with good formatting and sends them off to the hiring manager, who thinks, “Wow. These are the best resumes? Good grief, what am I going to do?”

Keywords and high-level candidates

But for Scott, the keyword issue was a little different. Scott is a CIO candidate. What keywords does a CIO candidate put on their resume? Certainly not obscure technical terms. Maybe some bigger concepts such as software as a service (SaaS) or references to development methodologies. But the first thing a recruiter is going to search against within their own ATS or LinkedIn is the title of the position. That’s right – for high-level candidates, your title(s) is/are keywords. But is that truly helpful? Not having the correct industry-recognized title(s) on your resume is detrimental but having the correct industry-recognized title(s) on your resume is not very distinguishing. That is, half the resumes submitted for our CIO position, are probably going to have the terms Chief Information Officer or CIO on the resume.

Another issue that diminishes the effectiveness of keywords in Applicant Tracking Systems

I was speaking with a marketing candidate who is also a friend. I have known her for many years. She is currently looking to relocate back to New York City. In her conversations with marketing folks in New York City, she has learned that salaries for digital marketing experts have fallen from 6 digits to below $100,000 and candidates are taking months to find a position. The comment in New York marketing circles is, “digital marketing is dead.” This doesn’t mean that digital marketing is actually dead. “Digital marketing is dead” means that it is not nearly as effective as it was just a few years ago. Consumers are overwhelmed. We are bombarded with so much digital advertising, that we are not paying any attention to it. Something similar is happening in the world of applicant tracking systems.

Candidates have become so accustomed to applying digitally that they are overwhelming the applicant tracking system, or more precisely, the $15-an-hour recruiter. This phenomenon has been growing for years but has become significant starting in 2019. How much are keywords going to help the candidate when there are 600, 700, 1000+ candidate resumes in the job queue?

The fundamental question: Are keywords important?

Yes, keywords are important – even critical. Why? It is not just computerized systems that are looking at your resume. Human eyes are looking at your resume as well. In fact, if there are 600, 700, or 1000+ candidate resumes in a queue, then human eyes become the only thing to consider. This means your keywords must resonate for hiring managers and recruiters and must be highlighted in such a way to capture their attention in seconds.

How do you ensure that human eyes will see your keywords? Your resume and other documents must look professional and reflect your seniority. Additionally, keywords must be eye-catching without becoming the focus of the resume. You must be in action around a structured plan to place your resume into the hands of friends, acquaintances, recruiters, and hiring managers.

This sounds tough, but it is a much better use of your time than blindly applying.

And the more senior you are, the more you need to be referred into an organization.

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