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Are some ‘skills shortages’ being caused by applicant tracking systems?

Human touch still important in recruitment

By Brian Kreissl

When I started working as an in-house recruiter more than 12 years ago, I was impressed by the power of the applicant tracking system (ATS) we used.

That system allowed us to ask candidates online prescreening questions. The ATS then scored and ranked candidates based on their responses.

That particular ATS had a candidate database, search and reporting functionalities. It allowed us to move candidates through the interview process by placing them in different recognized stages — such as first interview, second interview, offer and so on.

We could also link to job boards and our own careers website, send rejection e-mails, attach interview notes and view a candidate’s history, including what positions she had applied for in the past or those she was currently being considered for.

The ATS was a godsend because, being a large, well-known financial institution, we had no shortage of candidates applying. Postings routinely attracted several hundred applicants after just a few days. It would have been next to impossible to sort through such a large volume of applications manually.

I remember one IT vacancy in particular I was working on that had 1,200 applicants. But because the job was very specialized, the vast majority of those applicants didn’t have the right experience. The job was right on the trading floor, so we were looking for someone with previous experience in the brokerage industry.

That posting was significant not only for the number of applicants it attracted, but also because it highlighted one of the major drawbacks associated with our approach to online recruitment. The problem was people would routinely lie when completing the online prescreening questionnaires. I was astounded by the number of people who said they had brokerage industry experience when in fact they hadn’t — many didn’t even know what that meant.

That simple fact meant we couldn’t entirely trust candidate scores. While such scores were useful, some type of human intervention was necessary in reviewing at least the top 30 to 50 per cent of resumés (more in the case of difficult to fill roles).

Current problems with applicant tracking systems

It seems to me few employers today use their ATS in exactly the same way we did back then. My understanding is many organizations now have those systems set up to automatically search for key words and specific job titles in a candidate’s résumé.

I've applied for enough jobs myself over the years to realize few organizations now seem to be using their ATS to ask prescreening questions (other than perhaps something standard about whether the applicant is legally entitled to work in Canada and for employment equity reporting purposes).

An article by Meridith Levinson published last year in CIO magazine cited research completed by job search services provider Preptel showing that “error prone applicant tracking systems kill 75 per cent of job seekers’ chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their resumes, despite how qualified they may be.”

This leads to frustration on the part of both employers and candidates, and adds to the perception of widespread skills shortages.

Part of the problem, according to talent management firm Bersin & Associates, relates to the way such systems parse data pasted into the ATS from a candidate’s resumé and import that data into specific fields. This was confirmed by several experiments where bogus “perfect” candidates scored very low in spite of the fact they had all of the requirements specified in the postings. Certain information appeared to be missing altogether or ended up in the wrong fields.

Levinson therefore provides the following suggestions to candidates on how to format their résumés for applicant tracking systems:

• Don’t submit your resumé in PDF format.

• Don’t include tables or graphics.

• Don’t be afraid to include a longer resumé.

• Be sure to label your work experience as such.

• Start your work experience with company names rather than dates.

While these tips are for job applicants, employers should also consider providing them to candidates in order to ensure a better match. And employers should be more willing to have résumés at least partially screened by human beings. Otherwise, taking the human element out of the recruitment process entirely helps neither candidates nor employers.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.    

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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