Robots: The New Recruiters

Did you know that when you apply to a job these days the first line of defense is often a robot? Also called applicant tracking systems (ATSs), these bots sift through countless resumes and job applications eliminating unqualified candidates, at least in theory. While some hiring managers praise the software for the time it saves, others worry it may be eliminating all-star candidates.

Many ATSs use some form of artificial intelligence to do things like flip through resumes looking for appropriate keywords or scour the internet using sites like LinkedIn for qualified candidates to reach out to. Others can replicate past hiring tendencies by combing through previous hiring data to gauge which applicant characteristics led to successful hires.

However, dealing with these systems — and assume you are if you’re applying to a large- or medium-sized company — can be tricky for people looking for jobs. Services are available for job seekers that optimize resumes so they can beat the ATSs, but not every jobseeker is aware or willing to pay. Asking someone to optimize their own resume for the purposes of beating an ATS is like asking somebody with no SEO experience to get a webpage to consistently turn up on the first page of a relevant Google search.

It turns out, even if you do take steps to optimize your resume, any efforts to outsmart the resume robots may be futile. That’s what Robert Coombs found to be true according to his story in Fast Company.   

READ: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of HR

A director at a nonprofit, Coombs decided it may be time to make a change. But rather than looking for a new opportunity the traditional way, he decided to build a bot of his own and beat the ATSs at their own game. The tool he built compiled the contact information of hiring managers and submitted customized emails along with his resume and a personalized cover letter. He was even able to track how many times these correspondences were viewed, and after he had worked out some of the kinks, he used his “Rube Goldbergian contraption” to apply to over 538 jobs across a three-month period.

538 automated cover letters later, he still hadn’t found the right position. In the piece, Coombs stresses — so as not to come off as naïve — that he had built his robot to make adjustments to his resumes and cover letters after each application in order to optimize the tool.

He even used A/B testing methods to gauge which strategies were the most effective. “One A/B test used a normal-looking cover letter and contrasted it with a letter that admits right in the second sentence that the email was being sent by a robot,” he writes. Still, he could hardly spot a performance difference between the two letters and began to feel the barrier of the ATS was an impossible one to breach.

Ultimately, Coombs concluded that in order to get a foot in the door and actually talk to hiring managers, networking is key. This is no doubt the best strategy when looking for a job. According to a survey conducted by Lou Adler, 85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking.

However, I’m not so sure the cynicism exhibited by Coombs when it comes to traditional online applications is warranted. I, for one, have found that when applying to jobs, writing a strong, personalized cover letter is a rather effective strategy — at least when it’s a job I’m actually qualified for.

“If such a vast number of applicants aren’t even hearing back from the company they’ve applied to, you have to wonder if there’s a handful of gems hidden in the rejections pile.”

I wouldn’t argue that this is a strategy that trumps networking, but Coombs, as he freely admits, is not exactly Wozniak. He writes: “I’m no engineer but I play with technology a lot.” That’s not a statement that inspires confidence in his abilities, considering he’s taking on products built by companies that employ numerous professional programmers. Perhaps his robot just wasn’t well-built, or maybe he didn’t get the responses he expected because he wasn’t qualified for the roles he was applying to.

Whether Coombs’ failure was due to his flaws or those of ATSs, his point remains salient. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 75 percent of applicants claimed that they never heard back from an employer. You’d think if a company spent all this time and money building a applicant tracking system to pick the most qualified candidates, it could at least send an email to the unqualified ones, maybe something like “we didn’t look at your resume, but our robot certainly didn’t like it.”

If such a vast number of applicants aren’t even hearing back from the company they’ve applied to, you have to wonder if there’s a handful of gems hidden in the rejections pile.

There may be no remedy to this problem until the technology improves. Since applications can come from any person with an internet connection, oversaturation of applicants is inevitable. Unless you can hire an army of recruiters, humans are no better equipped than robots to sift through heaps of resumes.

In the meantime, while we wait for AI to surpass human levels of intelligence, recruiters should do what they can to get in front of as many candidates as possible. Whether it’s at a job fair or a conference, having a conversation with someone is miles more informative than a resume. For those of us not in the field of recruiting, know that if someone asks you some questions about your work history at a cocktail party, a job offer may be coming your way.