Beating the recruitment machines

By Michael Millar
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Many big companies are using technology to filter job applicants

Many of the biggest companies in the world are using software to recruit their workforce, so how can you beat the odds in the most competitive job market in history?

If you take the time to fill in a job application, you might think someone would at least have the courtesy to actually look at it.

But as more and more job applications are made online, companies are increasingly turning to computer programs to help manage the load.

This means it's as likely as not it won't be someone vetting you - but something.

These programs, called applicant tracking systems, scan your CV to decide whether you move on in the process or fall at the first hurdle.

Digital age

A BBC survey of 20 of the world's biggest organisations, which between them employ almost four million people, found no fewer than 18 used some form of electronic selection.

Tim Payne, a partner at KPMG Management Consulting, says most if not all large organisations use systems like this.

However, smaller firms have been slower to take it up, he adds.

"For organisations with very high numbers of applications, some electronic form of screening is the only cost effective way to manage the process," Mr Payne says.

This is true at KPMG, which uses programs to sift through the thousands of applications the company receives globally for every job it offers.

But if being judged by a cold, unfeeling machine seems a bit Orwellian, Mr Payne argues it is a positive development for applicants.

"Research shows if you put the same CV in front of the same people but then change some aspects, like name or ethnicity, the way they evaluate it often changes," he says.

"Online application forms, which ask standard questions that can be scored objectively, is a much fairer way than a recruiter reading it."

Action words

To see these programs in action, the BBC organised a meeting for 22-year-old job seeker Sarah Greenwood at recruitment firm Monster.

Sarah wants a job in marketing but admits she finds the prospect of finding a role in the current environment both intimidating and bewildering.

"It feels like a very transient job market, where you have to be inventive and creative and you have to be prepared to work for nothing if you want to get anywhere," she says.

At the company's London headquarters, James Brian, Monster's director of product management, pits Sarah's CV against the computer.

He then tells her: "You obeyed a lot of the golden rules. You kept it to two pages and you didn't do anything crazy like putting boxes and diagrams in there - they are the kind of things that don't work well when you upload your CV to an applicant tracking system."

"What I've done is search for the kind of jobs you are after and then looked for the key words that are in the descriptions of those jobs.

"Where we can get those key words into your CV, I've made sure there are plenty of them," he says.

"You might have said, for example, you have experience as a marketing assistant, where most jobs are 'marketing executive', so I've changed that."

With applicant tracking systems key words are everything, making a generic CV of little use.

Wilma Tucker, from Right Management, says job hunters should consider including a section upfront actually called Keywords.

"Putting the most important words first increases the computer's chances of a 'hit'," she says.

Ms Tucker also recommends including nouns that describe your experience in addition to "action" words.

"For example, mention 'management' in addition to 'managed' and use specific nouns. Instead of 'word processing software', use 'Microsoft Word'," she says.

Image caption,
Telefonica is one of the companies using gameplay as part of the recruitment process

Game on

However, in the digital age, some jobs won't give you the chance to fill in a form or send in a CV.

Increasing numbers of firms are using online games and quizzes, which put the player into different scenarios and judge their suitability based on how they respond, usually to multiple choice questions.

These games are, once again, about managing numbers.

For example, since the recruiter Hays launched their interactive game, the Hays Challenge, more than 20,000 people from 190 countries as far afield as Afghanistan and Colombia have played it.

But Hays says another benefit is a pick-up in the preparedness and calibre of applicants after they take part.

This means successful applicants have a much better understanding of what will be asked of them, while others deselect themselves at an earlier stage, saving time and money.

So, if you are particularly keen on a role, is it possible to second guess these games, helping you to beat the machine?

Gareth Jones, from the Chemistry Group, which developed one such game for telecoms firm O2, says that is very difficult to do.

"We take some very detailed psychometric testing work of people who are currently successful in the roles and we combine that with some on-the-job observations by a psychologist," he says.

"We make sure there are no right or wrong answers, so the candidate picks the response that most closely represents how they would respond in real life."

Again, rather than being a handicap for job seekers, Mr Jones says the programs can help unearth candidates whose CVs might not stand up to traditional scrutiny.

"They are able to unearth applicants who might be a great fit for the role, but who have no direct industry or functional experience, which can, generally speaking, be easily taught or picked up," he says.

Recycling service

If you don't make it past the e-bodyguard and onto the next round, the applicant tracking systems offer a possible silver lining.

To save time and money, firms will use the programs to look back at previous applications to find suitable candidates for any new jobs that come up, says John Ingham, a human resources consultant.

"These organisations are recycling candidates, so you might get a second bite of the cherry and be considered for a broader range of vacancies," he says.

The lesson here is make sure you include a comprehensive profile of yourself that goes beyond the particular job for which you are applying.

Then you might find a post opens up for you that you never even applied for.