An Avery Partners Blog Post

Ryan Gemmill

Last week David Wessel at the Wall Street Journal sent shockwaves through the HR and Recruiting industries with his article on resume screening software entitled Software Raises the Bar for Hiring. It’s reproduced below. It is likely one of the first actually constructive piece from mainstream media for job seekers in the past eighteen months.

And he got some of it right.

It is entirely accurate that in this economy large companies draw thousands and thousands of applications to a particular job post. It is also entirely accurate that there is a need on the corporate side to try and review those thousands, by man or by machine. After all, even after the layoffs of ’08 and ’09, human capital is still a large firm’s biggest asset.

The downside though is that Mr. Wessel focuses entirely too much on the flaws of Corporate America, and casts too much blame on Human Resources for relying on systems that rank candidates and even omit some that seem not to fit. This does cast out candidates that may be a fit emotionally, that may be a fit in work ethic, or that may be a fit in soft skills. It may even include some candidates that match some words but aren’t fits. For example: my resume lists Health IT skills and keywords to represent my search experiences and network – words that would get me through a screening for, say, a Health IT Implementation Project manager. Alas, I am not a Health IT Project Manager.

We can all agree that some big companies rely too little on the brains of their team and too much on the strength of their keyword searches. We can also agree that Mr. Wessel is correct in that some junior managers or junior HR people often pile on too much in a job description. This is going to happen, and it is the responsibility of the HR hiring team, or a 3rd party search firm (we’re great at it, btw), to coach a manager around this, and bring them back to Earth.

But that’s where his validity ends… professionals seeking work aren’t going to get a job through arguing for training or better HRIS systems. They’re going to get work by differentiating themselves from the herd, from working these software systems to their benefit, and from networking with internal employees or recruiters.

Here’s the disconnect: Experienced professionals probably learned to write a resume a while back, perhaps while they were in college or earlier. They were taught to use creative phrases and action words to describe what they do. They were taught to explain their work in a way that sets them apart, and to sell themselves creatively. The idea was to keep a manager’s eyes on your resume for more than, say, 7 seconds. At the time, it worked.

Today though, those creative words and that action language is exactly what a recruiter did not put in a search string. Too much creativity, and too much out of the box language is exactly what a resume scoring system is going to kick out.
Take a look at the job you’re applying to and your resume and ask yourself, how many keywords did I hit? How much experience would an algorithm think I have in x title? Are those titles mainstream, something a software tool will recognize, or are they specific to my employer?

Questions like this are the key. A little time, analytical thinking, and foresight can go a very long way in working a resume screener. Once done, that kind of specific attention and effort will go a long way with a recruiter, and often even with the hiring authority.
Finally, don’t forget the basics. 95% of hiring comes down to your network and who you know. Relationships and networking, not just who you know but who they know can go a long, long way. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Recruiting and consulting organizations like ours can be a strong referral source and we are always happy to help a marketable candidate that has a target in mind.

Tell us about your resume screening stories! Send them to

The Wall Street Journal

Software Raises Bar for Hiring


In an essay in this newspaper last fall, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and human resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, challenged the oft-heard complaint from employers that they can’t find good workers with the right skills. “The real culprits are the employers themselves,” he asserted.

“It is part of a long-term trend,” he adds in an interview, “and the recession caused employers to be able to be pickier, to get even more specific in the skills they think they can find outside the company and to cut back on training.”

Not surprisingly, his essay drew a lot of response. What did surprise Mr. Cappelli—as he describes in a book, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,” to be published in June—was the frequency of complaints about the hiring process itself, particularly the now-ubiquitous use of software to screen applicants.

A Philadelphia-area human-resources executive told Mr. Cappelli that he applied anonymously for a job in his own company as an experiment. He didn’t make it through the screening process.

Therein lies a problem.

The job market is more than a professional concern for Mr. Cappelli. His son, now 25 years old, graduated in 2010 with a degree in classics from St. John’s College and couldn’t find a job. Told that health care was hiring, he enrolled at New Orleans’s Delgado Community College and got a certificate in phlebotomy, learning how to draw patients’ blood. However, he discovered that work experience was essential to land a job. Also, many potential employers were consolidating two medical-related occupations into one, so a phlebotomy certificate alone wasn’t enough. He is still looking.

For the entire U.S. economy, a lot rides on correctly diagnosing today’s job market. If the chief problem is one of too many workers and not enough jobs, then today’s unemployment is treatable and there’s a case for more fiscal and monetary policy to stimulate demand, or at least for deferring fiscal austerity. But if the problem is chiefly a mismatch between skills employers need and those the jobless have, then more fiscal and monetary medicine won’t do much good. That kind of unemployment is treatable only in the long run—with better education and training.

Mr. Cappelli leans toward the first view but argues that there’s more to this. “For every story about an employer who can’t find qualified applicants, there’s a counterbalancing tale about an employer with ridiculous hiring requirements,” he says. In many companies, software has replaced recruiters, he writes, so “applicants rarely talk to anyone, even by email, during the hiring process.”
As in other parts of the economy, software has its benefits. It makes applying for a job easier. One doesn’t have to trudge down to the HR office to fill out forms. It has broadened the pool of applicants from which employers can choose. It saves money.

But at a time of widespread unemployment, the volume of applications is swamping HR departments, many of which have been downsized to cut costs. That has led employers to further automate hiring—and to become incredibly specific about experience and skills they seek. Screening software weeds out anyone whose application lacks particular key words.

With so much talent looking for work, why not get what you really need? Here’s why: Managers pile up so many requirements that they make it nearly impossible to find anyone who fits.

Neal Grunstra, president of Mindbank Consulting Group, a temporary-staffing company, calls this “looking for a unicorn.” Mr. Cappelli’s favorite email came from a company that drew 25,000 applicants for a standard engineering position only to have the HR department say not one was qualified. One job seeker said “he had been told he was perfect for a given position—except for the fact that his previous job title didn’t match that of the vacancy,” a title unique to the prospective employer.

As anyone who has applied for a job lately knows, the trick is parroting all the words in the job description but not just copying and pasting the text, which leads the software to discard the application. It’s a whole new skill: Clearing the software hurdle is as important as being able to do the job.

Much of what is broken in the U.S. job market will take a lot of work and time to fix. The current approach to training needs repair, for instance.

But some fixes are easier. Employers could, as Mr. Cappelli puts it, “back off the strict requirement that applicants need to have previously done precisely the tasks needed for the vacant job” and “see if they could do the same with some training or ramp-up time.” And employers could insist that vendors redo the software so it isn’t so picky and flags for personal consideration—rather than discards—an applicant who doesn’t quite fit the specifics but might be able to do the job.