Is Applicant Tracking Software Rejecting Your Next Superstar?

Yesterday, I  was talking to a bright young man from California on the phone. Let’s call him Dave.

Dave has a law degree from a fine California university. He is outgoing and personable, and wants to use his law degree as a springboard to an HR career. He has no work experience in HR, but has worked for two years as a contract lawyer. He is willing to take a pay cut and start at the bottom in HR, and any HR department would be lucky to get him.

He literally can’t get in the front door anywhere. Computerized hiring programs are standing in the way.

The modern American economy contains a paradox. There is a glut of talent on the market, but companies everywhere report a shortage of skilled applicants. Intellectually lazy CEOs like to go on TV and complain that America isn’t producing people with the “right” skills, but the real culprits are their very own HR departments and applicant screening programs.

Peter Cappelli is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He has written a book you need to read: Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It. One of his main theses is that applicant tracking software has replaced human judgment in the hiring process and great candidates are being eliminated and jobs are going unfilled because of the way job descriptions are being written. Cappelli described the process in an interview: “(Traditionally) you asked a hiring manager to create a job description. There would be an HR person there to help him do it or to push back if they had requirements which were crazy or out of whack with the market. Now those folks are gone, and basically, those wish lists of hiring requirements get baked right into applicant tracking software.”

Why isn’t having a “wish list of hiring requirements” automated a good thing? Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to say about it: “(HR downsizing) 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 keywords … Managers pile up so many requirements that they make it nearly impossible to find anyone who fits.”

Computer programmers live in a strange, binary land of 1s and 0s. If any answer on your application doesn’t match what the program is looking for, the whole thing is kicked out and the game is over. Think “Donkey Kong.” Application screening programs aren’t looking for talent, they are trying to cull the online pile of resumes. Rejection is what makes them tick. Too bad if they might be rejecting the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

In fairness to HR departments, the discipline has been under incredible pressure to downsize and outsource for years, and being able to computerize the initial screening process has many advantages from a time and money standpoint. Also, some job seekers are far too promiscuous in their job search, blanketing the landscape with applications for jobs they aren’t remotely qualified for.

But too many are like Dave, great candidates for any number of openings who don’t have a chance without lying to the program (a very bad idea, by the way), or becoming experts at gaming the system. This isn’t right, and it needs to be fixed. How? Broaden your job descriptions. Invest in hands-on recruiting and resume screening. Network better (if you are in any size city in the U.S., a good candidate for one of your openings is five minutes from you right now). Take in-person applications. Use search firms and hiring agencies. Encourage employee referrals. Go old school.

And fire the hiring computers.