Applying for jobs online is easy, and more convenient than pounding the pavement, resume in hand, but it may also be keeping you from landing a job. That’s because a number of companies use applicant tracking systems to quickly and easily sort candidates, but those systems frequently have a fatal flaw: According to research by job search services provider Preptel, applicant tracking systems prevent about 75% of applicants from ever having their resumes seen by hiring managers, no matter how qualified those candidates may actually be.
“Nobody’s really talking about how the applicant tracking system is serving as a barrier for vets, and vets don’t really understand what they’re up against,” says Will Leineweber, the director of veterans career advocacy for Hirepurpose. “They don’t know what happens to their information when they put it out there; it disappears into a cloud and now they’re just floating around with everybody else and it’s a total crapshoot if they even get looked at.”
Applicant tracking systems work by stripping down resumes and turning them into data sets; they then sort that data so only those candidates who’ve met the system’s requirements make it to the next round in the hiring process. Unfortunately, these automated systems can only extrapolate the necessary data if it is presented in a very specific format. If a resume differs even slightly from what the computer believes is the “correct” setup, a candidate’s qualifications may never be recognized.
Many applicant tracking systems also have trouble reading images or charts. So while a graphic header might look nice, or a table may help information appear more organized, these style choices can be a candidate’s downfall if their resume is being fed through an automated system.
Text-only resumes have a better chance of getting through, but even keeping the format simple and clean isn’t always a surefire way to get it to the top of the pile. In addition to looking for a specific format, the most popular tracking systems also utilize keyword searches to sort applicants. Some systems, for example, won’t recognize an applicant’s experience if it’s listed under “Professional Experience” — instead, the system may look for “Work Experience,” and using a different heading will leave the candidate out in the cold. It’s also a good idea to make note of any keywords and phrases mentioned in the job listing, as those are likely the search terms programmed into the database to help identify ideal candidates.
Why do companies use these systems if they’re so troublesome for candidates? With larger companies facing hundreds, or even thousands, of applicants for each available opening, it is impossible for them to sort through all the resumes without the help an applicant tracking system can provide. Leineweber, a former recruiter, says some positions garner so many applications that a hiring manager may only look at every fifth or tenth resume, or only the first 50 that come in.
“Applicant tracking systems are very helpful tools to help us review resumes and manage candidate information in our recruiting and selection process,” says Jack McCarthy, a senior veterans recruiter for CarMax. “For hiring, it helps us to support hiring managers by keeping all of the candidate information organized in one tool. We work with hiring managers to share resumes that are kept in the system to ensure that they have what they need when they’re making a hiring decision.
“With more than 140 stores nationwide, a centralized resource like an applicant tracking system helps to keep everyone up to date on where candidates are for our open positions,” McCarthy continues.
Fortunately for CarMax applicants, the company doesn’t rely solely on their applicant tracking system to find qualified candidates. Understanding that there are candidates — veterans, specifically — whose resumes may not fit the standard mold, CarMax recruiters use the tracking system as only one of the tools in their arsenal when it comes to finding the right person to fill an open requisition.
“Recruiters review the applications that come in to our system to make sure we’re seeing the entire candidate pool and making the best match of talent to the open position and requirements,” McCarthy explains. “The systems allow us to see how many applications we’ve received for each of the positions that are open and keep them organized. We also have the ability to look up military candidates that are in our process, especially those who we’ve interacted with at hiring events.”
Other companies, like TD Bank, have taken a more hands-on approach to tracking where candidates are in the application process. “We have a great metrics team here, and they provide me with a weekly report that shows me what candidates have applied online, where they are in the recruitment process, and through which of our diversity partners they’ve applied,” explains Jocelyn Weyrauch, TD’s diversity talent advisor. “From this report, I compile a list of candidates who are still active in the recruitment process and work with our recruiters to monitor their progress. While all candidates need to go through the same screening process and meet the minimum qualifications of a job to move to the applicant stage, tracking these candidates at an individual level allows me to really see how our candidates from Hirepurpose are doing.”
Although this process takes a little more work than using a standard tracking system, for Weyrauch, it’s worth the extra effort: “If I have to spend the extra time having meaningful conversations with recruiters about the skills they are looking for in our veteran talent for the jobs they are applying to, and put those candidates in front of them when I see that they’ve applied, so be it.”
There are, of course, ways to help your resume escape the black hole even if the company you’ve applied to uses a more typical automated applicant tracking system.
“Any applicants, including veterans, will have greater success finding a job by combining their efforts (e.g., applications, networking, researching the company) and not just solely relying on their applications,” McCarthy says.
In addition to carefully formatting your resume and using keywords that even the most finicky databases will recognize, applying online allows you to send a longer resume, increasing your chances of getting through the system. Because the tracking system strips your experience down to minimal data, you can stretch your resume — which should typically be kept to one page — allowing you to include more detailed information, and thus more possible data for the system to extrapolate.
And applying online shouldn’t be your only attempted route to employment. Having someone advocate for you — whether a recruiter, a career coach like those at Hirepurpose, or a current employee at the company you’re hoping to work for — can help your resumé get into the right hands.
“You need to either know somebody in that company who can advocate for you, or find somebody in that company who can help you,” Leineweber says. “Shoot an email to somebody, or see if they have a military landing page, anything to help you get past the applicant tracking system.”
Adds McCarthy, “Human connection can definitely assist your efforts and is one of the ‘plays’ you should run to find the right job at the right company for you.”
More and more companies are working to find better ways to recruit vets — Home Depot is launching a microsite specifically for veteran applicants, while AT&T offers live webinars to aid veterans in finding the right opportunities within their company, but the tracking systems aren’t going away quite yet. Instead, veterans will need to make the best use of all possible avenues toward employment, from networking, job fairs, and recruiters, to, yes, online applications.
This article has been modified from its original version, which was published on Task & Purpose, the veterans news and culture site powered by Hirepurpose.