At a recent job networking event here, Tim Woodfield scanned the crowd, squinting at the tiny name tags people were sporting. A laid-off IT worker, he wanted to find a contact from a company to which he had applied.
"You've got to have somebody inside," he said.
Woodfield, of Victoria, Minn., learned that lesson after applying for a different job. He didn't have an inside contact and that left him left vulnerable to hiring software filters, which rejected him.
If you've been turned down for a job in recent years, it might have been courtesy of the company's hiring software. The software systems winnow down a pool of job applicants before a human — namely, a hiring manager — ever lays eyes on candidates' resumes.
Some jobseekers find the software systems to overly aggressive — and maddeningly impersonal. But human resources professionals say the software filters are crucial for managing the deluge of job applications they continue to receive.
Since the late 1980s, big companies have been using software to help them screen out unqualified job candidates. But the Great Recession put the practice much more in the public view. Thousands of laid-off job seekers suddenly found themselves chewed up and spat out by the software systems.
In Woodfield's case, the applicant tracking system disqualified him because his resume lacked a key phrase: "HR Services." That's what a company representative later told him.
"[I] did an hour phone interview," he recalled. "They said, 'Well, Tim, you didn't have this one buzzword, and I passed over your resume, but now that I've talked to you, I know you can do the job.'"
To fight back, Woodfield turned to other software. He uses a tool called Wordle, which helps him identify the key words in a job description. He then piles those words into his resume in hopes that the digital gatekeeper lets him through.
"It really is a game," he said.
Indeed, successfully winning a job interview in an age of such software is all "about getting noticed," said Amy Ihlen, a global strategy director for Infor and HCM products in St. Paul. Formerly known as Lawson, the company makes hiring software, among other products.
"It gives me some information to make the right decision," she said.
SCREENING OUT GOOD CANDIDATES
Ihlen said her company's clients often want the software to provide them with questions to screen applicants. For example, some want to ask candidates how past co-workers would rate their performance. Hiring managers find those questions helpful, she said.
Ihlen said organizations want these filters because, even several years into the economic recovery, they are still dealing with hundreds of job candidates for open positions.
Ann Costello, a Twin Cities executive recruiter, said a large share of applicants seem to be unqualified.
"I will put out an ad and get responses from bartenders or customer service agents for roles that require an accounting degree and a CPA," she said.
Costello suspects that the requirements for drawing unemployment benefits, which include applying for multiple jobs, encourage some people to apply for jobs they have no chance of winning.
But Costello acknowledges that hiring software makes errors.
"The reality is that good candidates are probably being screened out," she said.
That has created opportunity for Costello, as accounting and finance professionals have hired her to help them dodge the software systems and talk directly to hiring managers.
Plenty of workers don't get that much help. Among them is Woodfield, whose resume lacked the right buzzword. However, his luck has turned.
After 13 months of unemployment, Woodfield received two job offers Wednesday. One of them came from the company where software filters previously rejected him.
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