Why keyword-scanning tools are used on resumes: A recruiter's perspective

Recruiter Tim Heard responds to Toni's blog on keyword-scanning tools used to sort through resumes. He explains why they're needed and how they can actually help qualified applicants.

Toni Bowers: Recruiter Tim Heard wanted to respond to my blog about the misuse of keyword scanning technology. Here is his response.

One of the things I really like about being about to write for TechRepublic is that it gives me the opportunity to peel back the curtain from time to time and give job seekers a peek at what happens on the inside of companies with respect to the screening and hiring process. So, I was very appreciative when Toni agreed to let me offer a differing perspective on her article, "Why you may be cheating your company when you use keyword scanning apps."

Without rehashing much of what I said in "Perception and Reality in Today's Job Market," I'll start by saying that all the recruiters I have ever known have cared about doing their jobs well. First, they get to know the hiring managers, who often are overworked and understaffed. They know that it's important to get people on board who can contribute to the team and who can be relied on to do a good job. Second, they often get to know the candidates too throughout the hiring process.

I got an email just yesterday from the first person I ever placed as a consultant. That was over ten years ago. I think his assignment maybe lasted six months, but we have stayed in touch since then. He's now a manager and was asking advice regarding how he could prepare himself to grow into positions of greater responsibility in the coming years. Interestingly, his boss back then, my first client, became someone I recruited for a BI leadership role just a couple of years ago when I was working as a contract recruiter for a large corporation. (He owned his own consulting company at the time when we first met.)

I can remember lots of stories (and have forgotten far more) of recruiters telling me how glad they were that so-and-so got hired, because of how badly that person needed a job. Or taking pride in how well someone was working out.

Is it true that  all recruiters, or that even the good ones become best friends with all the candidates that they meet? Of course not.  There aren't enough hours in the day, and most people have only so much emotional energy to invest. I'm starting with this assumption though, because you don't have to look far to find reader comments who believe that all recruiters are uncaring idiots, or that companies don't care about hiring good people. (Yes, I agree that some don't.   agree that some companies have commoditized people - especially contractors - and we can discuss that at length in another blog article.)

Why keyword search tools are helpful

Let's look at an example of an average recruiter, working for a fairly large corporation. Let's assume it's large enough that they are able to post positions on their website, and have a reasonably good applicant tracking system on the back end. Let's assume that the recruiter has 25 open positions to fill and each open position received several hundred online applications. (I have seen some positions receive over 500 applicants in a matter of just a few days.) If that recruiter spent just one minute skimming through every resume submitted, with no breaks for anything else...lets assume an average of 200 applicants per job...it would take 5000 minutes, or over 83 hours, just to skim through the resumes.

#1 Eliminating the 90%

I just got off the phone with DK Burnaby, a senior recruiter with Concur. He agreed with my basic premise. (I almost said, "He concurred," but thought that would be lame, so I didn't.)

The issue, from his perspective is one of prioritization. That is, you want to focus most of your time on the candidates that are most likely to be a fit.

The average recruiter, he said, probably is working on anywhere from 15 to 50 open requisitions (positions) at the same time. When you take out meetings, phone calls, interviews, extending offers, and all the other things that take up a recruiter's time, he or she may only have as little as 30 minutes per opening to spend screening candidates. Sticking with the one minute per resume assumption (though it often takes much longer) the recruiter could screen 30 resumes. If she found two she liked and contacted them out of the 30, they might be good candidates, but they might not be the "best" candidates, because there would be 170 that didn't get looked at.

DK primarily does technical recruiting. In his opinion, about 99 percent of the positions he supports benefit from using key word searches to help narrow the field. "Even for sales positions," he added, "there are generally some key words or phrases" that can be used to help narrow the field to "most likely" prospects for the position. In addition to key word searches, he often uses pre-screening questionnaires to further narrow the field. All of this is so that he can then spend more time reviewing the most likely prospects.

My personal experience is that, at best, the most likely candidates make up maybe ten percent of the applicants for any given position. Many are not even remotely qualified. When a corporate recruiter who's using a reasonably good system pulls up an applicant, she can see the applicant's entire history. Often, I'd see candidates who applied for every single position that a company had posted, with no regard to what the position requirements were. Also, it isn't unusual at all to post things like "local candidates only" or "must be able to work in the U.S. without sponsorship" and get a huge influx of resumes from Hyderabad, Moscow, and East Timor. I can remember posting a temporary, entry level customer service position a number of years ago that happened to require someone who could speak Spanish. In the ad, surrounded by stars, I said something like, "This is ONLY a temp position and the client will ONLY consider local candidates." It didn't matter, candidates from all over the world zeroed in on the word "Spanish" and sent me their resumes. My point is, that I don't want to spend my time on the 90% who aren't remotely qualified. Key word searches are one of several tools a recruiter can use to narrow the field.

#2 Tools help less experienced recruiters

I don't remember exactly what the situation was, but when I was still fairly new to technical recruiting, I had an opening for a Java developer that also required some sort of specific technical experience. I came across a guy who I thought looked promising, but was concerned because he didn't seem to have the specific word listed on his resume that I was looking for. When I spoke with him, I expressed concern that he might not be a good fit, because he didn't have that specific type of experience.

Apparently, he had dealt with a lot of similar recruiters in the past, who maybe were good at key word searches, but lacked a broader understanding of the positions they were filling. It happens. Even experienced recruiters find themselves venturing into water that's over their heads from time to time. Anyway, he unleashed on me, and let me know his opinion of recruiters in general (which wasn't good) and essentially said that if I had any brains, I'd understand that he DID have the experience I was looking for, but not listed in the way I was looking for it.

I apologized, and ended up forwarding his resume to the manager, even offering the manager a discount on the placement fee for that individual if he hired him, because I had underestimated his qualifications to begin with. The manager ended up interviewing him, but not extending an offer. It was a good learning experience for me though, and I was able to redeem myself in the eyes of the developer, as well as scoring some points with the hiring manager.

The thing is, there are tools that would have actually helped me identify that the candidate was a likely fit. I can remember working with a company quite some time ago that didn't yet have an applicant tracking system. That is, they were receiving all resumes by mail or fax, or else people could walk in and fill out applications. All logging and filing of resumes was done manually, which was a nightmare. I started doing some research, and hit on a product at the time that was the gold standard of applicant tracking systems. They had compiled a database of every skill known to man, and all the various ways that the skill might be listed. So, if I searched for ERP experience, it was bright enough to also flag anyone with any of the various ERP solutions listed on their resumes, taking into consideration the variety of ways many of them might be listed.

That was over 10 years ago.  There have been a lot of advances in the industry since then.  A good candidate management system can take a job description and create a profile of what the recruiter is looking for, then find candidates who generally match the profile.  That is, a system can differentiate between someone who leans more toward user interface development work, as opposed to someone who really is better at working on the back end and has really solid database skills.  They do more than look for a key word.  They can look at the total picture.  (Admittedly some do this well.  Others don't. )  The point though is that if the recruiter only knows to look for the acronym "ERP" because the job description says, "ERP experience required" the system can probably help, and also can probably differentiate between users, implementation team leads, developers, and so on.

Word searches don't make hiring decisions

Some time back in my history, I had a boss who was feeling some pressure to get a particular position filled that I was working on. He got online and found a bunch of resumes that listed a particular skill and emailed them to me with the instructions, "Call these  people."

Let's pretend the skill was Dataflex programming. (It wasn't. I just don't want to put a date on the search and then reflect back to *which* of my many previous bosses did this.) As I looked at the resumes, most listed Dataflex under education, or in statements like, "Some day I'd like to learn Dataflex." None were even remotely qualified for the opening I was working on, and it seemed unlikely that they even knew someone who was qualified. My chances of networking with them to connect with someone who was qualified were about the same as opening the phone book and calling random numbers.

My point is that someone has got to read and discern what the applicant has written. That's generally left to the recruiter as the first person who slogs his or her way through hundreds of resumes or more in order to find some worth screening. Ultimately though, there's always a hiring manager, who is an expert on what he or she needs, who is going to pass judgment on the job the recruiter has done of turning up good candidates. Let's face it, if the recruiter isn't turning up qualified people, the recruiter will be out of a job soon enough.

So, why not game the system then?

I see a lot of variants of this posted by disgruntled job seekers: "OK, so what I'll do is just list every key word under the sun on my resume, and then I'll get lots of calls."

That's possibly true. Of course, the people who are calling will most likely be idiots. Because if you have every skill under the sun listed, you're misrepresenting yourself and they should be able to see that. Furthermore, most of the calls you get will be a waste of your time, because they will be likely keyed in on some skill you listed that probably isn't even one of your strengths, or something you enjoy. "Yes sir. Thanks for calling, but it was 15 years ago when I programmed in COBOL, and I'm not interested in moving to India."

I used to regularly get emails from a candidate who was a master of gaming the system. Not only was his resume packed full of key words, he had his own website, also packed with key words, and had developed a resume blasting tool that he used to regularly spam countless recruiters and hiring managers. While I gave him an A for being creative and persistent, ultimately I ended up blocking his emails because I had interacted with him enough that I knew what his skills really were, and knew where to find him if I needed those skills. (I hate being spammed. I have come very close to blocking emails from a close relative who can't seem to resist forwarding every email to me that says "send this to 10 people you love," that Apple is giving away iPads, or that there's a bill going through Congress that would make owning an Afghan Hound illegal because it's unpatriotic.)

If you're qualified, these tools are your friend

This isn't rocket science. Good recruiters know that not everyone lists every single thing they know on their resume. They also understand that there are a lot of variations with respect to how a skill might be listed. For the ones that don't yet know this, various search tools can be a big help.

You can definitely make it easier for recruiters to find you by providing a few details about yourself. If you are applying for a technical position, having a technical skills summary near the top of your resume is a good idea. Here's a pretty good article on the subject, and here's a pretty good example for developers. I gravitate more toward the bulleted approach like those in the article with skills listed out to the right, rather than long columns of skills:

  • Languages:
  • Databases:
  • Operating Systems:
  • Software:

This approach takes up less space, and is easier for hiring managers to read. I think the examples provided in the article may be a bit over the top but wouldn't fault anyone for listing so much.

If you want to include a keyword section, that's fine. Rather than list everything under the sun, focus on variations of what you consider to be your strengths, as well as skills that may set you apart from the rest of the pack. Put it at the end of your resume, and call it something creative like, "Keyword List."  Here's another tip. If you are concerned about appearance, change the font color in the key word section to white. It's still text, and search engines will still find the keywords. If you list a skill though, be prepared to justify to someone at some point in the interview process why you listed it, especially if it happens to be the key skill that's required for the job.

Again, as a recruiter, I want to spend as much time as possible reading your resume rather than the resume of the person who majored in art history, sold farm equipment for the last ten years, and now wants to apply for mobile device testing position I'm trying to fill. I would rather actually even have time to call you on the phone and get to know something about you beyond what's on paper, than individually reading the resumes of all the people who indiscriminately blast resumes out for every position they see posted on the Internet.

After all, to paraphrase a really great editor I know, finding the right person for a job is about much more than just matching key words.