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Staffing Management: Searching for the 'Silver Bullet'

Steve Taylor   1/1/2008
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Vol. 4, No. 1

In resumes, the last word won't be MS Word. But what will it be?

There's widespread agreement that there's no flawless method available for staffing professionals to handle hundreds if not thousands of job applicants when resumes can't be adapted readily into a company's applicant tracking system (ATS). The makers of ATSs struggle with the fact that the very clients who expect them to offer foolproof automation frustrate that possibility with the peculiarities of their own web sites. Meanwhile, applicants visit site after site, attempting to complete "standard" applications by spinning their employment records in ways they imagine will improve their chances.

And the recruiting industry dreams of a "universal" resume in a magic format that will tell everyone everything. "In some sense, today's 'universal resume' is one formatted in Microsoft Word," says Chuck Allen, director of the HR-XML Consortium, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the development of HR software interoperability standards. A Word document is convenient, Allen says, but "the disadvantage is that there isn't any embedded intelligence in the document, and [so] it cannot be directly utilized by many recruiting systems and databases without processing.

"Fortunately," Allen continues, "there is some quite sophisticated resume processing software to do this work." Talent Technology Corp., of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, makes one such product, called Resume Mirror. Explains Praj Patel, the company's executive vice president for marketing, "The software grabs that resume, disassembles it, analyzes it and turns it into a structured format with which it populates [a company's applicant forms.]"

Robert Ruff, president of The Sovren Group of Houston, says that with his company's Resume/CV Parser, "the first productivity gain is handling the resume before it gets to the staffing professional. Our concept is: Don't let them get to the inbox [unprocessed]. The only resume you need is the resume of the guy you're going to place. All the others are wasted time and money."

Resume parsing programs are, as Allen said, sophisticated. Patel asserts that Resume Mirror melds the hiring company's own position description into the evaluation. "The software takes all the relevant terms and ranks every existing resume against every existing term in the job description." Thus, the applications are "graded" before the staffing professional gets them. Ruff says Resume/CV Parser will "test the job objective to see if the skill set listed is consistent with the skill set in the resume and if the management level is consistent with the experience. We will tag it, 'Warning: candidate seems to be applying for a job in engineering but his experience is IT.' Or 'applying for high-level management, and experience is low-level.' " Patel and Ruff acknowledge that their systems aren't perfect. "Resume parsing is the equivalent of the world's fastest, smartest most accurate typist," Ruff says. "We don't do anything a human can't do; we just do it faster and in some cases better."

Web Portals: Cutting Both Ways

While many companies allow candidates to upload resumes, it's not uncommon for companies to force applicants to enter information manually and to answer company-specific questions that may not be appropriate for the beginning of the recruitment process. This may populate the application fields properly but it likely renders the submission into a form that only that company--and maybe only one of that company's divisions--can use. Another problem, says Rony Kahan, co-founder of Indeed, a Stamford, Conn.-based web site that searches other sites for job offerings, is that "each company [site] collects its own information, and the job seeker must enter the same information on multiple sites."

"It takes too much time," Ruff agrees. For applicants, "the cost benefit [ratio] seems to diminish after one or two times." A promising but discouraged candidate may not apply to a third company. In a tightening talent market, Patel says, "The experiences of the candidates are starting to become more front-of-mind for the recruiters."

Ruff points out another limitation of application portals: "With candidates inputting the data and [without] having the resume parsed," applicants simply answer questions the way they think will get them hired.

The HR-XML Consortium, of which the Society for Human Resource Management has been a member, sponsors a discussions of issues in applicant tracking. In one entry last August, Allen wrote: "The desire by employers and recruiters to capture information beyond what is within resumes is the main reason job seekers will never see a 'universal resume' that completely eliminates tiresome 'apply-online' forms.

"However, many more sites could make it easier for candidates by incorporating resume parsing web services that are invoked when a job seeker uploads his or her resume." An added advantage to this approach, he says, is that the parsing systems return a readable resume for use when companies begin to develop broader-scoped profiles of job candidates. Patel, Ruff and Kahan agree that a web portal paired with resume parsing software is the best approach today. "That's an extra step that ideally we wouldn't have, but it's necessary for the medium term," claims Kahan.

Go to the Video? Let's Not

With the first YouTube generation seeking jobs, recruiting professionals are getting many more queries about video resumes. It may seem irresistible to get a look at a candidate without having to schedule an interview. "It's new, it's sexy," acknowledges Ruff, "[but] it's a step backward in efficiency."

Kahan says, "It's a little bit hyped-up right now," but, one drawback is that recruiting professionals can't go through a hundred video resumes in five minutes, as they can with paper resumes, "to get rid of the obvious bad fits." "We don't look at that as being the next 'silver bullet,' " says CEO Mark Anderson of Execunet, a recruiting and networking service for executives based in Norwalk, Conn. Anderson says video is more useful for a company trying to brand itself among potential employees, rather than the other way around. That way, Anderson points out, "It's not an issue of discrimination."

And that's a big issue. Patel asks, hypothetically, "How do you prove that a recruiter who looked at a video on a Facebook site showing a young person of Asian origin--how can you prove that didn't have an impact on the hiring process? How can you obliterate that from your brain?"

Video aside, Facebook, MySpace and similar social networking sites may offer the most promising developments in the recruiting space.

Today, the content of submitted resumes and web site data is kept within a company, sometimes making it hard for candidates to update the information. But, Kahan says, with social networking sites, "A job seeker doesn't have to create multiple resumes. He can create [a resume] in one place and keep it updated, and all employers can get access [to it]."

For staffing professionals, "The go-to place will be [candidates'] LinkedIn profiles or their Facebook profiles," Allen predicts. Rather than something a job applicant sends a company, a resume will become "something the applicant can make available, openly on the Internet or through the private protection channels of the networking site."

The number of such sites is growing. Last November in Minneapolis, Internet entrepreneur Lief Larson proclaimed his company Lyro "the business alternative to today's existing social web sites, [designed] to provide business professionals with the means to be found, promote themselves, network and learn about new opportunities online."

LinkedIn has been plowing that field for several years. In 2008, the fast-growing Mountain View, Calif., networking site plans to allow staffing professionals to add notes to the resumes they find on Senior Product Manager Sunil Saha says, "The recruiter will be able to share that information" with company teammates, who may add comments.

And although the resume will remain on the LinkedIn site, Saha says, the added comments "will be private to you and your team." He promises, "It's going to change the paradigm of people's professional representation."

A changed paradigm seems inevitable, but Talent Tech's Patel wonders, "How do we incorporate these [nonstandard] resumes into standard systems?" Social networking sites often contain highly personal information posted voluntarily by the owner. Much of it might be useful to prospective employers, but it could also be risky to view it. Patel asks, "What is a recruiter to do with that, and what are the legal ramifications?" Or, as Allen puts it, "What if I find a different version of the truth?"

Ideally, Kahan predicts job applications with "more structured data, as opposed to a free-form. There will be a set of standard fields that we capture for resumes." Sovren's Ruff isn't so sure. "Resumes have gotten less standard in electronic form than they were in paper form," he says. "We would hardly have a business if applicants had the ability and willingness to maintain their resumes in HR-XML. People receiving those resumes wouldn't have need of our software." Ruff predicts that future job hunters will need two types of resumes: "One optimized for automated processing and the other that says, 'This is how I really am' formatted [as a document]. That's the one they need for sending to human beings." Allen, whose HR-XML Consortium studies the future of the resume process full-time, calls the rise of social networking sites, "Definitely transformational, but don't look for anything clean to happen. It'll be messy, messy, messy."

Steve Taylor's most recent article for Staffing Management magazine was "Red-Carpet Treatment" in the October-December 2007 issue.

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 What About PDF Files?


While it's true that most submitted resumes are Microsoft Word documents, Robert Ruff of The Sovren Group says there are two classes of job seekers who tend to use Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) files: applicants at the high executive level … and those at entry-level.

"They're used at the low end, by somebody coming out of high school or college, because school computers typically are Mac," with a built-in option for saving documents in PDF.

"At the high end," Ruff says, executives put resumes in PDF "because they're harder to change." A Sovren document titled "Tips for Electronic Resumes" advises, "Do not use PDF. The PDF standard is a 'broken' standard. Text cannot be correctly extracted from many, many PDF files. As a result, if you use a PDF resume, there is a non-trivial chance that your resume will be unusable."