Is CV-scanning ATS useful or not

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) means having to tweak the CV for each application made, which is commonplace and often necessary manually, regardless of potential IT involvement. The candidate should ensure the CV uses the same phrases that show up in the advert. This includes relevant experience, qualifications and so on. For example, if the vacancy is for an Account Manager, this must appear where appropriate. ‘During my time in customer services, I acted as Account Manager for X company.’

Many recruiters and employers talk about ATS. Some have a vague idea what it is, some none, some a great deal. To be fair this depends on the person’s position in the organisation: is the CEO required to understand what it is let alone how it works? Not really. Indeed, in some very large corporations, many HR directors – apparently, if we believe what we read – often don’t understand it inside out. This raises to me an obvious question: managers at different levels manage the recruitment process but ultimately, at Director level, shouldn’t that person have at least a passing interest or understanding, given that they set strategy and criteria for the type of employees? Arguably yes. So why don’t they (in some cases)?

Some survey figures have suggested that a CV is only seen/read by a person 28% of the time. The rest, it is scanned by ATS that match it against keywords that are used in the job description. It has to be said that survey results vary and are almost certainly never going to be 100% accurate; but generally manual intervention is on the low side. Whilst not all recruiters use ATS, it is becoming more popular and commonplace. In September 2016, recruiterbox.com says:

  • 75% of large companies use ATS to review and rank CVs before a recruiter sees them
  • 70% of resumes never see human eyes
  • 76% of job seekers prefer to apply through a career site

The figures may be up for some debate but let’s take them as read – what does this mean for candidates’ applications, and can they improve them to help get through the next stage(s)?

The crux I think – and arguably for both companies offering and using ATS, the difficult sell – is that ultimately ATS is subjective and never fool-proof. ATS companies offer their technology to manage the client’s online authorisation process, vacancy and advert templates, application forms and document library. But this whole process working relies on the input. We’ve all heard of “garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) in the field of computer science or information and communications technology. As one reliable source points out, computers, since they operate by logical processes, will unquestioningly process unintended, even nonsensical, input data (“garbage in”) and produce undesired, often nonsensical, output (“garbage out”).

It would be factually untrue to say that GIGO never applies to ATS: the computer is built by humans, ATS is built and programmed by humans, applicants are humans: by definition, the whole process is fundamentally prone to fault if not failure.

Some of this also isn’t about simply the extent to which ATS may work, it’s also about the extent to which companies use it to recruit, and simply assume it works. Channel 5 recently broadcast “Secrets of The SAS”. Many of the ex-SAS were followed after they had left; most had gone on to do other things which were completely unconnected, including tertiary education; yet most had come from broken homes. Moreover, those who had moved to tertiary but also those who had not had all done well in their career. The point was explicitly made: education doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence or common sense.

The point of this is that simply by using keywords, companies assume they filter out persons less suitable. They often ask for a degree, project management certificate, institute membership, and so on. The applicant who hasn’t got these will immediately be filtered out based on the company’s arbitrary notion that these things matter more than, say, intuition or lateral thinking.

We need to accept that ATS is very restricted and restrictive. Even if we flip GIGO 180 degrees, the keywords that are going in are fixed, they are what they are. They’re not there to be interpreted or synonymed by the candidate. They are either flagged or not. Black and white, no grey.

If ATS was not only flawless but vital, many CEOs and highly successful entrepreneurs would have sunk without trace: Richard Branson, Philip Green, Duncan Bannatyne and many more would have been filtered out by ATS and as a direct result many thousands would have had to be employed elsewhere.

The problem with the whole ATS process is that, whether candidates like or agree with it, or not, it is in place and recruiters use it. Cynics will argue – I think validly – that recruiters actually use it to make their life easier. Grey is of no interest; working out nuance and candidates’ individual foibles are time consuming; meeting every client pre-screen is impossible, I accept that. But recruiters also need to – or should be pressed to – accept that ATS is not only weak but far too rigid. It’s filtering process is bordering on the algorithmic and inhuman.

So does ATS have a future? Short term, certainly. Ironically, quite possibly into the future too precisely because of the increasingly data-driven world we live in. But it should always be treated sceptically by candidates. Accept it as a part of your recruitment life but also accept that it’s incumbent on you to question it: request feedback, contact companies, submit support statements, ensure your LinkedIn is always fresh and updated. None of these will override the influence of ATS on an application but they will show that the candidate knows that recruitment shouldn’t begin and end with a rigid piece of software developed by a flawed human.
If you ever need reassurance, call Richard or Philip and ask for their views on ATS!!

Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

1 Comment to “Is CV-scanning ATS useful or not”

  1. Paul Hichens says:

    Thank you for your very interesting article Nigel.

    You mention that those figures are “up for debate,” and while it is true that ATS is more prevalent now than it has ever been, and especially with the largest companies, rather than smaller firms, those figures do seem excessively high.

    One distinction to make is the difference between a ‘recruiter,’ and an ‘employer.’

    The latter is the real decision maker, whereas the former is usually just a middleman.

    Lots of recruitment companies do use automated software to match candidates with jobs, and some employers do too (especially larger companies), but it’s by no means across the board. And frequently it is a matter of horses of horses.

    For example, if a recruitment company has 50,000 candidates on its system, it makes sense to use software (even imperfect software) to try to match applicants with jobs. On the other hand, if you are a HR director who had just spent thousands of pounds advertising executive posts would you want to examine the application yourself? Or would you leave this important decision in the hands of the machine?

    Similarly, when it comes to you personally applying for a post, would you really want to pin your hopes on a highly paid executive job on ATS?

    It’s a valid question – and some people actually do just that! But as Nigel quite rightly points out ATS has its flaws, and as well as being unable to find the right nuances and read between the lines, if you rely too much on ATS the result is frequently a CV that comes across as contrived and artificial, rather than one which really speaks to the employer in natural, flowing and powerful terms.

    Ultimately, it is worth remembering that the person who decides whether or not to give you a job is not a machine, and not even a (middleman) recruiter. On the contrary, the real decision maker in the actual employer – a real person, who at executive level is far more likely to read your CV, than if you were a lower-level worker on a recruitment company database.

    We work with the real employer in mind, and this is one reason why we get better results..

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