The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- July 30, 1998
For Job Seekers These Days, Computers Are a First Hurdle
By ELLEN JOAN POLLOCK
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
It used to be that when it came to drafting a resume, the decisions were
pretty basic. Plain white or buff. One page or two. Plain typewriter font or
elegant Roman script.
Those days are gone.
Today, every word counts -- and which words a job seeker uses can
determine whether a human being even lays eyes on his or her resume.
That is because, at many large companies, computers are taking the first
crack at winnowing down the ever-mounting stacks of resumes.
Even the plain-white-vs.-buff question can get dicey. Jack Quigley learned
that the hard way when Fidelity Investments' system spit out his resume
three months ago. The company sent him a note explaining that it couldn't
be scanned because of "formatting peculiarities." He had used some bold,
bullets, "an underline here or there," and yes, buff-colored paper, says Mr.
Quigley, who was laid off from his benefits analyst job at Reynolds Metals
Co. in Richmond, Va., last fall. "That's going to blow most people's
resumes out of the water," he says.
Actually, Mr. Quigley was lucky. Fidelity's note invited him to rejigger
resume and resubmit it to its National Resume Processing Center
("Attention: Rescanning"). Many job candidates never find out whether
their resumes make the digital cut, and most never know whether their
resumes have been scanned by computer or human eyes.
Hundreds of large companies -- Sony Corp., Coca-Cola Co.,
International Business Machines Corp., Paine Webber, NationsBank
Corp., Avis Rent A Car Inc., Microsoft Corp., Pfizer Inc., Shell Oil Co.,
and Staples Inc., to name just a few -- use types of text-searching or
artificial-intelligence software to track resumes. Midsize companies are
also beginning to use the software, as vendors start marketing cheaper
Web-based versions. The systems, which use optical scanners to input
resumes and then search for skills that match a job description, make a lot
of sense from an employers' perspective. They are being bombarded by
resumes from all directions -- mail, fax, e-mail. And in this era of low
unemployment, companies need all the help they can get identifying talent
quickly, especially in high-tech fields.
Allied Signal Corp. filled more than 30% of approximately 2,500 job
openings from a computerized resume pool in the first half of this year,
says manager Patrick Feehan. Using a system marketed by Interactive
Search Inc., he estimates he can prune the time it takes to fill an opening
by at least a month. In the past, Allied Signal has received about 100,000
resumes a year at about 100 different sites. The system solves a problem
faced by hiring managers in any decentralized company, says Mr. Feehan:
that "the perfect resume might be in someone else's file cabinet."
But from a job seeker's standpoint, resume scanning adds another hefty
dollop of uncertainty into a process already chock-full of anxiety. The
phenomenon might seem mundane, or even amusing, if the consequences
weren't so potentially damaging to a person's chances of having a resume
end up on the desk of a living, breathing hiring manager. Typically, a hiring
manager sets up a search request and tells the computer whether specific
qualifications are required or just desired. Then many of the
resume-scanning systems rank the candidates they pluck out of the system.
Some, like Restrac Inc., Lexington, Mass., one of the two leading vendors
specializing in such recruiting systems, place a number or percentage next
to a candidate's name indicating how much of a hiring manager's wish list is
reflected in the resume. So if you have 97% of the qualifications requested
and five others have 98%, you may be out of luck if the manager has the
patience to plow through only five resumes before lunch.
At meetings of Golden Handshakes, a support group in Virginia, many of
the unemployed middle-age middle managers "know nothing about finding
a job, nothing about writing a resume," says Steve Stahl, one of the
group's founders. Resume scanning, he says, is "pretty scary to them
overall... . It's just another bit of machinery that gets in the way of the
human-touch process. In other words, if you have a human being reading a
resume, you have at least a chance of getting through to them." A
scannable resume, he says, makes "everybody exactly the same."
Not exactly. Some job candidates are trying to beat the system. The trick,
they say, is to list every conceivable skill and to guess which words the
computer is likely to be looking for. It is impossible to know for sure, of
course. For one thing, the candidate is at the mercy of the description
typed into the system by the hiring manager. For another, different
software packages operate differently. But savvy job seekers often make
a stab at it by using as many buzz words and snippets of industry jargon as
they can to describe their skills.
Some career counselors, including Virginia Lord of Easton, Mass., suggest
sticking a blob of so-called key words at the top of a resume. "It makes it
easier for the machinery or the computer to scan your resume," she
explains. "If you make it easier for that match to occur -- bingo."
Eddy Currents and Ingot
That's the route Horace Lecky chose. Mr. Lecky put the following series
of words at the top of his resume, with the hope that it will help him land a
job in the non-destructive-testing or quality-assurance fields:
"Management, supervision, NDT, nondestructive testing, UT, ultrasonics,
ET, eddy currents, PT, die penetrants, MT, magnetic particle, metals,
aluminum, steel, foundry, casting, ingot, rolling, plate, sheet, molten metal,
training, quality assurance, process improvement, quality control, TQM,
procedure development, field testing, research, technical service."
Mr. Lecky, formerly with Reynolds Metals, crafted his scannable resume
after Philip Morris rejected his first as unscannable. He also removed all
bold type, underlining and other features meant to soothe the eyes of an
overburdened human-resources screener.
Still, he isn't entirely comfortable with his handiwork. "It's not easy
but from what I understand, it doesn't matter how easy it is to read.
Nobody's going to read it anyway. They're just scanning for key words,"
he says. "I'm not sure that just words, individual words, describe a person
as well as sentences would... . There's a thought that's conveyed in a
sentence that I don't think is transferred in bits and pieces. It's like sound
bites on TV."
It's possible, of course, to choose the wrong words. Some job counselors
suggest mimicking the words a company uses in its help-wanted
advertisement. Ms. Lord cautions that a computer looking for a candidate
with a Master's of Engineering Administration degree might overlook
someone who just writes M.E.A. on his or her resume. (Most systems will
pick up abbreviations for standard degrees, though.)
In addition, computers can be pretty rigid. For some jobs, an M.E.A.
might be just as good as an M.B.A., for instance, but if a hiring manager
tells the computer to look for the latter degree, some completely qualified
M.E.A.-degree holders would be out of the running.
Brave New World
"If you're going to present yourself as working in human-resources
management, you don't want to use words like personnel," says Debarah
Wilson, who taught resume writing in Silicon Valley and Texas. She notes
that purchasing can be procurement and that if your experience is a little
old, "you might not call a product launch the same thing that you would
She recalls counseling a group of laid-off IBM managers who used
outdated lingo that wouldn't have registered with computers looking for
up-to-date key words. "The terminology and the technology had
changed," Ms. Wilson says, "They had to be retrained on how to present
their experience." She and others think resume scanning can be particularly
tricky for older workers. "If you're 50 years old, if you use old-style
terminology, one, you may not get the hit, and two, you may begin to date
The resume-scanning companies say that all this obsessing is not really
necessary. Their computers, they insist, are no dummies. "Preparing a
scannable resume is easy; like the traditional-style resume, you focus on
format and content," says Resumix Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., Restrac's
biggest competitor, on its Internet site. "The more skills and facts you
provide, the more opportunities you'll have for your skills to match
Job seekers don't have to be overly concerned, says Resumix executive
Randy Reynolds, because "our artificial-intelligence-based extraction
engine uses hundreds of thousands of rules that help extrapolate out what
your experience and skills are from natural language." Resumix, a
subsidiary of Ceridian Corp., says its system is bright enough to
understand the difference between the statements "I worked for a doctor"
and "I was a doctor." Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, director of marketing for
Restrac, says his topics library system would recognize that a candidate
who wrote Java, Perl, HTML, CGI, PPP or SLIP on their resume would
probably have Internet experience.
So why worry? Such explanations may make some job candidates rest
easier. But it's hard -- if not impossible -- to know what will work.
Resume-scanning companies and outplacement counselors often offer
conflicting advice. Mr. Mancusi-Ungaro argues strenuously against Mr.
Lecky's blob technique. His system highlights the words in a resume that
are relevant for a search, he points out. "Therefore if you have that block
of key words at the top of the resume, you're not giving the recruiter much
context. It doesn't really help differentiate you among other candidates."
Mr. Reynolds, director of business partnerships at Resumix, on the other
hand, says that the key-word block can be "helpful," although it's more
important if a candidate's resume is being perused by Resumix's less
Career counselor Ms. Lord suggests that job candidates have two
resumes, a people resume and a computer resume. Others think a
separate, scannable resume is unnecessary.
Some outplacement counselors do worry that such finely honed searches
can knock qualified clients out of the running. One counselor says that his
experience as a human-resources manager at two retail grocery businesses
would probably qualify him for similar work at a hospital or bank, but that
if his resume was scanned, he would likely be assigned a low score
"because I wouldn't have bank key words or hospital key words."
That's part of the point, says David Wagman, chairman of Interactive
Search in Los Angeles. "From a recruiter's perspective, if I have 10
banking [candidates], why would I want to look at somebody who's not?
Yes, you got screened out, but that's the way its supposed to work."
There is also the issue of how the competing systems differ. When Amdahl
Corp. in Sunnyvale was in the market for a new system a few years ago it
tried an experiment. It did an identical search for a software engineer with,
among other skills, C++ and Unix kernel experience -- through both
Resumix (which it had been using) and Restrac. The results, says Amdahl
staffing manager June Dean, were "eye opening." Resumix offered up four
candidates and Restrac about 30. She found Restrac to be more flexible
and switched. Mr. Reynolds, of Resumix, says that a lot of his customers
"are looking for fewer qualified candidates to deal with. The advantage of
our system is being able to pick out the best candidates based on a wider
variety of skills."
'Not an Exact Science'
Missing a qualified candidate is "always a concern," says Mr. Feehan of
Allied Signal. But, he adds, "did we miss people when they came in on
paper? Yeah." Mr. Feehan says that running a search "is not an exact
science, so you've really got to play with it."
Even for job seekers, there can be upsides. A computer doesn't
discriminate. It doesn't care whether a candidate is an African-American
woman or a Muslim man. It may, however, be looking for a Harvard
Business School Graduate, who once worked at Netscape and lives in the
94025 ZIP code. If a candidate went to Yale, worked at Yahoo! and lives
in Maine, he may be stuck.
But resume scanning can also mean that a job seeker is never completely
out of the running. The expression, "we'll keep your resume on file," now
actually means something because job seekers often remain in
computerized resume pools long after they have applied for a job. The
resume, conceivably, can pop up for another opportunity.
That's a little bit better than the old days, says Mr. Quigley of Richmond,
when sometimes a candidate's best bet was to send a resume to a hiring
manager who was "not really compulsive about cleaning his desk off. The
longer your resume sat on somebody's desk, the better your chances."
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