Thursday, February 16, 2012

What is the ATS Black Hole, and Why You Should Care

ATS stands for “applicant tracking system.” The bottom line is that there are too many people applying for jobs. What would you do if you were an employer who posted a job listing—and received 100 applications a day?  For a solid month?

Application numbers like this aren’t uncommon because new media (Facebook, Twitter, and various internet portals) have made information about jobs more accessible. We’re in an economic recession (or a depression, or a “jobless recovery,” depending on the financial analyst of your choice)—which means more people than ever are seeking work, applying in a wider range of geographical areas, and sometimes submitting applications out of desperation rather than real qualification. At the same time, workforces have been slashed—so the number of people dealing with those 100-a-day applications are fewer and more stressed out than ever before.

ATS systems (and there are many of them available for employers to purchase) scan  your resume, seeking a “match” with (a) buzzwords the employer has placed in the job advertisement, (b) words or phrases the company that created the ATS has specified, and (c) words or phrases that the employer has specified. The more matches, the higher a score your resume gets. The higher your score, the higher the chance that a human being will actually read what you’ve written.

Everyone using ATS systems acknowledges that it's quite possible the best candidates will not be the computer's top picks. A candidate could write a "perfect" resume (from the human employer's perspective) and still not get an interview--because the candidate did not speak to the computer first, and got axed from the lineup for the human being to look at.

So you have a “Catch-22” situation. On the one hand—avoid filling your resume with buzzwords. On the other hand—the more buzzwords the computer recognizes, the more likely a human being is to read your resume.

Below is a set of articles explaining what ATS systems are, and how to accommodate them as you apply for jobs.
  • A Wikipedia article describing what these systems are:
  • An article from a subsidiary of The Wall Street Journal giving you a sense of how widespread the use of ATS is, and why they’re so popular:
  • An article suggesting ways to incoporate your understanding of ATS into writing your resume:
  • Why you should probably avoid pdf copies of your resume:
As somebody who has sat facing a stack of 10 resumes to review each workday for a month (just 10!), I will side with Jen Kennings, the Jeopardy! champion who was finally beaten by the Watson computer a year ago, when he said "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords" (an allusions to a Simpsons episode).

As somebody who wants to promote and advocate our brilliant Niagara University English Department undergraduates as well-prepared for the job market, I want to be sure you understand what's going on out there, and plan accordingly.

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