The New Age of Hiring: AI Is Changing the Game for Job Seekers
When I was growing up, way before artificial intelligence captured the zeitgeist, applying for a job was relatively simple: Print out a fancy resume, dress smart and be ready to interview, in person.
Those old rules no longer apply.
Over the last two decades, digital technologies have radically transformed the employment landscape. Automated software, colossal professional databases and one-click applications now dominate the hiring and recruitment process.
If you've been job hunting recently, chances are you've interacted with a resume robot, a nickname for an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS. In its most basic form, an ATS acts like an online assistant, helping hiring managers write job descriptions, scan resumes and schedule interviews. As artificial intelligence advances, employers are increasingly relying on a combination of predictive analytics, machine learning and complex algorithms to sort through candidates, evaluate their skills and estimate their performance. Today, it's not uncommon for applicants to be rejected by a robot before they're connected with an actual human in human resources.
The job market is ripe for the explosion of AI recruitment tools. Hiring managers are coping with deflated HR budgets while confronting growing pools of applicants, a result of both the economic downturn and the post-pandemic expansion of remote work. As automated software makes pivotal decisions about our employment, usually without any oversight, it's posing fundamental questions about privacy, accountability and transparency.
For job seekers, AI-powered hiring software is a black box.
You might commit to a time-consuming online application only to be ghosted or receive a generic rejection email without feedback. "No one really understands what's happening to them as they navigate the process," says Mitra Ebadolahi, senior project director for economic justice at Upturn, a technology and equity nonprofit. That's disempowering, she adds.
Technology, though, is a curse and a blessing, depending on how it's wielded and who's wielding it. An array of online tools — such as resume-boosting software that improves keyword-matching and generative AI platforms that draft cover letters — are helping applicants avoid HR's "no" pile, the point of no return. Plus, with algorithm-based career platforms like LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed, there's more access to job postings than ever before. Cyberspace is crowded with ways to adapt to this brave new world.
When I ask experts whether automation will completely take over hiring, most say recruitment is a human-driven process. Tailoring your application for an ATS just helps you get a foot in the door, says Ankur Chaudhari, product lead for Jobscan, an online tool that optimizes resumes. Chaudhari compares the process to an entrance exam, like the GMAT. Even if you score high, you'll still need to compete with other students for a top-ranking business school. If you score low, you'll never have the chance to show how qualified you really are.
Job seekers will always be the underdogs in the hiring process, with or without AI. By knowing the rules of the game, you won't change that fact, but you could get a leg up.
Kind regards, robot
Lauren Milligan, an Illinois-based career coach and resume writer, works with clients who've been out of the job market for some time. Disenchanted by the idea of being evaluated by AI, they enlist her business, ResuMayday, for help.
"Job seekers are behind the eight ball in every stretch," Milligan says.
That's because of an unfamiliar, and frankly impersonal, application process. A machine screens the majority of resumes that travel from an IP address to an employer's database.
For larger corporations handling thousands of resumes, automation can relieve burdensome administrative tasks and increase efficiency while cutting costs. Nearly 99% of Fortune 500 companies filter candidates through a major ATS such as Workday, Taleo, Jobvite, Greenhouse or Lever. Automated tools might be used during multiple stages in the hiring process — including in skill appraisal or personality assessment, or even to monitor body language during an interview or review social media accounts.
Most employers don't use a system right off the shelf: They buy tools from third-party platforms and then customize the algorithms for their recruitment needs.
For example, companies like Microsoft and the accounting firm Moss Adams enlist the platform Humanly to carry out automated chats and virtual interviews with candidates. Humanly doesn't take over the employment process, according to CEO Prem Kumar. It acts more like a "sherpa," or guide, for recruiters, helping them take notes in the ATS, write emails and carry out reference checks of candidates, he says.
Automated hiring tools are so inexpensive now that smaller companies have started using them, Milligan tells me. Except they're not actually hiring candidates as much as they're eliminating them.
An ATS is looking for a high keyword match, usually between 70% and 80%, between the skills and credentials listed on someone's resume and the job posting. If the robot doesn't find those keywords, an applicant won't pass to the next round, even if they're perfectly fit for the role.
"It's rarely the most qualified person who gets the job," Milligan says.
Recency also makes a difference to the machine, according to Julia Pollack, chief economist for ZipRecruiter. Algorithms tend to prioritize candidates who are active on job platforms and freshly updating their resumes.
But it might not be the computer blackballing you at all. How fast you respond to a job opening matters, so if you're chronologically at the bottom of a long list of eligible candidates, you could just be too late. "It's a numbers game. Timing is of the essence," Pollack says.
That gets to the nub of the issue. Applicants never know which algorithms are being used, nor who (or what) is ultimately making the hiring decisions. Because the data sets and software are unique to each company, the systems are not uniformly regulated or audited -- which poses a slew of ethical concerns. "In terms of standards, it's a bit of a Wild West scenario," says Kumar of Humanly.
Though the software vendor is allegedly responsible for testing the tools and establishing guardrails, the process is done with little, if any, independent oversight. Most vendors insist AI reduces long-prevailing discrimination in the hiring process. But critics are highly dubious. There's no way to guarantee the software isn't reproducing systemic and institutional bias, particularly against women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. And it's not clear which data is being drawn from to measure candidates.
"There's quite a bit of catch-up happening when it comes to regulation around this issue," says Rory Mir, associate director of community organizing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which calls automated systems in employment a "new civil rights frontier," only recently produced guidance outlining how AI hiring tools should comply with federal antidiscrimination laws.
The next step is to prioritize informed consent — to give job seekers the ability to opt into AI-enabled evaluations and data collection — and to carry out regular audits, Mir says. "The only real remedy to AI bias is to open source the whole process."
Mileage from the machine
So how do disadvantaged job seekers "beat the bots"? That question led me to a treasure chest of online resume scanners, skill-building software and coaching platforms that help streamline the application process and save candidates time and energy.
Though all the tools blew my mind, I also knew they'd give certain candidates an edge over others. Is this really leveling the playing field, or is this just cheating?
"Using AI is not wrong," says Ben Grant, head of growth for Ramped, a newly launched personalized career service that uses Open AI to improve candidates' resumes and cover letters. Ramped's mission is to simplify the job search and make it more inclusive. That means, according to Grant, helping job seekers learn the best practices for competing in the employment market today. "The days of doing everything manually are nearly over," he explains.
Take LinkedIn, a thriving one-stop career shop. It's been leveraging AI for a long time and, along the way, has developed a set of responsible principles for its use. When it comes to automated technology, LinkedIn's head of product, Hari Srinivasan, has a single criterion: "How do we help people get economic opportunity?"
That's why LinkedIn has connected its hiring ecosystem directly to its learning platform. If applicants don't have the necessary experience for a position, or have a "skills gap," they can do professional training or take certification courses to acquire those skills through the platform itself. LinkedIn recently launched more than 100 new courses on generative AI, applied AI and responsible AI, among others.
Career coaches and hiring managers have loads of techniques and approaches to get mileage from the machine. Their first piece of advice: Don't try to trick the tech.
For example, some job seekers try to outsmart scanning software by using white or invisible text to list skills and qualifications they don't actually have. "No one has lied their way into a job doing that, and it won't work," says Chad Sowash, co-host of the Chad and Cheese podcast, which covers topics on recruitment technology, talent management and workforce economics.
The second rule, according to Sowash and other experts, is to keep your resume simple.
Simple means easy-to-parse formatting. For instance, Milligan's clients often like to stand out and be eclectic, but decorative CVs should be saved for human-to-human recruiting. To make it through the ATS, job seekers need a boring, 1990s-looking resume. Boxes, tables, graphics or fancy fonts can get you booted from the software, so it's best to use something readable like Times New Roman and bullet points. Some resume robots even have difficulty reading PDFs.
The next step is to use an online keyword simulator or resume scanner, which reveals how closely your resume and the job posting align, similar to the way an ATS works. Milligan encourages job seekers to start by using a free one, such as TheProfessional.Me.
Trying the tools
When I tried the software to compare my qualifications and a random editor job listing, the keyword match was 41%, far below the 70%-and-above range needed to advance.
A low score is common on the first try, and sometimes it's because the imperfect software selects keywords that aren't actually relevant. Milligan corrects these automated glitches with a (very human) process called "stacking," where she inputs job description data from several different companies and decides which keywords will net better results. She then uses this optimized keyword list in place of the job ad.
"There are ways to work with the system, but you have to manipulate it and make it work in your favor," she says.
I scanned my resume again using Jobscan, this time getting a 59% match with the listing. Jobscan offered a complete data analysis, breaking down comparisons of hard and soft skills, and offering tips on resume formatting, tone and searchability. It even let me exclude irrelevant keywords on the spot, immediately rescanning everything to give me a new score. With the Premium version, I got a buffet of personalized AI-powered products, including tools to edit my resume, generate a cover letter, optimize my LinkedIn profile for recruiters and track jobs. There's also a career change tool that analyzes transferable skills if I wanted to move into another role or industry.
The last tool I tried was an AI speech coach called Yoodli, geared toward helping candidates ace job interviews. Yoodli acts like a smart mirror that records your responses to real-time mock interview questions and provides instant analytics on your word choice, pacing and delivery, including eye contact, pauses and smiles. Though rehearsing basic interview questions was useful, having a robot analyze my communication skills through facial analysis felt a bit Orwellian. An automated interview platform could benefit candidates battling shyness or social anxiety, but it could also easily discriminate against neurodivergent folks or non-native English speakers.
What's old is still gold
These days, we entrust software with so much that we forget what things were like before. People worked with travel agents before they could book flights online. Some relied on matchmakers before dating apps appeared.
But automation always comes with human risks. In the employment world, AI poses real dangers, including the potential for large-scale layoffs and the elimination of entire job categories.
HR tech and recruiters are reasonably at odds. Hiring managers don't choose the automated hiring software the company uses, yet they can grow to mistrust it after witnessing its pitfalls, according to Mona Sloane, a sociologist at NYU who studies the intersection of automated technology and policy. Throughout her research, Sloane has been pleasantly surprised by how strongly recruiters feel the process still rests on their discretion and decision-making, and how critical they are of AI.
Even with all the tech tools, things like human connection, judgment and trust-building remain golden, ZipRecruiter's Pollack says.
I asked the Chad and Cheese podcast's Sowash, who has over 20 years of experience in HR and talent acquisition, if personal assessment was obsolete in the industry. "This is still a human game," he says. "Anytime we utilize tech, it's to be able to engage with more humans."
His current advice for job seekers doesn't feel too distant from my early adult years. Be true to yourself, tell your story and answer questions honestly — not the way you think the algorithm wants you to answer, Sowash says. He also throws in some tried-and-true rules: Practice in a mirror and lean on your network.
Just as online content depends on search engine optimization, or SEO, to catch eyeballs, an optimized employment profile is basic survival in a digital world. But you can also stand out to a human recruiter if you're a "nonobvious candidate," says Andres Blank, CEO of Fetcher, a talent acquisition platform that automates sourcing for large companies. Blank says hiring managers need a diverse pipeline of qualified candidates, and are zeroing in on more dynamic, as opposed to traditional, applicants.
Some of that reflects how employment has changed over the last decade, with the expansion of the gig economy and the influencer business. As more people gain and prove their skills through their personal brands, employers are open to hiring candidates who showcase their experience independently, Blank says. "When you're a company of one, you can't hide behind anybody," he says. "You really have to take that responsibility."
In all cases, a good resume must contain measurable figures, all the personal data points that make you shine — how many projects you led, how much revenue you generated, how much growth you oversaw, how much infrastructure you built. Technology can't invent those numbers, and a robot can't turn a stodgy resume into an exciting one.
"AI is only as good as the information you provide it," says Ramped's Grant.
Perhaps the finest advice is fortune-cookie wisdom. Prepare for rejection, because rejection will happen. And sure, go ahead and blame the bot. But only a human knows how to pick up the pieces and try again.
Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to help create some stories. For more, see this post.