Looking for a job is a lot like dating.
Two parties put out feelers, share a limited amount of information with each other and decide whether there is enough interest to take it to the next level.
However, as technology plays an increasingly significant role in both dating and job hunting, the rules governing how to do either successfully keep changing. On the dating front – as Vanity Fair pointed out last summer – apps such as Tinder and Hinge have spawned a "dating apocalypse," where a handful of emoticons or text messages can lead to a sexual encounter.
On the job search front, technology acts more like a gatekeeper than a door opener. Before human eyes view your painstakingly written résumé, it will likely be screened by a software application that can easily spit you out for a host of unforeseen reasons. Nowadays, sending in a résumé can feel like dispatching it to a black hole that swallows your dreams and ambitions. Welcome to the job search apocalypse.
"Ten years ago, it was okay to simply add basic employment and job duties to a résumé and send it to a company for consideration," recalled Adrienne Tom, a résumé writer, interview coach and employment strategist with Career Impressions in Calgary. "Heck, 10 years ago, résumés were printed in hard copy and snail-mailed."
Today, she said, "résumés are branded, targeted, results-focused marketing tools that are commonly scanned by a computer before they are read by a person," and manoeuvring through these applicant-tracking systems, as they're known in the trade, remains no easy feat since they're all a little different.
Before resigning yourself to the lot of a freelancer, however, there are ways to beat the bot.
To ensure your résumé gets read by a human, Ms. Tom says you should use Word documents instead of PDFs, avoid complex formatting, including graphs and charts, and ensure that contact information is kept out of the header.
Above all, she said, job seekers should customize their applications by using the key words emphasized in the job ad – and repeating them several times.
These key words must also be matched with supporting evidence. For example, the term "leadership," may be an important key word but it should be accompanied with a well-matched description, such as, "Directed a team of 26 through the creation and execution of a $16-million marketing strategy in collaboration with four external partners," Ms. Tom said.
Before getting carried away with the cut-and-paste function, however, Ms. Tom warns against gaming the system, since packing too many key words into a résumé without supporting content could get you blacklisted by recruiters or potential employers.
Getting the balance right remains the most challenging part of the applicant's role. Job seekers not only have to use the right terms, but need to understand the company's lingo since the ATS will be configured to reflect specific business needs, explained Pamela Paterson, author of Get the Job: Optimize Your Resume for the Online Job Search.
"It's really important that candidates do their research to understand the company," Ms. Paterson said.
Another big mistake Ms. Paterson sees job seekers make includes removing relevant experience so that a résumé fits on two pages.
"Some people still hold on to the notion that a résumé should be a maximum of two pages, not understanding that longer résumés may be ranked better in the ATSs, if written strategically," Ms. Paterson said. One senior IT manager ended up getting no responses, she said, after cutting his résumé from four pages to two.
"I know that HR doesn't like to read long résumés, but it's the computer you need to get past first, not human eyes," she warned.
While the rise of the machines can be daunting, even to experienced job seekers, there are still experts out there who believe that beating the screening software is not the only path to career happiness.
"Applying to roles online or on a website is a necessary evil but not the only way to find a job," offered Alice Goffredo, founder and principal of Goffredo Consulting Group Inc.
Job seekers, she said, should use their contacts and their networks to advocate on their behalf with potential employers. While Ms. Goffredo admitted that many must first contend with "those big, bad applicant-tracking systems," the next step remains to find advocates inside a company to bring the application to the forefront.
Asking a real human for help "might get you past the computer screening and to the front of the line," she said.