Jobhunting in the virtual age [The Buffalo News, N.Y.]By Stephen T. Watson, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 19--When Yvonne Hairston applied for a job as an administrative file clerk with Western New York Independent
Living Inc., the Buffalo resident did what she always does -- she electronically submitted her resume to the agency.
It was only afterward she realized she was supposed to do something very unusual these days: mail in her resume.
"I said, 'Oh my goodness, I probably won't get the job because I emailed it,'" said Hairston, who is looking for work as a medical secretary and did send her resume again by letter.
It's the age of the digital job hunt, and technology is changing how people find and apply for jobs and how companies sort through all of these applications to find the right candidate.
Nearly every company asks job seekers to file their applications online, often through a standardized form. Employers can use software that searches for certain key words to sift through their databases of thousands of applications.
They also employ LinkedIn and other social media to seek out candidates for jobs, and some companies rely on personality tests to help them assess prospective workers.
But these employers emphasize that humans, and not artificially intelligent computers like IBM's Watson, make hiring decisions.
"We're certainly aided by technology, but technology is not equipped to make the decision alone," said Susan A. Krzystofiak, UB's assistant vice president for human resources.
Job seekers, and their advisers, say they realize everything has moved online these days and the Internet makes it easier to apply for a lot of jobs at once.
But some say it can feel dehumanizing to do everything electronically and it can be hard to make your application stand out from all of the others stored in a company's database.
"You apply to a computer. You get responded to by a computer. You get rejected by a computer. And it's so impersonal," said Stephanie Zuckerman-Aviles, director of Buffalo State College's Career Development Center.
In July, 12.8 million people were unemployed and seeking work nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
That's a lot of people applying for a lot of jobs, and they generate a lot of applications.
Processing these applications by hand isn't possible anymore, not at an institution such as UB, which took in 18,900 applications in 2011, or at HealthNow, which received 8,100 applications this year through the middle of this month.
"We have an online recruitment system," Krzystofiak said of the UB Jobs system installed in 2007. "That has eliminated a ton of paper. I think it makes it much more efficient."
An online identity
Companies now are extending their reach with social media by using sites such as LinkedIn to search through millions of profiles and find candidates who haven't applied for a position but may be a good fit in the eyes of a recruiter.
"The single-biggest influence in the job market now is social media," said Sam Russo, director of financial search for SelectOne Search, a Williamsville firm that conducts direct-hire searches and employs temporary workers on contract for its client companies.
Thomas A. Fentner, senior vice president for human resources and administrative services with HealthNow New York, said the insurer recently searched LinkedIn to find a compensation expert it wanted to hire on a contract basis.
A retiree in Maine agreed to work for HealthNow for 100 hours, spread over three months, on condition that he not have to travel to Buffalo or take calls while at the beach.
"Technology has changed everything about the way we recruit," Fentner said.
HealthNow still hosts job fairs, but typically doesn't accept resumes at those events and instead tells candidates to apply through its website.
"Back in November, December, I was showing up to these job fairs with stacks of my resume. And none of [the company representatives] wanted them. Everything was online," said Steven Jagord, 29, an Amherst resident who graduated in December from Buffalo State.
Those online job forms can throw off some applicants when, for example, they ask applicants to consent to the company performing an in-depth background check.
Other forms require people to fill out a line asking for a salary range, information that some career professionals recommend leaving out.
"A lot of them, you need to put in a number. Yes, I definitely ran into that. In certain places, I think I priced myself out of a position," said Ken Vitko, 37, a Town of Tonawanda resident who was looking for work from July to December 2011.
The UB graduate applied for 43 jobs, according to a spreadsheet he maintained during his job search, before starting in January as a field customer service manager for PECO Pallet.
Even when Hairston has to apply online, she sometimes switches things up by dropping off an application in person.
"I think that is more personable, and the employer might like that I took the time to come in," said Hairston, who hasn't found a permanent position since losing her job at Erie Community College in 2008.
But for the most part, once people apply for a job they're directed not to contact the company by phone to follow-up. Thus begins the anxious checking of the email inbox and the optimistic answering of the phone whenever an unfamiliar number shows up on the caller ID.
"There were a few instances where I would submit that electronically and not hear back for weeks," said Jagord, who ended up getting six interviews with area companies.
He worked briefly at a freight brokerage company, and later at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities where he had worked previously, before starting in June as a reporter with the Bee newspapers.
The keyword game
Electronic applications join thousands of others at the area's largest employers.
"The number of candidates has dramatically increased, which makes it tougher to have a personalized experience," said Julia Culkin, the vice president of human resources for Synacor, the Internet content provider based on the downtown waterfront. Synacor receives 200 to 250 applications for each of its open positions, Culkin said.
Companies search for keywords -- a particular skill, or relevant work experience -- in the applications they've received to determine whether a candidate meets the minimum qualifications for a posted job.
"There's a more efficient screen of the resume and they're going to hear from someone sooner," said Kate White, first vice president and human resources business partner for First Niagara Financial Group.
Fentner said HealthNow has found applicants are coached to include certain terms in their resumes, much in the way that websites try to optimize their search-engine results.
"In some ways it's a game," added Buffalo State's Zuckerman-Aviles. "You have to make sure you get all those words in."
Synacor uses the Taleo recruiting software to set up a searchable database of the applications the Internet content provider receives online, Culkin said. This database is helpful because the company can draw out the resume of someone who applied for one job but is considered a better candidate for a different job, she said.
Only then do the employers conduct phone or, eventually, in-person interviews. First Niagara, UB and Synacor value the face-to-face sessions, saying body language and vocal inflection can reveal a lot that isn't apparent in an electronic message.
But Fentner said interviewees are too well rehearsed on how to provide answers. "Statistically, the worst predictor of a successful candidate today is the interview," he said.
At HealthNow, every prospective employee has to take a predictive index test. Candidates are shown a list of 86 personality traits and asked to check off which they feel describe the way they are expected to act by others and, next, which they believe describe themselves.
The answers are plotted on three graphs and produce a list of strongest behaviors, several summary paragraphs and a list of strategies for the candidate's future manager to follow.
"It's going to tell us how you're going to behave," said Fentner. "There were never tools like this before."
First Niagara and Synacor only give these tests to candidates for higher-level positions.
"It allows us to get a more rounded picture of the leader," said First Niagara's White.
Modern technology has left job seekers flooded with opportunities, and employers flooded with applications, SelectOne's Russo said. "It's really a double-edged sword," he said.
How can employees stand out from the electronic crowd?
Buffalo State's Zuckerman-Aviles says most online applications, such as the standard forms relied on by most area school districts, include a section where the candidate can write a short essay providing more personal information.
It's important to write succinctly, and with proper grammar, she said, because "employers were going right there."
HR officials say it's even more important, in the digital age, to engage in some old-fashioned networking, to ensure an application gets seen by the right person or to make sure an applicant has an advocate there.
In the end, we're left with a key question: Are the best candidates discovered and hired?
"Definitely not all the time," said SelectOne's Russo, who pointed to the problem of a hiring process that was "turned on its head" in the last 10 years and is confusingly different from company to company.
Change can be hard, UB's Krzystofiak said. "There are some potential applicants that are frustrated and may give up," she said. "We don't want to lose a good applicant."
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