How I Educated Myself OUT of the Job Market

Research Scholar Practitioner

I’ve always been a believer that knowledge is power and that it provides opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.  Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that his knowledge and experience would be a disadvantage in the job market.

Let me explain:  I’m one of those professionals who has led a dual-career track.  I’m an entrepreneur with a successful track record in coaching and training as well as a professor who has taught traditional and nontraditional students at universities.

In other words, I’m truly a scholar-practitioner (or practitioner-scholar, depending upon your viewpoint) whose model for eradicating workplace burnout is based on scientific research.

When I recently faced a significant financial hit arising from administering my father’s very poorly planned estate and his equally incompetent estate attorney plus a very large unpaid corporate contract that eluded the collection agency, I decided to re-enter the “traditional” job market.

While I didn’t expect a new job to spontaneously appear, I did enter the job market with what I thought was a well-armed arsenal of benefits to a potential employer:

  • As a scholar-practitioner, I was not confined to a particular industry.
  • I had a successful work history with clients so I could spot trends and offer viable solutions.
  • I had a solid educational and research background, as well as a proprietary theoretical model that had been achieving international interest in the area of workplace burnout.
  • I had also grown a viable network.
  • So, I knew that I could benefit employers in a variety of capacities – either on a contract, part-time, or even full-time basis.

So I launched my job search – and was immediately aware that what I thought were “benefits” were actually viewed as negatives by recruiters and potential employers.

Corporations viewed me as too “academic,” while universities viewed me as too “corporate.”  Huh?  Wouldn’t this combination be a valuable benefit?  Instead of operating in a corporate realm based on assumptions or limited understanding based on prior roles, wouldn’t an ability to thoroughly research a problem in order to provide the best solutions be more valuable than blindly applying “best practices?”

And when it came to universities, my successful history in providing application-based learning experiences for students was overlooked.  While “theory” is important to orient practitioners to a situation, it takes human curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom to select the appropriate model and then apply it to achieve the desired results.  Also, I teach BUSINESS – which is a down and dirty, practical field focused on achieving results.

One experienced high-level colleague working in human resources even told me that my Ph.D. would be viewed as a negative factor by recruiters and hiring managers.  The reason?  Despite the use of technology to find new employees, recruiting biases still exist.

  • “Oh, you’ve got a Ph.D.? You’re going to be tough to manage.”  In other words, my education and critical thinking make me less inclined to blindly follow a manager’s demands – especially if it isn’t necessarily the best course of action for the business.
  • “Oh, you’ve got a Ph.D.? You’re going to want too much money.”  What exactly is considered to be “too much money” – especially when compensation hasn’t even been discussed?  This reflects an ill-informed assumption that all university professors are very highly paid (often for very little work) –trust me, they’re not.

But what about jobs in academia?  Universities are obsessed with the accreditation of the university from which I obtained my Ph.D.  AACSB, ACBSP, and IACBE were acronyms that I began to hate.  Basically AACSB accreditation means that the educational institution focuses on research; IACBE focuses on teaching excellences; ACBSP focuses on both research and teaching.

One department manager at an AACSB-accredited school of business actually told me that my 15 years of teaching experience were not even considered in the hiring process – there wasn’t even a column in the Excel spreadsheet for candidates’ prior teaching!  The primary criteria for an interview rested on the candidate’s alma mater’s accreditation.

NOT the quality of my research.  NOT the advancements that it made in the field.  NOT my proven ability to inspire students.  It all came down to the accreditation of the university – which means the hiring process had nothing to do with MY credentials!

Similarly, corporations expressed concern that (although most of my corporate clients had been large, multinational organizations) I hadn’t been “employed” by a large corporation.  Despite the complaints of companies that they are trying to build more agile, innovative, and entrepreneurial work teams, my years of entrepreneurial experience were overlooked simply because I hadn’t been employed by large company.

Wouldn’t it make sense that it takes someone with a history of entrepreneurial success to build entrepreneurship into the culture of the organization?  Nope.

So What Does All This Mean? 

I’ve been a career coach for over 20 years and have had great success in helping job candidates navigate the muddy waters of a job search.  I also hold two senior level professional certifications in human resources, so I’m well aware of the goals of recruiting highly qualified candidates.

What my foray into the job search jungle has shown me
is that the recruiting process is deeply flawed.
(Talk about an understatement, huh?)

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) used to screen, evaluate, and score resumes are the bane of job candidates’ efforts to find a job.  They are often so poorly programmed that the auto-population of the online application with the content of the uploaded resume becomes an unintelligible mish-mash of words.

How bad is it?  One ATS populated my name on the application as…PROFESSIONAL.  Huh?!  My name was top and center on the resume  – where did it find “PROFESSIONAL” and decide to use that as my name on the application?

Additionally, ATS cannot “understand” job candidates who have a dual-career path.  In other words, if you have multiple jobs covering the same period of time (such as adjunct faculty roles in addition to running my training and consulting business), the system is unable to recognize that you worked for more than one employer at the same time.

Confused, the ATS throws all the data together in ways that make it absolutely unintelligible.

This will be particularly problematic as companies increasingly are resorting to contract workers (rather than employees) to do the work that is needed.  And, in today’s environment where “job security” is often non-existent, an increasing number of workers are doing side-gigs or hustles to offset potential job loss.  Or to simply pay the bills.

If you’ve worked at a university or in higher education, the ATS seems to be programmed to search for the terms “college” or “university” and auto-populate it into the “Education” section of the application.  I taught at a community college, but never attended – yet this community college was the first item listed under Education!  Oh, and the degree was populated with the first few words of my duties as an adjunct faculty member at the college (which made absolutely no sense).

Once you have amassed significant work experience, it is very common to format your resume using a hybrid or functional structure.  Adding a Summary of Qualifications at the top of your resume highlights your accomplishments and benefits to the employer.  This section also frames your career to make it easier to understand and helps brand your unique selling proposition (U.S.P.).

However, ATS are confused by this format – seemingly spitting out random words from the Summary of Qualifications into nonsensical entries within the online application.  So job candidates lose the power of this executive summary to position themselves in the eyes of the recruiter or hiring manager.

While ATS are more efficient in terms of
the amount of time required to scan a candidate’s resume,
I strongly doubt their ability to more effectively
scan the candidate’s work experience in relation to the job opening.

The ATS is the employer’s gatekeeper – and NO human eyes will ever see your resume unless the ATS ranks it with an acceptable compatibility score.

For example, I’ve taught numerous sections of undergraduate human resources classes; I’ve also taught most (if not all) of the modules in the preparation program for HRCI and SHRM human resource certification exams.  Yet I received know the standard “after careful review of your qualifications, we’ve decided to go with other candidates” email in response to my online application to teach an online undergraduate HR class as an adjunct faculty member.  Huh?

After several of these “thanks, but no thanks” emails, I decided to use my research skills to figure out what was going on.  I knew that employers were complaining that they couldn’t “find” qualified job applicants – and that very well-qualified job seekers were complaining that they couldn’t seem to get an interview after applying online.  Something was a lose-lose situation.

So, What Is the Solution?  

The Take-Away About Online Resumes:  It’s no longer enough to have one well-crafted resume focused on marketing you as someone who can “hit the ground running” in performing the duties and responsibilities of the posted job.

While we all know that key words are critical to pass the ATS resume screen, I have also discovered these insights and hacks:

  • Don’t use a hybrid or functional format. Remove the Summary of Qualifications and add them to specific jobs.  Quite frankly, if you’ve used these skills in multiple situations, then add them to each employment experience.  Repetition might be able to reinforce to the ATS that you possess these skills and increase your “match” score for the job.
  • You may need to “dumb down” your resume. This was painful for me.  After all, we’ve worked our tails off to build our work experiences and history of successful accomplishments – it intuitively doesn’t make sense to remove them from the resume.  However, all these competencies and accomplishments might be viewed as “over-qualified” (I hate that term!) for the position – maybe not by the ATS, but very possibly by the human recruiter who may eventually see your resume and make erroneous assumptions about you.
  • The resume you use to apply online should be formatted for artificial intelligence. Nope, it’s not going to look “pretty” – in fact, it will probably look downright ugly!  Don’t use horizontal lines (it can screw up the ATS).  Put everything flush to the left margin (ATS “read” resumes top-to-bottom- not left-to-right).  Don’t add color (ATS get confused).  Don’t use columns (ATS will auto-populate the online job application with a series of mumbo-jumbo – the second column of items will be moved as garbage after the last entry in your resume).
  • You now need two resumes: one to be scanned by ATS and one to be read by humans.  Networking is still a critical tool to find a job.  The ATS resume will not provide a good first impression to a human reader, so you also need a “pretty” resume that will pique a person’s interest.  But updating that “pretty” resume into an online application will be misinterpreted by the ATS scan and lead to a low compatibility score.  The content should be the same on both resumes, but it’s HOW it’s arranged that is different.  Form follows function.
  • Consider applying for jobs via your LinkedIn profile. For some reason, ATS auto-populate LinkedIn information more easily into the online job application.

By the way, it used to be that after uploading your resume to the ATS, you didn’t have the opportunity to make corrections to the online job application.  Thankfully, this has changed in some online application sites.  But don’t assume that your resume will upload correctly!  Take the time to check the imported data to make sure that what the ATS “sees” on the application is intelligible.  And make note of trends as to where your experiences “land” in the auto-populated online application – then make changes to the resume to facilitate easier uploading in the future.

Advice to the Players

It is imperative that companies find quality employees who will help the organization achieve its strategic objectives.  It is likewise imperative that high quality workers are able to find work that motivates them in an organizational environment that is a good cultural fit.

In other words, companies and workers need each other to succeed.

To Employers:  Reconsider what you really need to staff a job.  An unbroken employment history in a specific job within a specific industry may appear to be an indicator of success.  But not only is such a candidate difficult to find, it can also restrict the new ideas that a candidate with a slightly different professional background can bring to the table.  Hire not just for the job as it is today, but also as it will evolve in the future.

While many organizations use assessments to ensure that candidates have the requisite competencies for the job, the candidate’s resume has to pass the ATS screen in order to move forward in the process.  Recruiters vary in their reliance on ATS scoring of resumes:  some only look at the top 3 “matches,” while other peruse many the resumes overall.  “Garbage in, garbage out” is an axiom in technology:  make sure that what you have programmed the ATS to search for in applicant resumes relates to the actual performance of the job.  Look not just at the job description, but also the job specifications and competencies of current high performers in this role.

Finally, corporate should quit relying on the qualities of a candidate’s previous employer and begin to look at the candidate’s actual accomplishments. Similarly, universities need to move beyond a candidate’s alma mater’s accreditation and focus instead on their contributions to expand the knowledge base in their field.

To Job Candidates:  The modern job search has changed dramatically – and the old tools used to find a job must be modified in order to address the new recruiting technology.  Having two resumes is a pain in the neck, but it may be the only way to get the ATS to recognize that yes, you are a viable candidate for the job.  Email your “pretty” resume to the recruiter when scheduling the interview – and bring a copy of this resume with you in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps most importantly, harness your network in order to get whose “warm” referrals to a human being who has the power to forward your resume to the appropriate decision-maker.

You should be applying for at least one job every day – if there is a connection between the duties and responsibilities of the job to your employment history, then apply.  Remember:  75% of online applications are automatically rejected by the ATS (pretty disheartening statistic), so you need to have more opportunities in the pipeline in order to land an interview that can lead to a new job.

Finally, never apologize for your work experience and education!  If an employer expresses concerns, then take this as an early warning sign that it will probably NOT be a good job fit anyway.

The new recruiting and hiring landscape seems to be the perfect storm that often leads to employers and job candidates passing each other like ships in the night – never making any meaningful contact that could benefit them both.  But it IS the new reality.  Employers might be slow in making the necessary changes to its ATS, so job seekers need to work within the existing system.  Form follows function.

You can increase your chances for an interview by initially bypassing the ATS.  But remember:  there is nearly a 100% certainty that you will need to apply online for the job (even if your resume has been presented to a real human being).  Don’t be stuck in the past – modify your job search approach so that it addresses the very real challenges associated with the new recruiting technology.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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