The Communication Gap in Hiring: In a Candidates’ Job Market, Why are Hiring Managers so Picky? How can Job Seekers Win?

People looking for a job often assume that an online applicant screening software is the reason why they haven’t heard back from a company. True, many employers now use technology tools to help with capturing and reviewing profiles, and one might assume that these tracking systems may be ending her/his candidacy before a live human being even sees the resume.

True-ish? And false. People looking for a job often apply online to many positions. Sometimes many positions at the same company. On occasion, these applicants are quite well-qualified for the opportunities they’ve targeted. But in a great many cases, they check maybe six or seven out of the 10 boxes required on the job description. The typical logic applied is… “Hey, I’ve got like six or seven of these 10 requirements, and when I talk to the hiring manager, I can tell her/him what a talented, multi-faceted person I am and how I fast I can learn new things.”

The result of that 6-7 score application? That particular person does not rank high enough on keyword-based fit related to the job posting, and thus receives a lukewarm score/ranking from the applicant tracking software. Then, in a majority of situations, the candidate does not hear back from the company and assumes that her/his resume was just screened out by the evil, online software gatekeeping technology.

Software Isn’t to Blame

Think for a moment like a hiring manager. She or he posts a job, and suddenly, there is a flood of applications. Hundreds of them. In a very abbreviated period of time. And a good number of those that apply are off-target. Some are people very clearly applying for the sake of activity, and those folks are not remotely qualified. Then there’s a wide swath of applicants who are pretty close, but not close enough. In my experience of 15 years as a recruiter, if I post an online ad and get five viable profiles out of every 100 applicants, I’m thrilled. Now, think back to that overwhelmed hiring manager digging out from under 500 applications, trying to find the top 5 percent.

It is very easy for internal corporate HR or an external hiring agency to fall behind on managing the mass of application traffic related to a new job posting. Those same people often fail to keep up with the task of responding to applicants. That’s even more likely to happen to a hiring manager who is running a search without any recruiting support. These people may even throw their hands up at some point … “I can’t respond to everyone, so I’ll just stop responding.” That’s why those most intimately tied to recruiting only review the resumes featured — or scored highest — by the applicant tracking software tools in place.

Unfortunately, because of the dynamics created by the job posting process, some candidates in the job market may never receive a “thanks, but no thanks” email. Why? Because 90+ percent of the work related to initial job application communication is directly tied to the task of sending out rejection notes. Many times an innumerable amount. And it can take an inordinate amount of effort to send out 475 “no thank you” emails to a pool of 500 interested parties. Human nature inevitably will lead the people handling recruiting to respond to those best suited for the position. That’s the most efficient and effective use of a limited amount of time.

The Job Market: What Companies Want

I hear about this particular gap in understanding a lot. And I mean A LOT. Many of my candidates think, “I was qualified for that one. Why didn’t I hear anything?” But even in our candidate-driven, super-tight current job market, hiring managers are getting more selective and siloed in their processes. The majority of the time, they don’t want the generalist with multiple, usable skill sets. They want subject-matter experts, folks with deep, focused, and specific expertise in a desirable area of focus. Depth of specificity is far more desirable than a breadth of experience. The people who check six or seven of the “boxes” may perceive themselves qualified. But six or seven out of 10 is not a good grade. That score means you’re failing, or darn close. Hiring managers see 6-7 out of 10 and are thinking, “no thanks.” They would rather hold out for the person who checks nine out of 10, even if it significantly extends the hiring process.

What can be even more challenging are the situations where people have the right skill sets, but the wrong industry experience. For example, a candidate has who has excellent marketing experience within the healthcare industry applies to a job marketing a software product. The candidate may think her/his skills will transfer and that she/he can learn on the job. And that’s not completely flawed logic. But the hiring manager likely has a bevy of other applicants with specific experience in software product marketing.  The healthcare candidate is less impacted by the hiring manager’s desire to disqualify in this scenario. Rather, the challenge is that the competitiveness of the applicant pool is the X-factor impacting the value and validity of the healthcare marketer’s resume.

On top of that, the company for which that healthcare marketer applied may not have a strong internal training program in place. Providing requisite and effective training is one of the biggest challenges for a lot of small businesses in growth mode. These companies simply do not have the time or the resources to successfully bring someone new up to speed over the course of her/his first few months. So, rather than hire the multi-faceted and talented generalist who lacks the specified industry experience, hiring managers will opt to hold out for that “9 out of 10” person. It’s too painful to fail to train someone effectively and then to have her/him suffer a negative onboarding experience in the first 90-180 days — one where she/he feels left behind and thus not appropriately equipped to succeed. The blowback impact from a failed hire is super expensive and can often be reputation-damaging for a company.

A Candidate’s Market?  

With all that said, it might feel like hiring managers have the luxury of selecting their picks of the litter. Yet, technically, it is still a candidate’s market right now. One key indicator is that salaries are continuing to rise. Plus, not only are salaries rising, but companies getting more creative about the way they offer benefits beyond pay. Employers are taking on the expense of full-family healthcare coverage at an increasing rate. Some companies are offering unlimited vacation days, and some even offer extra pay provided to employees to take a vacation (I’ve seen “paid-paid” vacation bonuses ranging from $1,000-$2,000). More and more employers are offering work-from-home options, relocation stipends, etc. Given our incredibly low unemployment rate here in the Triangle, candidates have the leverage for sure, which is why companies are tossing out all sorts of attractive variables to entice top talent. But that power is reserved for those who are closest to the ideal job description fit. That means hiring managers are battling with one another in and amongst a very small pool of on-target applicants.

I work with a lot of companies who would rather pay more to find the very best and most closely-suited people, as opposed to slogging through piles of resumes which clearly won’t work.

What Job Seekers Can Do

Two groups of people seem to be having the greatest challenges when it comes to the job market: those who are trying to switch career tracks/industry sectors after lengthy runs in one particular sector, and candidates in the 50+ age bracket. In the first case, as we discussed earlier, recruiting has likely collected at least a serviceable number of resumes from applicants who match their needs in the 9-10 box check range (meaning, those folks have applicable experience in the appropriate industry area of need), so there is no compelling reason to reach for a candidate who is either from a divergent industry space or from a completely different career track. In the case of ageism, unfortunately, it’s a real hurdle. It’s not right or fair, but it’s there, particularly for roles below mid-level management in the high-tech job space. Younger candidates in that arena tend to have more of the relevant and up-to-date IT skills needed to fit the bill.

So what can job seekers do? Particularly those in the two most challenging aforementioned categories? Additional collegiate education and/or industry-specific training and certifications may help. I’ve certainly seen people find success by obtaining certificates associated with new skills that tie into industry sectors they’ve been pursuing, but it can be an expensive bet and is not always a win. The main thing to remember? Networking. Use your network — both personal and professional. Finding a job in an active, noisy, and dynamically-challenging job market is all about timing and circumstance.

For example, last year I was having coffee with a gentleman who had been out of work for the better part of two years following a multi-decade career in pharmaceutical sales. I knew his wife through my network, and I had recently run into her at an event in town. When she and I were catching up, we had a brief exchange about her husband and his situation, and she asked if I would meet and chat with him. “Of course,” was my answer.

During this coffee, the gentleman and I discussed the trials and tribulations of his search, the difficulty of translating pharma sales skills and abilities to other types of sales positions open in the area, the obstacle of his age, etc. At that moment in time, I did not have an open position that I could present to him. Nothing in my pipeline was a fit, primarily because his situation was very challenging — career track changer AND over 50. But he was now part of my network, and I gave him my word that I would keep him close and would contact him the moment something relevant arose. I also encouraged him to ping me at least bi-weekly (squeaky wheel gets the grease).

Within the next several weeks, another relatively new network connection of mine introduced me to the CEO of a company that was looking for a salesperson. This executive had been looking unsuccessfully for a while, and he was frustrated with the younger, less-polished (his words) crop of outside sales talent available. “Give me a mature, seasoned salesperson who is hungry with something to prove,” he intimated. And I think you probably know the happy ending to my story…

That’s how it happens. Networking. Longer sales cycle sometimes, sure. Unpredictable path to results, yes. But I would speculate that more than 75% of the jobs my company fills are never posted online. They are resolved through our team’s network of connections, and that is the trump card that can win any hand in the job search game.

Finding a Job