Escalating unemployment combined with fewer advertised jobs is just the sort of cocktail that recruiters fear most. With reports in December of the first rise in UK joblessness for six months, to 2.5 million, and financial recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley saying that the number of vacancies in the City of London alone has fallen by 66%, it appears such fears are well founded.
The classic HR solution to avoid being overwhelmed by mountains of CVs from those desperate to find a job is to recruit from within and only to advertise for roles externally as a last resort. Sure enough, internal promotions accounted for more than half of all positions filled in 2009-2010 - up from 34% in 2007, says search firm Heidrick & Struggles. But those employers who cannot escape recruiting externally face an unenviable task: 7% fewer jobs are being hunted by increasing numbers of applicants (the average is 70 per role, but it rises to more than 200 in the FMCG sector). It means HR departments are groaning under the weight of CVs.
With its tempting potential to shrink a mounting pile of applicants into a more manageable number, it is little wonder that companies are increasingly embracing automatic CV-sifting. About 80% of the Fortune 500 companies now use it, and smaller firms are signing up to the concept in growing numbers.
It is not all plain sailing though. According to Olivia Yost, business development director at recruitment specialist Poolia, CV-sifting could be fostering a worrying side-effect: that able, and more capable, people are routinely being rejected by machines, even before a human HR professional gets to cast judgement about a particular person's application.
"Highly experienced people with in-demand skills are being overlooked by a system that cannot perceive real and much-needed ability hiding behind a two-dimensional CV," Yost says. She adds: "Other people who take career breaks to study or develop new skills are all likely to be overlooked, because one of the most common filters used by such sifting is recent employment. The irony is, we may be allowing fantastic talent to slip through our fingers, just at a time when we are going through one of the biggest skills shortages in modern history."
Yost believes the CV-sifting process is a human skill that takes time and experience to acquire. She cites a recent banking candidate who had been consistently rejected. She suspected it was due to her six-year career break. Looking deeper into her CV, Yost was able to place the candidate successfully and with a 60% improvement on her salary expectation.
No-one knows just how critical this problem could be. And HRDs might well argue that it is the job of applicants to make their CVs work harder. But with applicants often being told to cut down the size of their CVs, they could certainly be missing out on including those all important 'keywords' that CV-sifters hunt for. So are CV-sifters guilty as charged?
Even web advocate John Campbell, managing director of digital recruitment consultant, Spider Online, who has just worked with Standard Life to launch its www.standardlife/vacancies website (where applicants apply directly), agrees that "web systems have got to improve". He says: "They have got to be streamlined and they have got to be intelligent."
Part of the problem is that HRDs won't know who they've had sifted out of the process, so as far as they are concerned sifting is a good thing for the time and cost savings. Royal Bank of Scotland, which recently launched its new careers portal, by consolidating the recruitment processes from 7,000 branches, is reportedly pleased with the process. Likewise, at last year's National Online Recruitment Awards, where the Best Innovation in Online Recruitment prize was won by TGI Fridays, (for its Fridoids shop-window website, http://fridoids.co.uk), its head of HR, Caryn Gwilliam, is proud of what she has been able to achieve: "As Fridoids is externally-facing, it attracts interest from prospective employees and enables them to get a true sense of the fun culture of TGI Friday."
CV-sifting is not just a simple, neutral process, though. Some commentators believe it is not the easy option and actually places a greater obligation on companies to have more systems and checks in place to determine 'why' an applicant may have been screened out. If companies have decided to include particular qualifications in their sifting, for example, they must be relevant to the particular role and not discriminate disproportionately against certain groups. Insisting on A-level grades will automatically affect applicants who have equivalent qualifications, such as a baccalaureate. This should, in theory, mean companies will have thought more clearly about the way they describe the job in the first place and what skills and attributes they are looking for.
A problem is that candidates will surely get wise to this and, to get them over the first hurdle, just pepper in keywords that they know employers (and automated sifters) look for, when a human eye would have just discarded them straight away. It's a ploy suggested by Neal Schaffer, author of Windmill Networking: Understanding, leveraging and maximizing LinkedIn. Just as LinkedIn users need to "populate their profile with keywords that will resonate with employers they want to attract", it is something they can also do to trick CV-sifters. Schaffer adds that "these words can be learned by studying companies' job ads", arguing that most sifting machines will pick CVs that simply repeat keywords from the job ad itself.
Doesn't this defeat the aim of sifting in the first place – to get rid of the chaff? With research by assessment firm SHL suggesting up to 24% of people 'stretch' the facts on what they put on their CV anyway, some believe more CV-sifting could encourage applicants to 'aggrandise' their CV even further, just to get noticed. "The current economic climate has created an environment of 'ultra-high-stakes' assessment, with candidates becoming desperate to secure roles," says James Bywater, head psychologist at SHL Group.
"It is vital that candidates are tested against the competencies actually required of the role and assessed that way. There needs to be a clear audit trail linking the assessment to the requirements of the job."
One new tool that seeks to level the playing-field is the video CV. "In the graduate market in particular, a lot of the CVs are a bit vanilla," says Brian Michael, director at video recruitment firm, Meet the Real Me, noting the difficulty selectors face in finding the right people. "They come out of uni and nearly all will say they are a good communicator. With a video, you can actually see if this is the case."
Some firms love the video CV. Mark Williams, recruitment manager at Reed Business Information, says its use of video technology in recruiting new staff has been an "excellent experience". He says: "Sales roles, which rely on good communication, are suited to using videos, because they work around qualities such as lucidity and confidence."
Some will argue that this just introduces a whole new area of discrimination, but Meet the Real Me's Michael believes it is no worse than the traditional paper or electronic CV, where prejudice over particular surnames, types of education and other elements of a person's background still holds sway.
"Videos enable someone, who on paper doesn't stand a chance, to really shine," he says. "Looking at the same CV, a sifting programme, even a human, might decide this person is not the acceptable candidate."
CV-sifting is supposed to speed up the recruitment process, but watching videos doesn't solve this particular problem: "Whereas a skilled recruiter - if the system is nicely tuned – can sift through a lot of CVs to find the right people, you can't sift quickly through videos," says Mike McClelland, founder and managing director at recruiters Advorto. "The last thing you want to do is to spend eight hours to watch six candidates, when you could have read 500 CVs in the same time."
All of this means automated CV-sifting is undoubtedly here to stay. It may not be perfect, but it might be the lesser of two evils when trying to wade through hundreds of applications for a single job. As Yost says: "Building a talented business starts at the recruitment phase.
Ironically, some of the most talented people are also the ones whose experience doesn't always come across well on an online CV." Maybe applicants need to up their game, or perhaps systems have to be more 'human'.
"Recruitment is a people business and we need to get back to that, while recognising that technology is going to have a useful place," adds Yost. "Recruitment systems have to help us to be more efficient, but not to marginalise talented candidates who may not immediately seem to have the right skills on paper."
Given the constant rate of change online, it seems more likely that the challenges of recruitment will be met not by regressing away from technology, but by making better use of it.