Keywords don’t tell my story, and scans fail me

SCANNING NOW But not by a person.
SCANNING NOW But not by a person.

A Writer’s encounter with unemployment.

FOR three months I’d been applying for jobs like a mad thing, sending my details to agencies, job sites, networks, and written whole novels responding to advertisements. Yet in 70 applications I’d completely failed to secure a job.

Advice columns advised: “Don’t take it personally”, but that was getting harder to cop as I endured a shame spiral. I was a highly employable, qualified, and experienced media worker, with a resume spanning 16 years and three continents. I couldn’t see what made me so unattractive to employers.

Counselling from a fellow jobseeker gave me a clue. I was under the illusion that I was communicating with the gatekeepers of the land of the employed – agents, human resources staff – people, basically. But my friend enlightened me about the software used to scan many job applications.

I felt complete shock. All that time I’d been blocked by a computer? What did they want? Keywords, apparently. Like passwords in fairy tales, they hang in the air magically bestowing access to an income – if only I could name them.

I did some footwork and found whole websites devoted to keywords and sample resumes which made sample applicants sound like Orwellian robots.

The software had been around since my career began. A decade ago it was the tool of Fortune 500 companies wanting to filter top applicants from time wasters. Now no one is keen to admit how prevalent its use is.

Sympathetic friends suggested I cold-call companies. It became apparent that this once tried-and-true technique is now used by agencies seeking jobs for their clients and commissions from employers. Human resources departments don’t take calls or give out contact details much anymore. They don’t need to if their agency is seeking candidates for them.

The online resume forms for employment agencies smacked of the software, so I tried a few keywords I’d seen suggested in advice columns. Mirroring the vocabulary of the selection criteria, I just regurgitated the kind of words found in annual reports and mission statements. I was dumbing myself down to a degree I’d never experienced.

FILL THE FORM If there's a form to fill, that is.
FILL THE FORM If there’s a form to fill, that is.

I yearned for the good old days, when a job application letter and resume was acknowledged with at least a written response.

Now the average job application takes days to complete and months for companies to process. By the time you’ve responded to all the ‘essential’ criteria, the ‘desirable’ criteria loom on the horizon like the second half of a marathon. If you still apply knowing you don’t possess all these wish-list skills (could any candidate on earth match them all?) you must then relate a demonstrated ability or some proven skills in all of them, and keep the application short. It still baffles me how it’s possible to demonstrate or prove anything using words alone and remain succinct.

If you’re lucky you’ll hear the outcome of all this work. Invariably you’ll hear nothing.

One of the few replies I received was a rejection letter for a job I didn’t even apply for. Wonderful to open a letter from a real person, but pitiful they were letting me know the outcome of my non-application and my non-addressing of the selection criteria.

I have no problem admitting there are a few challenged in employing me. I live a two-hour commute from the city. I have some anomalies in my resume resulting from a bereavement period and a temporary illness. I have a mainstream career pathway in media, but also worked in sales, hospitality and aged care at times to get by.

Does this not exhibit tenacity, lateral thinking and honesty? If the software didn’t value such keywords, then I was going to need a bit of self-help.

I started doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Working through much anger to unearth what I enjoy doing, I realised that in all those job applications, I was seeking validation, an answer to that most judgmental of social questions – “so, what do you do Mike?”. When I can’t answer that, I feel a deep sense of shame.

Not securing that validation this time around could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I have dusted off my writing and illustrating skills, converted the shed into a studio, downsized my finances, applied for local jobs, and started telling people I’m using skills which I love.

It feels frightening at times, but I am forging ahead regardless.

I don’t want my epiphany to let employers off the hook. A wish list of what is required in an employee deserves to be met, and the candidates thrown up by the software might meet all the criteria and more, but isn’t that just a system being cleverly played?

Whatever – you won’t ever know me if you just scan me.

Published in the Weekend Australian 2008.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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