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Hiring system that cuts costs, ups efficiency

As the first screening stage, Applicant Tracking Systems is not the perfect system to land the best applicants. A good worker may slip through the cracks due to bad fonts or poor resume format.


In 2015, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) advertised to fill up 1,000 vacant positions but nothing had prepared them for the over 80,000 responses from the public.

JSC sought help from the National Youth Service (NYS) and two academic institutions to help sort out the applications. They also invited the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to ensure transparency. According to the Judiciary’s Chief Registrar, Anne Amadi, the response exposed the unemployment crisis facing the country. The process also resulted in extra cost and time that JSC had not anticipated.

Many employers have faced similar challenges including those who circulate job adverts internally. Often, the adverts leak to the public, resulting in thousands of applications.

Most people apply for jobs that require uploading of resumes and keying in some information into a web page not knowing that the system is part of an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The World Wide Web and its contributions to the hiring process gave rise to ATS. With time many companies, in their bid to reduce costs, manage time, reduce bias, increase efficiency, and hire the right talent, will embrace ATS.

ATS is an application that scans application documents, mostly resumes, for specific keywords and phrases and thereafter sends those that pass a given threshold, mostly over 75 per cent, to the hiring manager. ATS may also match specific skills, schools attended, experience, and former employers using set computer algorithms. Developers can also deploy ATS to track and sort applications based on the job applied in cases where there are several job openings in the same company. This system is the first screening stage before an application goes to the human screening stage.

How ATS work

The rule of thumb is that a job seeker must meet recruiters’ requirements before sending an application. Secondly, applicants should use simple formatting and fonts that are readable and printable.

Resumes uploaded to ATS should not have images, shapes, graphics, or art of any kind. Applicants also ought to use perfectly rounded bullet points instead of squares, arrows or other shapes.

Most ATS accept the basic .doc and its successor, .docx document formats although a good number will also read .pdf documents. The resume section headings should also be clear. Applicants ought to write ‘Skills’ instead of ‘Major Abilities’ since ATS may skip “Major Abilities” because it was unable to determine the meaning of the heading.

Since ATS rates keywords, it is important for applicants to ensure keywords and phrases naturally fit within the document. These keywords should also be specific to the required skills, qualifications and hiring company. Normally, applicants retrieve the exact or implied keywords and phrases from the job advertisement, specifically in the job description part. Some keywords can be used more than once, including their synonyms, for the resume to rank higher. Applicants should also avoid generic resumes and instead tailor each resume to the advertised job requirements. It is important for applicants to include their dates of employment as ATS scans the number of years of experience.

Lastly, while resumes sent to hiring managers should be short, resumes uploaded to ATS may be longer since these systems do not concentrate much on length. Most ATS also generate a summary of a resume to the recruiter to read.

Majority of ATS come with questions called ‘knockout questions.’ These are questions with checkboxes or those that require ‘true’ or ‘false’ answers. The aim of these questions is to reduce the number of applications moving to the next stage. ATS can reject a resume without looking at it just because the applicant failed the ‘knockout questions.’

Right skills for the job

In the above JSC case, it was impossible for a hiring manager to go through 80,000 applications and pick the best applicants for interviews. If the JSC had an ATS system, they would not have spent on the extra resources to get the right applicants.

ATS ensures recruiters get people with the right skills to fit the job. These systems also ensure that poorly prepared applications and unqualified individuals do not waste the resources of the recruiter.

In an interview published in Daily Nation on July 18, 2015, Perminus Wainaina, CEO, Corporate Staffing Services, said that recruiters do not get the best applicant because they normally find a qualified applicant before going through all the applications. Finding a qualified applicant does not necessarily mean finding the best applicant for a position. Wainaina also expressed regret because most applicants never evaluate their skills and capabilities against a given job advertisement before applying for the job.

Most job boards like Glassdoor and LinkedIn have agreements with various ATS providers and allow recruiters to migrate data from the job boards into their systems, therefore, providing them with an even easier hiring process through a defined workflow.

Not perfect

Since ATS relies on keywords, it is not the perfect system to land the best applicants who may not use the right keywords, fonts, or resume format, therefore, they slip through the cracks. Additionally, some applicants have learned the art of beating ATS through keyword stuffing. In Keyword stuffing, the applicant includes all the necessary keywords once or twice in their resume and change the stuffed keyword fonts to white. This way, ATS will “see” and rank them but the human eye will definitely miss the words. As ATS helps companies save on valuable resources, poorly developed ATS will make a company miss on hiring the best applicants. Fortunately, as time goes by, ATS systems are also improving and filling the gaps.

Mark Owour is a tech enthusiast and a software tester in Kenya. Email:

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