When Erica Schwartz graduated from Boston University in 2017, the marketing major ran into a wall experienced by many young job-seekers: You can do everything right and still not get an interview.
She applied to several hundred jobs before finally landing a position. Besides the constant discouragement, the process was tedious and time-consuming, she told CBS MoneyWatch. “It sucks, you have to create this many profiles. You upload your resume and it doesn’t fill in the application fields.”
Job hunting again in 2018, Schwartz shared her frustrations with her younger brother, Victor, who was studying computer science at Duke University at the time and working on a way to automate job applications. He made his sister an early guinea pig for the tool, which collected job listings from across the web and sent hundreds of applications that automatically filled out questionnaires, generated cover letters and kept track of everything throughout the process.
“I didn’t do anything and I was able to apply in bulk,” she recalled. More important, Erica received 30 interview requests.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I was getting so many [interview requests] I didn’t have to take all of them,” she said. “I didn’t feel desperate, and I wanted to be more picky at that point.”
Five years later, Erica has changed jobs three more times with the help of her brother’s creation, now a startup called Sonara. The new business raised $800,000 in funding two years ago now has roughly 500 users.
Erica, now 27, has become an evangelist for the robo-recruiter, recommending it to friends and former managers, including an old boss at NBCUniversal who was recently laid off.
Sonara is one of a burgeoning number of tools geared toward easing and to a large extent automating people’s job search, sending out hundreds of thousands of applications a time. Massive, a startup that helps applicants auto-apply to tech jobs, relies on a trove of data it takes from venture capital databases, like Pitchbook and Crunchbase, to try to match applicants with jobs, while also writing cover letters for them.
Browser extensions like SimplifyJobs or LazyApply promise to fill out hundreds of applications with a few clicks, piggybacking on the technology behind Indeed’s EasyApply or LinkedIn’s Apply With LinkedIn features. (SimplifyJobs is free; LazyApply starts at $99 and offers a money-back guarantee if a candidate doesn’t get an interview within 30 days.)
While the adage about finding a job being more about who know than what you know may be true for those who are already employed, for younger adults searching for their first job it often comes down to “a numbers game,” Victor Schwartz said.
“As someone early in your career, not having an extensive network — not having, you know, 10 years of experience — you’re very reliant, essentially, on this process of cold outreach,” he said. “In this game, it really means finding jobs online and applying to them, and there’s no way around it.”
“Flooded with applicants”
According to a recent survey from recruiting-software maker iCIMS, 1 in 4 recent college graduates has already used AI technology, such as ChatGPT, to apply for a job and nearly half are interested in doing so. Yet hiring pros are less enthusiastic — nearly 40% say applicants’ use of AI in the process is a deal-breaker.
“In the talent acquisition community, we’re all talking about it,” said Christy Spilka, iCIMS’ global head of talent acquisition.
According to iCIMS’ internal data, job application activity is surging this year. Overall job applications were up 31% between January 2022 and April 2023, while applications for finance and technology jobs surged over 50% in that same time, and applications for business services rose 41%.
“A lot of jobs are getting just flooded with applicants, especially the work-from-home jobs,” said William Stonehouse III, co-founder of Crawford Thomas Recruiting. “We are seeing more resumes custom-tailored to the exact job description and cover letters seemingly crafted for jobs that are applied for,” he said. “We have heard of candidates getting perfect scores on coding tests or exercises where an 80% would be considered good.
Being on the other side of the application flood can be bewildering.
A month ago, Oliver Hays, Zen Media’s head of public relations, posted an opening on LinkedIn for a public relations intern. It was nearly 5 o’clock and Hays left his computer to have dinner. An hour later, he returned to check his email and found he had over 100 applications.
“I said, ‘What happened? Why is there 161 unread?'” he recalled. “I had to turn off the spigot.”
Initially happy to have a big pool of applicants, Hays soon changed his mind once he started reading through the resumes. “They felt generic; they felt a little too robotic,” he said. “These lack the usual personality you see from an applicant.”
Having used ChatGPT — and having encouraged his marketing team to do the same — Hays came to the conclusion that many of these applications were robo-writtten. It took him a month to whittle down the resumes to six interview finalists. While he says he won’t confront applicants for using the tool, he’s considering adding more steps to the application process to head off a flood of candidates. Rather than asking for writing samples after the initial interview, he said he thinks “asking for more details upfront, examples of your work and success upfront, will probably whittle down that field.”
Schwartz and others on the side of job-seekers reject the idea that they’re cheapening the application process.
“There’s this ingrained mentality that the job application has to be long as a way to qualify candidate interest, and that if you’re not spending 30 minutes doing it then ‘we can’t know that you’re serious,'” he said.
By contrast, his startup “acts like an agent on your behalf,” Schwartz said, “allowing you to start the process from getting the interview requests rather than having to send in the applications.”
That can lead to misses as well as hits. “I definitely don’t know anything about sports,” said Erica Schwartz, who said she once found herself on a job interview with the Brooklyn Nets at which she was asked to come up with marketing material to promote the NBA team.
“I had never seen a Nets game, I didn’t know what it was … I think I said, “It brings Brooklyn together.'” (She was ultimately offered the job, but declined it for a position that paid more and allowed more remote work.)
Massive’s founder, Dan Vykhopen, describes his own startup, which contracts with recruiters as part of the application process, as a tool for employers to attract job candidates without having to advertise. The startup raised $2.3 million last year.
“We want to fill out applications better than you, and we want to match you perfectly to the right job. Those are the two hardest parts of actually applying for jobs and that’s the most frustrating portion of the job search,” he said.
Vykhopen added that entry-level applicants using Massive have an interview rate of 1% to 4%. The platform’s success rate for mid-level or senior software engineers is 20% to 25%, while he acknowledged that workers in that field are “very hirable in pretty much any market.”
“I think in a few years, everyone will have their own personal recruiter — their own AI recruiter,” he said.
To be sure, there are potential downsides to robo-applying. There’s the possibility that too many sloppy applications could get someone barred from a possible employer, or the risk (mostly to employers) that someone will use AI assists to con their way into a job they can’t perform.
Yet some job hunters are ecstatic to know that, at least for now, they can turn the table on employers.
“I feel like companies are so soulless,” Erica Schwartz said. “They never put in the effort to respond back, they ghost you … We’re just a number to them.”
“If you’re applying, you’ve got to put yourself out there,” she added. “If HR thinks that’s annoying, they shouldn’t work in HR.”