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The virtual interview

During his daily scan of Internet job sites, Richard Dupree says, he typically sees about 100 postings that match his skills and interests in engineering and business administration.

But before he can hit the computer send button to dispatch his resume, he often has to answer a set of separate questions like the ones asked in a sit-down interview: What's the biggest project he's managed, for example, or the largest group of people he's supervised?

His responses are thrown into a batch of answers from other applicants and sorted automatically by a computer program that determines which resumes will make the cut.

Such electronic screening is becoming the norm as more employers, faced with what continues to be a tight job market, weed through a flood of applicants for relatively few openings.

"It's very impersonal and difficult to understand the employer's needs and culture," said Dupree, who is in his 50s and lives in Monaca, in Pennsylvania's Beaver County. "It's difficult to sell yourself."

Dupree has two engineering degrees and a master's in business administration. Until November he was a project manager for Eaton Corp.'s Cutler-Hammer division in Moon, Pa. Now in his third job search in four years, he has enough Internet savvy to realize that only a handful of places will even send a courtesy reply to say they received his e-mail resume. He can't always follow up with a phone call because online postings rarely disclose the name of a company contact.

"The Internet is a blessing and a curse," said Annette Matvya, of Allison Park, who recently was searching for a position in software management. "Often you send your resume to a company and it falls into a black hole."

Companies, for their part, seem to see Internet job applications as a blessing _ and a wave of the future.

"We're trying to drill down, pull in and screen the candidates much more efficiently," said Cathy Cox, manager of staffing at Sony Pittsburgh Technology Center in Westmoreland County.

Sony recently redesigned its online job site to add specific prescreening questions for each job.

"Depending on the answers to those questions, the system will spit out people ... and determine which people are qualified for the jobs posted," said Cox, who declined to discuss specifics of Sony's screening questions but said applicants "can't fluff their way through them."

In a recent survey by Accountemps, a California staffing firm, executives said they received 56 percent of resumes via e-mail, up from 34 percent in 2000.

PPG Industries, based in Pittsburgh but with operations worldwide, prefers to post jobs and handle recruitment electronically and now receives only about 5 percent of its resumes through traditional mail, said John Coyne, manager of corporate recruitment.

"Our goal is to have a paperless employment process. With the abundance of applicants we've had, it's almost unmanageable to handle paper."

The paints, glass and chemicals giant received between 9,000 and 10,000 resumes last year and probably saves "tens of thousands" dollars annually by using Internet recruiting, Coyne said.

PPG sends an auto reply to all applicants acknowledging that it received a resume and will be in touch if there's a job opportunity, Coyne said.

The company uses a "candidate management system" that screens online applicants for specific jobs before they send their resumes.

Advo, a direct mail business that posts openings on Monster.com, a popular Internet job board, screens applicants using five to seven questions before their resumes are forwarded to the company. John Oliverio, Advo's area human resources manager, reviews only the resumes from applicants who score 80 percent or higher on the screening test, which asks about education, salary requirements and years of experience. "I don't have to look at the rest; they're on hold," said Oliverio, who recently posted openings for an account executive and security officers.

Some firms are even asking for SAT scores as a way to sort through the pack of applicants, the Wall Street Journal reported. Many of them eliminate people who score below 1300 of a total 1600 possible points on the SAT tests, which are administered to high school students before they apply to colleges. While PPG is concerned about applicants' academic performance, it doesn't look at SAT scores and is really more interested in "intangible" issues such as leadership and initiative, Coyne said.

Some employers are trying to narrow the field by using psychological and behavioral tests that will give them better insight into how a candidate is likely to perform on the job. Questions in those assessments could range from whether the applicant is comfortable meeting new people to how he or she would handle a sticky situation in the workplace.

Even if it feels impersonal to those looking for jobs, the Internet has its advantages, Matvya said. "You can find companies you never heard of and investigate them thoroughly before you get in the door."

And there are no restrictions on when you job hunt. "It's less personal, but I'm comfortable using the Internet and can do it at 2 a.m. or send out resumes at 11 p.m. or 7 a.m. when I wouldn't be able to catch people in the office," said Linda Klingman, 52, of Cranberry, Pa., who's looking for a job in human resource management.

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