I, Robot: How Vulnerable Are Recruiters to Automation?

A recent study from Oxford University suggests that almost half of all job categories are at some risk of being automated within the next 20 years. That includes telemarketers (99 percent certainty); accountants (94 percent), real estate agents (86 percent); airline pilots (55 percent), and even actors (37 percent).

At low risk are jobs like clergy (0.8 percent); dentists (0.4 percent) and recreational therapists (0.2 percent). What is a recreational therapist anyway? The authors of the study don’t define the job, but it sounds suspiciously like an euphemism for a profession popular in Nevada, which would explain the low probability of the job being automated.

The study doesn’t mention recruiters except to say that big data analysis will result in better predictions of performance, especially of students, and will make recruitment more efficient.

The invention of the ATS and even the job board was supposed to do away with recruiters, or at least reduce the need. Back in 2000, a VP of HR at a Fortune 500 company asked me if they could fire all their recruiters now that the company was implementing an ATS. That vision has been peddled by vendors in one sense or another for a long time. At least one company sued an ATS vendor for promising this recruiter-less world, only to find out it wasn’t going to materialize anytime soon.

The Robot Recruiter

So are recruiters at risk? The question is easy to dismiss as frivolous. After all recruitment is highly unstructured work involving lots of creativity. Right? But to think we’re not at risk is to bury our heads in the sand. Unstructured tasks can be defined by best practices that can be standardized. Standardization means that a complex process can be reduced to routine components that can be automated in part or full. Consider driverless cars being pioneered by Google and other car makers. Driving is a complex task, but the technology already exists for cars to automate tasks like traffic sign recognition, lane departure warnings, and pedestrian spotting. Cab drivers will be rare in the near future. As for creativity  big data can simplify spotting sources of talent or identifying candidates that are not easily recognized by other means.

Even if a job is not fully automated, the need for people to do it can be greatly reduced. Barely a hundred years ago 70 percent of Americans worked as farmers. Farming isn’t extinct as a profession, but today only 2 percent of people work in it, and produce far more food than that 70 percent did. Today, the threat to recruiters is from big data. With the volume of data being collected on social networks and in the Android universe by Google one can see a situation where a slate of prospective candidates can be identified by algorithms trolling through social media profiles, emails, phone traffic, texts, etc. Marry that with telemarketing technology that can place calls and it leaves little for a recruiter to do.

One can argue that no one wants to get a call from a robot about a job. It doesn’t have to be a voice call — it can be a text conversation, which has already been automated by companies like Virtual Person. A third of Americans prefer texts to voice calls (which would at least eliminate those awkward situations where a prospective candidate has to walk away from their cubicle to take a call or is reached during a meeting). In this scenario the system could eventually hand over the conversation to a recruiter, but it would make the number of recruiters needed far fewer than today. Is it really unlikely that these technologies will not come together at some point?

So what does it mean for recruiters? First, while the threat of automation is not imminent, it’s certainly real. The profession has to evolve to one where we add more value in more unique ways. Finding new ways to use data and making better use of social networks to connect with candidates, such as through talent communities would be a clear path to follow.

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If that doesn’t work we can always become recreational therapists.

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On a personal note I’d like to mention that I have been away from writing on ERE for some time. I suffered a debilitating accident last April that left me paralyzed. I was not supposed to live and then I was told I would never walk. Today I am learning to walk again and can cover 50-100 feet with the aid of leg braces and a gait trainer. My therapists expect me to be on a conventional walker in a matter of weeks, and on crutches sometime after that.

To get this far requires 3 – 5 hours of physical therapy and walking practice seven days a week, leaving me little time to do much else. I expect to recover in full. What will I do then? Go to an ERE Conference (what else?).

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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