The Last Recruiter: AI and Recruiting

A long time ago, in a conference room far, far away, I was asked by an HR executive if the ATS I was implementing would eliminate the need for recruiters. At the time, the idea that recruiters would be replaced by technology seemed more fantasy than reality. Now, as AI becomes more pervasive, it’s beginning to seem more like a question of “when,” not “if” it will happen. Vendors of recruiting technology are building AI into products that do everything from sourcing to evaluating video interviews. The trend will only accelerate in coming years as AI technologies advance, leading inevitably to the question: is it time for recruiters to end?

AI Needs People

Stories about AI that make the news are ones like those about AI systems winning at Jeopardy or defeating the world chess champion. But what’s rarely mentioned is that vast numbers of people are needed to make these systems work. Despite having advanced AI systems to select and moderate content, Facebook recently announced that it would add 10,000 new content moderators to its workforce. Google also employs thousands of people to stop fake news and block objectionable content on YouTube. The reason for the increase in need for people to support AI is simple. As AI becomes more commonplace and cheaper, the demands placed on it increase — both in volume and complexity. The original algorithms created at its inception are unable to keep up, forcing the need for human intervention.

As AI becomes more common in recruiting, the need for recruiters may also increase. Take the situation that’s developing as a result of Microsoft’s Resume Assistant for Word. The feature will help job seekers create resumes using insights gleaned from LinkedIn. Sounds like a great idea, but this is happening at the same time as ATS vendors are introducing AI to help screen candidates — setting up a battle of competing AIs. Resumes created through Resume Assistant will include functionality to help candidates describe their work and highlight their skills. It’s likely that many resumes will start to look alike as candidates opt to rely on the software to create them, instead of using it as a guide.

The blessings of automation that free some people from drudgery can become a curse for others. While job boards simplified the process of finding and applying for jobs, they simultaneously made it easy for candidates to apply for any job they considered themselves remotely qualified for. The result was employers being inundated with resumes of unqualified and marginal candidates.

Microsoft will also make it easier for those using Resume Assistant to find and apply for jobs by directly connecting to job listings on LinkedIn. How many recruiters will trust the AI in their ATS to do the screening for them? In battles between competing AIs, humans become the arbiters.

The AI-Supported Recruiter

AI tends to redefine jobs rather than eliminate them. The effect on recruiting may be similar to what happened in the legal industry with AI-driven electronic discovery software being used to search through legal documents. The need for paralegals and lawyers increased, but the work they do now is different than what it was before. They spend more time analyzing the documents found by the software and writing up detailed briefs because expectations of quality have risen.

So a recruiter’s role may change because of AI. Some of this will happen in predictable ways. Despite the availability of ever more sourcing tools, recruiters still spend an inordinate amount of time finding candidates. The obsession with “passive candidates” contributes to this, since by definition these are people not interested in employment. AI-based tools can help identify those who are most likely to respond when approached, but what’s needed is mass personalization of messages to convince those candidates to apply. AI can help develop those messages and create the content that a candidate would find appealing, but ultimately a recruiter has to get involved. Having engaging conversations with candidates is often what’s needed to get them to apply. Alexa and Siri can’t do that.

Recruiters can focus on different aspects of hiring than they do today, like getting more involved in onboarding. The time it takes a candidate to become productive in a new job is heavily determined by the onboarding process. Poor onboarding may result in a candidate leaving soon after being hired. Research by SHRM shows that effective onboarding requires ensuring new employees understand their new jobs and all related expectations; get help in assimilating into the culture; and establish interpersonal relationships and informal networks. No AI product can do this, but a recruiter freed from other tasks may be the ideal person to do so. They’re the one person who already has a relationship with the candidate and knows the organization.

A New Hope

The fear of technology taking away people’s jobs has been around for over 500 years when Queen Elizabeth I denied an English inventor a patent for an automated knitting machine, saying that it would lead to starvation among her subjects.

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But automation often results in an increase in jobs. For example, the number of bank tellers in America has more than doubled since ATMs first arrived in the 1970s. Empirical evidence shows that the need for people frequently increases when computers start doing the work of people. Research at Boston University shows that since 1980, employment in occupations with above-average computer use has grown substantially faster than in occupations with below-average computer use. The effects are not uniform; many jobs are eliminated, as is happening in agriculture and manufacturing, but the overall effect is likely an increase in jobs. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020 AI will create more jobs than it eliminates, mentioning that AI “is more likely to assist humans than replace them as combinations of humans and machines will perform more effectively than either human experts or AI-driven machines working alone will.”

AI is not a phantom menace. It is real, it is here, and it definitely will continue to replace many of the tasks done by recruiters today. But if the profession redefines itself to provide more value, then it will grow and flourish, leaving no one asking whether it is time for recruiters to end.