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Hit The Ground Running

Three Things Recruiters No Longer Look For (And Three They Still Do)

Is job-hopping really OK? Do you still need a cover letter? We talked to the experts to find out what matters in hiring.

[Photo: Nuk2013 via Shutterstock]

Restarting your job search after being off the market for a while? Or just getting into it the first time? In either case, there’s a very real possibility that the career advice you’re working off of is outmoded or just not as fine-tuned as it could be.

But that's probably not your fault. Employers all want different things for different roles in different industries—which isn’t making the lives of the recruiters they hire to help fill those roles any easier. If recruiters are getting mixed messages, they’re passing them along to job seekers.

To take just one issue—like whether job-hopping helps or hurts you—Kate Orngard, a technical recruiter at the IT firm CTG, puts it this way: "Job seekers really need to show both—they need to show they can stick with a company more than a year, but also show some variety."

Don’t shoot the messenger; recruiters like Orngard are just trying to fulfill employers’ stated needs. But it can still be hard to know what to do right when the meaning of "right" is such a moving target.

So we’re here to help nail it down. These are a few things recruiters are saying they no longer look for as much as they used to and a few things they still do—or are paying attention to even more.

What Recruiters Care Less About

1. Your cover letter. In the past few years, some have declared cover letters obsolete—apparently justifiably so. "I haven’t read one in a long time," confides Judi Kruger, director of talent acquisition for global sales and services at Cisco. That’s mainly because they just aren’t an efficient way to comb through high volumes of candidates quickly (and with minimal unconscious bias).

Instead, companies and recruitment firms are adopting increasingly powerful software for screening job applicants. And it’s thanks to those software programs that a good resume is becoming more important as cover letters fall by the wayside. There are risks to cramming your resume with keywords in order to get picked up by an applicant tracking system (ATS), but according to Susan Vitale, CMO at the ATS service iCIMS, one simple trick can help you get noticed: Acronyms.

If you’re a sales professional who’s "familiar with CRMS"—customer relationship management software—"spelling it out and including the acronym," she says, "is important because that’s how resumes are being searched and parsed for information. That may not have been something that you’d have had to worry about five years ago."

2. Where you went to school. "Hiring managers are caring less about where somebody graduated from school," Vitale adds, "and are focusing far more on the pure skills that may be transferrable." While academic pedigree is still important—Vitale cites STEM and finance as two noteworthy holdouts, especially at the entry level—she says recruiters are generally giving less weight to an impressive alma mater than they used to.

Instead, Vitale advises, "you want to dial up the skills . . . those things jump out far more than your grad school."

3. Where you used to work. "We’re seeing more cross-pollination among industries than ever before," says Vitale. One example: Many design firms and design-heavy fields are now seeing Uber as a top competitor for talent, thanks to the demands of the digital consumer market. "You need a product that looks really good whether you are a software designer or a shoe manufacturer," Vitale explains.

"UX and UI are now prevailing across multiple industries where in the past that used to be more pigeonholed." And it’s for similar reasons that "software and systems proficiency are also more pervasive than they were a few years ago." Which means that the employers you worked for previously may now matter less to recruiters than what you did there, how well you did it, and what you learned in the process.

What Recruiters Still Care About

So if that’s what’s changing, what’s staying the same? And which are the familiar standout qualifications that are actually gaining cache?

1. Your research chops. Jim Stroud has been involved in recruitment since 1997, consulting for Microsoft, Google, Siemens, and MCI, and since then he’s seen younger workers’ research skills get shakier as access to information widens. One of the first opportunities for a recruiter to spot that gap is in salary expectations.

Now senior director of RPO recruitment strategies and support at Randstad Sourceright, Stroud says that "in the past, people would pitch a salary based on where they worked before," and that made perfect sense to recruiters at a time when reliable, industry-wide salary data wasn’t so available.

But now that anybody can easily look up the going rates for specific roles, levels of experience, and geographical regions on sites like Glassdoor, PayScale, and Indeed.com, failing to benchmark yourself can look sloppy.

After all, that’s just about the simplest level of research you can demonstrate, and you can do it right off the bat. Stroud says it’s also a smart idea to "do the research on the recruiters you will be talking to" so you can ask smarter questions about their needs and objectives during your interview. At a minimum, it’s now pretty much expected that you’ll have checked out your interviewer’s LinkedIn profile ahead of time the same way they’ve definitely checked out yours.

2. Too much job-hopping (in most cases). Some say job-hopping is losing its negative stigma since it’s now common to spend three years or less at a given employer. Others disagree, and the strongest endorsement of job-hopping that recruiters seem willing to make is basically a resounding, "it depends."

If a candidate has worked in a startup environment, says Stroud, "they’re doing more than one job. The way you handle people, the way you’re solving problems, the way you can communicate with other folks"—these are things recruiters tend to expect candidates with startup experience to excel at.

Kruger agrees that job-hopping is less of an automatic red flag than it was a decade ago, when it "was considered a very negative thing" across the board. "I see that trend has almost flipped," she says—going the farthest on this question of the four recruiters Fast Company spoke with.

But "almost" may be the operative word here. Vitale cautions that switching jobs too frequently is still more a liability than an advantage due to simple economics: The costs to employers of backfilling positions usually far outstrip any skills a candidate might have picked up by jumping around a lot. Evidence of "commitment and loyalty," in Kruger’s words, just makes for a safer investment.

3. How you talk about your career. Particularly as those attitudes toward job-hopping evolve, it’s putting more pressure on job seekers to do one thing well: control the narratives about their careers.

"A job seeker has to be able to tell their story and tell how one thing relates to another," says Kruger. That’s arguably always been important, but getting it right may set you over the edge more quickly than it has in the past. In Stroud’s experience, candidates’ oral and written communications skills alike are deteriorating, and employers still need people who have both.

Not incidentally, both of those stand out in a recent PayScale/Future Workplace survey asking hiring managers to list the skills entry-level job seekers most lack. So if you want to get a leg up, these tried-and-true communication skills might be a great place to start.

Related video: make sure that recruiters see your best side in your LinkedIn photo

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