Little more than a decade ago, online job searches were primarily the province of a tiny population of hardcore techies. Today, online recruiting forms one of the central pillars of a smart staffing strategy for firms in every economic sector.
Increasingly, job seekers are turning to electronic resources such as corporate web sites, federal, state, and municipal job postings, online job search engines and aggregators, Internet classifieds, and online versions of local and national newspapers to facilitate the job search process. Conversely, a growing majority of employers have moved a significant proportion of their recruitment efforts online. For professionals on both sides of the hiring equation, the notion of conducting a job search or candidate hunt offline is virtually inconceivable in 2007.
However, while it is undeniable that the movement online of many recruitment functions and job search resources has vastly expanded the scope, accessibility, ease, and efficiency of the recruitment process, the long-term implications of this trend remain shrouded in ambiguity. In the interim, the ever-quickening pace of technological advancement has thrust many HR practitioners into the awkward position of being forced to define a set of best practices for online recruitment on the fly, as it were, even as the protocols and methods that are being used in the process continue to evolve.
As with any moving target, the exponentially expanding trend of online recruitment resists easy definition and description. But by relying on a number of recent analyses and indices, it is possible to piece together a clearer picture of what the trend of online recruitment is and what it isn’t — and what it may portend about the future of HR.
Tracing the Trajectory of the Online Recruitment Trend, 2000-2007
Like virtually every other Internet-facilitated service, online job search and recruitment activity have vastly expanded since the year 2000. However, unlike many other Internet-based service trends that declined in the early 2000s, some analysts contend that the dot-com crash and the subsequent tightening of first the IT and then the general labor market actually facilitated the expansion of online job searches and recruitment efforts.
As the labor market was flooded with a sudden influx of laid-off workers, many of whom were refugees from the IT industry, online job search resources gradually emerged as a touchstone for millions of jobseekers. Although many firms had been listing open positions on their corporate websites long before this, the early 2000s was the period during which a truly distinct online recruitment paradigm emerged and first attained a level of critical mass.
Market data and statistical analyses of the burgeoning online recruitment industry seem to confirm this account. In 1999, it was reported that less than one-third of Fortune 500 companies were engaged in any form of online recruitment whatsoever, including the posting of open positions on the firm’s own corporate website. By 2003, that figure had jumped to 94%; today, it registers as 100%.
Job seekers are also focusing extensively — and in many cases, exclusively — on online sources in the process of seeking a new position. In 2003, it was reported that 45% of job seekers confirmed having consulted the Internet as part of their job search. By 2006, a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management put the number of job seekers who used online resources in their job searches at a staggering 96%. It appears that for a growing number of employees on the lookout for a new position, the concepts of “job search” and “online job search” are now virtually synonymous.
In the early days of online recruitment, most job sites were either maintained by a corporate parent solely for the purpose of internal recruitment, or operated on a volunteer or donation-only basis by individuals involved in a particular field or industry. Today, however, online recruitment is a lucrative industry in its own right; the top job search sites now regularly pull in hefty profits. This income is derived largely from ad revenues generated by companies willing to pay big bucks to market their wares to the millions of job seekers who regularly peruse sites like Monster.com and Yahoo! HotJobs.
In 2003, the online recruitment industry was generating slightly more than $3 billion in annual revenues. In 2007, the figure now exceeds $16 billion, with analysts estimating that the online recruitment industry could take in more than $20 billion annually as early as next year.
Taken together, all of the statistical indicators tell a story of exponential growth and expansion in the prevalence, popularity, importance, and profitability of the online recruitment industry. In the course of just a few short years, what once was a narrow niche market has exploded into mainstream ubiquity.
However, while there’s no denying the skyrocketing popularity of online recruitment, the outcomes and implications of this trend are not as clearly defined — or readily definable. Once the easily quantifiable variables of ad revenues and user counts are left behind, we enter the somewhat murkier territory of gauging the efficacy and impact of online recruitment.
These more subjective measures aren’t as precise, but they still offer valuable insight to firms seeking to refine and optimize their online recruitment strategy. In the next section, we’ll take a look at some of the benefits and pitfalls of online recruiting — and how they can impact your firm’s bottom line.
The Advantages of Online Recruitment
The widespread advent of online recruitment has ushered in a brave new world for jobseekers and employers alike, rife with myriad benefits and rewards. Some of these advantages are obvious, while others, though more subtle, are no less significant.
The most immediately apparent benefit of online recruitment is the vastly improved degree of recruitment process management this approach offers. Throughout every phase of the recruitment process, an online system facilitates a much more streamlined, standardized approach than traditional, paper-based recruitment. Many once-manual tasks, such as sorting, coding, filing, and routing application materials, can now be performed automatically. Some experts estimate that the average recruitment cycle is one-third to one-half as long as it was in the pre-Internet era.
This enhanced process efficiency contributes significantly to another major benefit of online recruitment — its cost-effectiveness. Although the costs of developing and implementing a full-scale recruitment system on a firm’s corporate web site are often not inconsiderable, recent studies and industry surveys indicate that most firms’ recruitment costs have decreased sharply after the shift toward online systems.
Some leading-edge online recruitment tools hold the promise of extending the efficiency of this approach even further. Applications like qualification quizzes, instant ‘fit’ assessments, skill-based evaluations, and other metrics can be administered instantly to candidates over the Internet, thus further winnowing down the number of résumés that must be hand-coded by HR personnel. Although not yet widely used, industry experts see this trend as an important component of online recruitment’s future.
Conversely, even as new and emerging tools can help firms weed out unsuitable applicants automatically, the shift toward online recruitment has also improved the 21st century job search by allowing employers to cast the broadest net possible in the search for qualified candidates. By using the Internet as a recruitment platform, companies have eliminated many of the geographical, cultural, and time-zone constraints that once narrowed the candidate pool. This benefit is particularly well-suited to today’s workplace, in which team diversity is appreciated as a way to gain competitive advantage in the global marketplace.
Experts have also noted that when properly managed, online recruitment’s positive impact can transcend the realm of HR and enhance the firm in other ways, as well. In an era in which image is everything, online recruitment can form an important component of an overarching brand management strategy. Whether or not a candidate opts to apply for an open position, the marketing collateral that’s packed into a carefully-crafted online job posting can help enhance brand awareness, an intangible but vital variable in today’s cut-throat competitive landscape.
The Disadvantages of Online Recruitment
Despite the rich promise inherent in the practice of online recruitment, there are potential drawbacks, as well. Although many of the current concerns will likely be able to be overcome through future advancements in the technology, they still merit serious consideration.
In the early days of online recruitment, many expressed concern that qualified applicants may be overlooked by recruiters focusing primarily on candidates who submitted online applications. Initially, this point was valid, as most of the jobseekers who were “early adopters” of online recruitment were a self-selecting group of college-educated, computer literature, and, for the most part, demographically homogenous individuals.
However, Internet use among the general public has skyrocketed over the last five years. Virtually every demographic group has an online presence, making it likely that the right candidates will find a way to connect with the right position. In addition, most companies continue to maintain traditional application channels to accommodate the needs of offline jobseekers.
Conversely, while some experts fear that the growing popularity of online recruitment may exclude too many potential applicants, others fear that online application methods aren’t exclusive enough. Now that virtually anyone can submit an application with just a few clicks of the mouse, the traditional barriers that worked to keep out wholly unsuitable candidates have now been largely eliminated.
Admittedly, this can pose a logistical problem for some companies. The glut of entry-level applications — most from wildly unqualified candidates — that descend upon companies in weeks following college graduation have attained near-legendary status.
But overall, most firms report that the number of inappropriate applications is manageable, and a small price to pay for the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness gains they’ve realized from online recruiting. Furthermore, as the use of automated screening applications becomes more prevalent, the negative impact of inappropriate applications will be virtually eliminated.
A somewhat more thorny issue is the complaint that online recruitment erases the “human” aspect of human resources management. Although the automation of many phases of the recruitment process has led to massive gains in efficiency and cost-effectiveness, some critics have questioned whether this approach is too impersonal. This concern has validity in an era in which intangible factors such as a candidate’s organizational “fit” and the sense of “clicking” with the existing team dynamic are considered more important than ever before.
The counter-argument, of course, is that the parts of the application process that are now regularly managed by an online system are typically those that were once handled through postal mail. After the initial rounds of information exchange, most companies take the application process offline and proceed with telephone or face-to-face interviews. However, the fact remains that the same streamlined standardization that boosts the efficiency of online recruitment does depersonalize and decontextualized the process to a degree, depriving both recruiter and candidate of some of the subtle cues and clues that can convey so much information in human interactions.
What Does It All Mean? Considering the Impact and Implications of Online Recruitment
While it is abundantly clear that online recruitment has inexorably altered the hiring process, its impact upon the overarching practices and principles of human resources and personnel management are not yet fully defined. At the current juncture, it seems as if the primary change has been a technological one, in which the newspaper help-wanted ads and snail-mailed paper résumés of the past have been neatly replaced with their electronic successors.
In other words, although the tools we use have changed, most of the underlying principles that govern the recruitment process have remained basically unchanged. Today, the HR profession stands at a critical junction. We have been presented with the unique — and formidable — opportunity to help usher in a new paradigm that combines the best of both worlds — the efficiency and unparalleled reach of the Internet with the high-touch, intuitive, and exceedingly human focus of traditional recruitment methods.
Technology has been and will continue to be an important factor in this process, but we should bear in mind that it is a tool, rather than an end unto itself. Our overarching objective remains unchanged: as recruitment professionals, we are charged with the responsibility of finding and keeping the best candidates. Online recruitment should be regarded as just one of the many techniques we use to achieve this goal — no more and no less.