They Look Human

By now we all know there’s a robot reading your resume when you apply for a job. It explains all that has confused the job seekers of the world for the last 10-20 years. Everybody knew there was something wrong. We just didn’t have the facts. When it comes to finding work in America, facts seem to be rather scarce. But now that we know, we can evaluate where we stand.

Where we stand is on the brink of societal and cultural disaster. Our entire civilization is built on the fundamental principle that a man who wants to work can find work. He may not start out at his dream job. He may not start out making much, either. But he certainly isn’t going to be confined to an Internet job board, clicking “apply instantly” buttons and being lied to until he starves.

Until now.

Our civilization and future are both being destroyed in a small room containing two chairs, a desk, a hiring manager and a job candidate. What happens in that room is the foundation of our entire economy. If the candidate can’t successfully navigate what happens in that room, no homes get sold, no cars get bought, no man marries a wife and no children are raised in two-parent homes. That room is where the American Dream gestates. Without it, all that our ancestors fought for is gone.

But our problem is more fundamental. Nobody can get in to that room. There’s a robot at the door barring entry. So it no longer matters what happens in that room, because nothing happens in that room.

There are six million people in this country who not only want to work, but have, in some cases, spent decades building the skills and experience to be effective at their jobs. These are people who can start making their employers money the very moment they sit down at their new desk. If we tolerate the status quo as it stands today, these people will never work again. Six million people is the combined population of Chicago, Houston and Sacramento, all sitting idle for the rest of their lives: Their talent, knowledge and skill wasted.

The “application tracking system,” as it has come to be known, was inserted into the hiring process by so-called “employers” without notice. The traditional job seekers had no idea they had been placed on the other side of a firewall by the companies that claimed to want their “marketable skills.” It stood to reason, of course, for those of us who have witnessed the increasingly vindictive way employers began to excuse themselves from the responsibility for their former employees about 20 years ago. Layoffs following higher profits became the dominant-tonic chord progression of American business after the dot-com crash. It was almost as if executives had some kind of vendetta against technology workers. But I have about as much proof of that right now as we had for application tracking systems ten years ago. A robot reading your resume? What a crazy idea!

Exactly how is the ATS evaluating your resume? Do you really believe it’s just looking at keywords from the job ad? It’s not looking at anything else? Do you really believe employers with an agenda can’t tune an ATS to exclude applicants based on any criteria they choose? How about zip code? How about age? Want to know how quick I can program a computer to figure out your age within five years?

What if an application tracking system is capable of monitoring your applications to many different employers at once? What if it’s keeping track of how many resumes you send out in a given time interval? How hard would it be for that ATS to be provided a threshold number and then to automatically blackball you after you reach your maximum number of applications in a week? A month? Ever? The employer could justify it by saying you’re a spammer, or that you’re desperate. They don’t want desperate people. So they’ll just blackball you.

What if they set up their ATS to reject if you’ve been rejected by another ATS? How hard would it be to tag you with the job market’s version of the scarlet letter forever? What if they reject you for having a resume that’s too good? What if they start analyzing the data to see which days of the week most successful applications arrive and then reject everyone else? People who apply on weekends probably have a job. Others probably don’t. Which do you want, boss? *click* –poverty and desperation for all.

In other words, after employers turn the job application process into a numbers game, they can start punishing you for treating it like a numbers game. You’re no longer looking for a job you want. You’re just looking for a job. The higher they turn that dial, the more impenetrable their ATS becomes. It’s not a mistake it’s called an application tracking system. Of course, that’s an Orwellian euphemism. Let’s call it what it really is: a firewall.

What else could a vindictive employer do with a hostile ATS? Could they set a minimum credit score? That’s ludicrous! Employers can’t get access to your credit score without permission! They would face legal trouble if they did that! They don’t have your credit score! What a crazy idea!

How hard would it be to reject resumes based on surnames? Or based on whether you have an accent in your surname? Or based on your e-mail address? Are you using gmail? Reject. Are you not using gmail? Reject. Could an ATS be programmed to prioritize applications if a competitor is listed in a candidate’s employment history? What if it performed a public records search and pulled up your divorce? Or your personal injury case from that slip and fall at your flower store last year? Or the police report from your car accident? Or the legal dispute you had with a former employer over their repeated attempts to illegally exploit your intellectual property? Reject. Reject. Reject. Reject. Employers don’t want colorful people in cubicles. They want obedient, unremarkable drones. Obedient, unremarkable people don’t show up in public records searches. They have 35 followers on Twitter and live alone.

I’ve written eight novels. That alone is grounds to reject every application I ever file. A guy who writes novels might get ideas. Might get uppity in a meeting. And we can’t have that.

But they want rock stars also.

What if the ATS just does a Google search and rejects you if you do show up, or alternatively rejects you if you don’t? Either condition could be a red flag depending on how paranoid and resentful your recruiter is. What if you have a common name and the ATS mistakes you for someone else? Reject.

Want to make it even more sinister? What if the ATS qualifies you the way social media companies qualify ad audiences? What if it rejects all Android phone owners in favor of iPhone owners? People with iPhones are generally more affluent, and affluent people are preferable to some companies and some hiring managers. You really don’t want to know how easy it is to find out which kind of phone you own.

What if I told you I can guess your income based on what TV shows you like? What if I told you I can guess your age the same way? Favorite band? The kind of computer you own? With the right tools, a savvy advertiser can zero in on your front porch with a half-dozen pieces of seemingly unconnected information. Remember the last time you passed around one of those “list your favorites” surveys on your favorite social media platform? Ever take a poll on social media? Are you in a group? Which one? If more than one, how are they related? How long do you think it would take to connect that to your e-mail address and then to your exact identity and your credit report? About eight trillionths of a second.

Don’t overthink it. The robot doesn’t have to be right. It just has to be close enough.

Know what the best part is? You’ll never know it happened. Without a massively expensive legal siege you’ll never be able to prove the little black box blocked your job application on grounds having exactly nothing to do with your qualifications, skills or experience. It can make a snap judgement about your life based on conjecture, statistics and theory, and then it can declare you unemployable and relentlessly enforce its decision forever and there is nothing you can do about it no matter how many graduate degrees you have.

The robot does not care about your qualifications. All that matters is whether your resume is fictional enough to beat the filter. That’s what gets you the interview now.

Lest you console yourself with the notion this is as far as it will go, I am here to tell you this doesn’t even begin to demonstrate what is in store for future generations. You see, real jobs have become privileges for the favored few. That’s why everyone else has two or three pretend jobs to make ends meet, all underpaid. Anyone who has been paying attention for the last 30 years knows how rapidly someone can become “more corporate than thou” if they snuggle deeply enough into that leather chair and can hide behind a receptionist, a key card and a general counsel. Once the rabble has been quietly locked out, how long will it be before you are legally required to avert your eyes if you actually encounter someone who is salaried? You probably thought the Matrix was just entertainment, and that dressing the agents in suits was all in good fun. It was a warning, not science fiction.

Your kids will never have a real job.

I’m not going to let the universal basic income people off the hook here, either. UBI is the last echoing click of the shackles that will be eternally fastened to your wrists if we allow this to continue. If you yearn for free money in place of the opportunity that once existed in America, you yearn for a prison. The same goes for you if you think borrowing scooters, cars and places to sleep with an app are good substitutes for owning a home and independent transportation. If you own no land, you have no future.

Back in the 1980s, we were all entertained by Kyle Reese and his cryptic warning to Sarah Connor about the future. The line has been exploited for humor, parody and dramatic prescience for decades.

“That thing is out there. It can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be bargained with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

That line isn’t really very funny any more, is it?

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