Frustrated by a previous online job application experience, UTC senior Allison Wade took a different tack and landed a job as server at Blue Plate restaurant by seeking the job out face-to-face.

Sure, Allison Wade thought, getting a position that requires a suit and a college degree probably demands first filling out online job applications. But to wait tables? Yes, it turns out, in that case too.

Two years ago, she filled out an online employment application to be a server at Big River in Chattanooga. It didn't take extraordinarily long, about an hour. But it was extraordinarily burdensome, the longtime server recalled.

Tips: How to navigate screening

To increase the odds of getting your resume through applicant screening systems:

Use simple formatting, without graphics. It often helps to put company, position and work dates on separate lines.

Longer resumes can help if they have more keywords related to the position you are seeking.

Be straightforward in labeling your experience and position titles, generally reflecting the keywords in the job description.

Sources: CareerXroads, Professional Diversity Network

"It was so long and so ridiculous," said Wade, 25, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student. It included a five-page questionnaire, along with standard work-history information. After hitting send, she even stopped by the restaurant to follow up. She never heard back.

Of course, silence might have meant managers decided she didn't fit the bill. Still, the increasing prevalence and impersonal nature of online applications means many job hunters must push through the process begrudgingly, wondering if their parsed resumes ever make it in front of recruiters' faces or instead wind up in a digital void.

"The candidate experience becomes so poor," said Dan Sullivan, chief revenue officer for Chicago-based Professional Diversity Network, which operates online networking and job posting sites. "It's a tool we give to the job seeker, but it doesn't really help them."

According to results from a survey conducted last year by Jibe, a New York City-based recruiting-technology company, job hunters ranked filling out an online application as more difficult than filling out applications for mortgages, college, graduate school, online dating, government identification -- the list goes on. Put another way, about 19 percent of respondents said they'd prefer spending a day in line getting their driver's license renewed and 12 percent would prefer getting a root canal at the dentist.

Still, many companies use applicant-tracking systems, software that forces job hunters to submit what's typically found on their resumes, along with other personal background, in pre-determined fields of online applications. Usually the systems import resumes to extract information.

The tracking software often narrows the pool of candidates so that a company's staff doesn't have to eyeball enormous numbers of resumes, which have increased in volume due to online job boards. That means a machine is doing the vetting, often based on keywords, not a human being who can get a sense for candidates by glancing at their resumes.

Flaws in the online system

"These systems are flawed," said Sullivan, whose company helps job seekers navigate tracking systems. "They tend to make more bad decisions than good ones."

For example, if the job requires knowledge of Word or Excel but an applicant instead lists Microsoft Office (which includes Word and Excel), the tracking system won't make the connection. Or someone's career arc might make them a great candidate for a certain job, even though they have never before held the title for that job -- but the system won't know because it's looking for a specific job title.

"ATS says, 'I'm going to take a look at these 620 words and analyze those words specifically in relation to this job they're applying for,' " Sullivan said. "If someone has too much description of previous experience, that doesn't have to do with this job, it could hurt them."

About 60 percent of companies that responded to an informal survey by the Chattanooga chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management for this story said they rely on online job applications. The poll was far from scientific -- only 11 percent of the 270 companies surveyed responded -- but the reasons human-resource professionals cited for using the system fall in line with reasons cited by experts and companies nationwide. Online applications help with screening for positions, reduce paperwork, improve record keeping and require applicants to answer questions to complete the application.

Unum and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, both based in Chattanooga, rely on applicant-tracking systems. Both companies, however, say that someone on staff looks at pretty much every resume or application that comes through, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 a year for each company.

"More than anything it creates efficiency throughout the company," said Jasmine Mobley, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's manager of talent acquisition.

Unum's system doesn't use a filtering algorithm, nor does it look for keywords tied to experience or education, said Marcia Leander, the company's vice president of talent acquisition. "We think it's important to get a total look at the candidates," she said. "We are lucky that our recruiters look at the resumes."

Smaller companies use online applications too. Application Researchers LLC, a Chattanooga-based company that specializes in pre-employment background screenings, created software with that in mind. It doesn't have tracking capabilities, but it demands applicants fill out predetermined fields. The software makes the recruitment process easier for hiring companies to vet job seekers and for Application Researchers to complete background checks.

"In HR, we are so incredibly taxed," said Merri Mai Williamson, the company's founder and chairwoman. "When the recession hit, a lot of HR got cut. We're all wearing way too many hats and have way too much to do. But we realize people are our greatest asset in a company." 

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Merri Williamson

Most tracking systems, as well as Application Researchers' software, let job seekers know once their application has been submitted. After that, though, it's generally up to human-resource staff to update job hopefuls on their submission, though that doesn't always happen.

"I myself have been guilty," Williamson said. "I have a process in place that says every applicant is acknowledged and they know if they make it to the next step. There have been times in my 20-plus-year history that I have been so overwhelmed that I have not followed my own process."

Jibe's survey reflects that gap: Only 19 percent of respondents said that they felt like companies are respectful of their time, and only 14 percent said companies made them feel valued during the process.

The old-school way

After her first bump with Big River's application process, Wade tried again at the restaurant about nine months later, and was told management would look up her online application. "In the sea of infinite applications, I didn't really have high expectations for it," Wade said. Soured on the process, she nixed applying to Mellow Mushroom quite simply because the pizzeria had an online process.

She got a job last summer waiting tables at The Blue Plate in Chattanooga -- the old-school way: While dining there, she asked the hostess if the restaurant was hiring, got an application and brought it back the next day, at which time the manager interviewed her on the spot. "That face-to-face contact is such a huge part of making an impression on an employer. If I'm going to get ready and nice looking when I'm running around trying to get a job, and they say: 'Just go online,' it's like, what's the point?"

Chattanooga resident Greg Shoup's thoughts on online job applications are "100 percent negative." By his count, Shoup applied to about 200 jobs online last year. He got seven interviews from those, and zero job offers. 

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Greg Shoup, head of business development for SeamBot, on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, at the Chattanooga Mini Maker Faire at the First Tennessee Pavilion in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Staff photo by Doug Strickland)

"I'll lay a little blame on myself," said the 25-year-old UTC graduate, who has a masters degree in international business. "Maybe my resume isn't as strong as it could be, but I'm not wholly unqualified for these jobs."

Shoup got laid off about a year ago when his position in international sales with a Chattanooga company was eliminated. As his savings dwindled, he took a part-time warehouse job last fall, referred to the company by a friend. When it became clear that the response rate to his online submissions was so low, he tried to find other ways to submit his resume. A time or two he found a job posting with an email address, but when he sent his resume and cover letter, the recruiter responded by telling him to fill out the online application. "I kind of wonder what they're doing," Shoup said.

The tried-and-true method of getting a job through connections and referrals is still the best, career experts say. And sometimes today's technology can even help with that.

RedPoint Management recommends several people in a company broadcast an opening through social networks such as LinkedIn or Facebook. "You have a built-in network of references," said Michael Pollock, the Chattanooga human-resource development consultancy's president.

The strategy has worked, Pollock said. "We're very human-centered."

Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at or 423-757-6406.