Online job application stagnation

(First published in the July 18, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Companies are desperate for employees. So what’s with those cumbersome and annoying website forms?

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The idea for this story started over lunch in Madison. My former coworker, after talking about development in that city, started telling me about jobs he was applying for. They were in a professional industry, jobs that required a degree, and many of the online application processes he encountered sounded ridiculous. He would upload his resume, only to have to fill out the exact same information into a form online, along with other tedious details. Any sort of error would boot him out and he’d have to start over.

I started hearing this from other people applying for jobs. It surprised me to learn that, in an era described as “full employment” — meaning less than 4% unemployment —and with companies scrambling to find employees, these archaic and cumbersome applications are still in place.

Furthermore, I found experts on the subject who are as baffled as anyone as to why some companies are still using these outdated application processes yet still complain they can’t find enough workers. Though no one wanted to identify local employers that are doing it wrong, many say this is a major deterrent to recruiting. Yes, a cumbersome application process will weed out unqualified or unserious candidates, but it also risks booting out those who are very qualified just because a data field wasn’t perfect or an applicant simply got pissed off and moved on to another job prospect.

It’s a problem local business advocates are interested in solving, and it turns out there are classes popping up in the Wausau area aimed at addressing this very problem. That problem is a costly one, by the way. It costs about two times a potential employee’s salary to recruit, hire and completely train that employee. Employers can’t afford not to streamline their recruitment and retention processes.

The recession is over, people


The equation has flipped with more job openings than people. And yet many of those cumbersome online application processes are still in place, says Heikkinen

Coinciding with the Great Recession starting in 2008, companies started implementing internet based applications. Though more efficient in many ways, they are also more prone to error. A missed data field might result in an application not getting through. Some online processes require an applicant to spend hours re-typing information already on their resumes.

Between 2008 and around 2010, this process was more a feature than a flaw. When jobs were scarce and each opening would attract hundreds of resumes, weeding out half of them saved employers time.

But the situation is different now. The equation has flipped with more job openings than people. And yet many of those cumbersome online application processes — the ones that several years ago were meant to weed out unqualified candidates— are still in place, says Derek Heikkinen, director of business operations for the Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

The cost of hiring is illustrated in a presentation made by Northcentral Technical College teacher Mary Jane Peterson. Replacement costs for a new employee earning $10 per hour are $31,200. For a $20 per hour, replacing an employee costs $62,400. And a $50,000 per year job costs $75,000.

Those costs can include a variety of things: Placement fees, interviews, training, advertising, relocation, signing bonuses and overtime, for example.

And observers say a lot of businesses haven’t improved their onboarding process either. According to Peterson’s presentation, new employees today come with new expectations. Those include signing bonuses, work-life balance and loyalty to their career – not to a company. One in six new hires are lost in the first three months. The most cited reason was not receiving clear job responsibilities guidelines, followed closely by wanting more effective training.

“Sadly we’re finding that so many employers spend so much time recruiting, and people don’t stay through the first break,” Peterson says. “They’re gone by lunch time and no one knows why.”

One thing The Job Center is seeing, Heikkinen says, is an influx of potential applicants with some kind of barrier to employment. For example, there are seniors looking to get back into the workforce but they might lack the computer skills necessary to apply for the job even if they have the capacity to learn those skills.

That’s just one example of how streamlining and humanizing the employment process would open up a pool of applicants that employers desperate for talent could take advantage of. That might mean adding a more personal touch, like reaching out to potential hires more, and making sure they feel like more than a number.

“Nowadays, it’s no different than recruiting a high school athlete to play Division I college ball,” Heikkinen says. “Everyone wants to feel wanted.”

Peterson says not only are some of these hours-long application processes cumbersome, they’re also invasive. “It can be worrisome from an employee-standpoint that you have to disclose so much,” Peterson says. “We’ve gone from recommending a very detail-oriented process to, let’s just get some general background and identify and bring in candidates.”

Peterson also recommends the use of videos on an employer’s website that show what the actual job is like. That video should include interviews with actual employees talking about their job and what they like about the company.

“Today that’s one thing employees have, is they can learn a lot more about potential employers,” Peterson says.

One of the things that make this necessary? Despite the recovery of the economy and record-low unemployment, the overall percentage of the population still employed is still low compared to its precession peak. According to data from Pew Research, 62.7% of the population was employed before the recession. That dropped to 58.2% at its low point during the recession, but has only recovered to 58.8% — still much lower than the percentage employed before the recession hit.

Those trends are even more stark in Wisconsin. Starting at 68% of the population, only about 63% were employed during the recession’s low point, and didn’t change much since the recovery.

Greenheck’s changes saw results

Onboarding, including make a streamlined application process and training program, is something Greenheck Fan Corporation has spent a lot of time working on, says the company’s Vice President of Human Resources Kathy Drengler.

For example, Greenheck retooled the application itself to take just basic information from applicants. The details then are fleshed out in person, in an interview, Drengler says.

Through its tracking, Greenheck now sees far fewer people drop out during the online application process.

The company also changed the way it handles training. For example, in addition to a lengthy onboarding process, the company now has a two-day, hands-on training program with its production workers. And during the onboarding process, new employees spend a few days using the tools they’ll use on the job to build a special project. It’s a fun way to get the employees familiar with their work tools, build camaraderie with fellow new employees, and get comfortable with the company.

That process started about a year and a half ago, and Drengler says it’s very important in the modern work environment.

“We’re finding people coming in with less experience, from other industries, and without hands on experience, so it’s valuable,” Drengler says.

Besides revamping all the company’s policy manuals and employment handbooks, and its extensive benefits orientation program, the company also pairs new people with a senior employee who can help show them the ropes and answer any questions. It also instantly gives them a connection with someone at their new workplace.

At Greenheck, it seems to be working. The retention rate at Greenheck’s Wisconsin operations tend to hold in the mid-90s percentile. Turnover under 10% is considered good by best practices.

“We spend a lot of time evaluating all the things we’re doing to make sure we’re an employer of choice,” Drengler says. “In this labor market, you have to do that.”

Community onboarding

It’s not just jobs that people are onboarding to. One of the challenges recognized by the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce is the idea of onboarding new young professionals to the community at large, says Chamber President Dave Eckmann. “Young professionals get here and they have an inability to connect with people with like interests,” Eckmann says. He hopes a new website being built as part of the Chamber’s new economic development strategy can help that somewhat.

Eckmann also has observed how online application processes are needlessly complicated, and rendered even more complicated when interfaced with job sites such as CareerBuilder. Eckmann says his own daughter experienced this recently when applying for a job in Madison. She spent three hours finishing an application, only to be sent to to fill out more forms.

Companies will have to re-examine their poorly designed processes if they want to help attract a new workforce. “The next generation of our workforce is tech savvy,” Eckmann says. “They don’t necessarily have the patience to do these double processes.”

Completely doing away with online applications is a pipe dream, of course. Most companies must comply with certain procedures that are greatly aided via these online applications, Heikkinen says. But just because something is digital and online doesn’t mean it works well. Returning to a personal touch can help ensure companies actually attract the best potential candidates, not those simply with the time and patience to sift through tedious and redundant forms.

“There are a lot of qualified people who are not writing the best resumes,” Eckmann says. “That’s a skill they have to learn, but there are a lot of qualified workers who, through artificial systems, don’t get looked at.”

Local companies seems to be getting the message. In September, the local economic development agency MCDEVCO will host a class for employers on recruitment and training, led by Melissa Klade from Wipfli accounting firm. MCDEVCO Executive Director Vicky Resech says their workshops are created based on surveys they regularly send out to businesses about what topics they should cover.

Humanizing the recruitment process is where small businesses can gain an advantage, says Resech. Small businesses might not be able to compete on salary and benefits with their larger counterparts, but many can compete in other ways, such as flexible hours, work from home arrangements, and profit sharing, Resech says. A smaller employer also can work directly with employees to find a situation that best fits their personality, such as whether they’re an introvert or extrovert — something more logistically challenging at a larger organization, Resech says.

With younger employees increasingly wanting to know their contributions are making a difference, the closer-knit environment of a small business can help foster more connectivity between the employee and the business, Resech says.

“All of that figures in because people have taken a different outlook on jobs,” Resech says. “It’s not about working themselves to death, but do a good job while you’re at work, then go live your life. You want employees who are dedicated, and then they deserve their time off to do what makes them happy.”