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Why Key Word Searches May Not Identify the Best Job Candidate

key words imageAs project leads and managers, we have all experienced a staffing vacancy on a project due to staff changes or project expansion. To fill our void, we post job descriptions on career pages and numerous “Job Boards” in an effort to reach a wide swath of people and generate a large pool of resumes to review.

That success can lead to another challenge – such a high volume of resumes that we cannot review each one individually. We may be inclined to use timesaving word recognition software that scans resumes for key words. While we have the best of intentions to seek the ideal candidate using this technology, we are also restricting our candidate pool by not “looking outside of the box”.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports the Federal workforce is growing, and increasingly in need of employees with advanced skills or degrees. The private sector equally needs specific skills to support government demands.  So how can managers cast the widest net in the most efficient manner?

It is essential to have a strong recruiter or hiring manager who can get past the concept of searching on just key words. A good recruiter who looks at the details of the resumes can be a great resource for the hiring manager. They can present candidates who have the skill set required for the position, and not just the key words we focus on with our searches.

Take the field of government acquisition, for example; We may have an urgent need for an acquisition professional so we create a job description that we believe is critical to find the ideal candidate. We use “key words” such as Independent Government Cost Estimate, Acquisition Strategies, Statement of Work, Market Research, Contract Management, Performance Work Statements, Quarterly Program Management Review and others. It is essential when searching for the ideal candidate that we do not base the vast majority of our search just on key words. We can perform an initial scan to provide a cursory review of the resumes, but the greatest benefit will come from a more detailed review.

Why it’s Worth the Time

I speak from personal experience as both a program manager and a professional who has successfully transitioned skills from one sector to another.  As a former Material’s Manager for several major production companies,  I was responsible for purchasing raw material in excess of $100MM annually, establishing quality and performance standards, managing contract and vendor performance, and more. Wanting to enter the consulting field, I applied to 50-plus companies but had very little response to my resume. Nearly a year later a recruiter pointed out the obvious – I was using the wrong words. After converting my wording to government terminology, I was in high demand as an acquisition professional. While my experience showed the power of key words, it also taught me a valuable lesson as a program manager who hires people. There are hidden gems in the workforce who can be found by digging deeper than key words.

We are all very busy and have minimal time to review each resume. However, because our time is very limited, it is even more critical to find the ideal candidate. Here are three ways to rethink the way you review resumes, and find the best people for your team:

1. Use common phrases in addition to key words when reviewing resumes so that you’re not filtering out people with relevant experience that is described differently.

The following is a brief listing of examples of key words compared to common phrases:

Key WordsCommon Phrases
Independent Government Cost EstimateProgram/Project Management Cost
Establishing Acquisition StrategiesStrategic Planning
Statement of WorkServices’/Tasks
Market ResearchVendor   Analysis
Contract ManagementContract Life Cycle
Performance Work StatementsQuality   Assurance
Quarterly Program Management ReviewPerformance Review
Request for ProposalBid


Let’s look at one example of how common phrases used on a resume can hide the applicable experience of a candidate who could be perfect for the job. A “Purchasing Manager” from the private sector who is responsible for all a company’s acquisitions is seeking a government position in acquisitions. Typically, these managers prepare the same documents used in the government, just using different names. For any purchase, a manager will prepare cost estimates (IGCE), perform market survey (Market Research), identify the required services/products (SOW), prepare evaluation criteria for vendor performance (Performance Work Statements), and manage contract life cycles (Contract Management). However, since the terminology is not the same this “purchasing manager” would likely be overlooked.

2. Have the hiring manager outline what success looks like in the open position.  Simply having a four-year degree or particular certification does not necessarily lead to success.  Being able to think critically, analyze or collaborate well with others may be a closer description and could be phrases that you should look for when reviewing resumes.

3. Consider which skills are requirements and which are “teachable”.  Is experience creating an IGCE a requirement, or if the candidate has demonstrated experience with research, analysis and spreadsheets, can they be taught to use agency-specific tools and templates?

Look Outside the Key Word Box

While it takes more time and effort to review numerous candidate resumes for the desired skill sets and not just key words, it can be even more time consuming if you have to repeat the entire process because a key word search does not lead to an ideal candidate. After reviewing dozens of resumes and interviewing multiple candidates, one procurement lead I hired turned out to be a perfect fit, not because of her resume – it did not have key words that we search for – but because of the over-arching qualifications she had and is now applying to exceed customer expectations.  Looking outside the box by using key words and common phrases together can help reveal the perfect  candidate who has been screened out by automated processes.