applicant tracking system (ATS)

Contributor(s): Patrick Thibodeau

An applicant tracking system (ATS) manages the recruiting and hiring process, including job postings and job applications. It organizes and makes searchable information about job seekers.

As its name implies, an ATS tracks candidates through the hiring process. It helps scheduling, issues notification alerts and sends automated emails to candidates. But these systems are far more than organizers.

An ATS is also used to cull candidates. It conducts a preliminary analysis of the applicants to find the best fits for a job. The goal is to speed HR's review of job applications and resumes. It may look for keywords or use AI-type algorithms that run a deeper analysis of the job applicant.

Benefit of applicant tracking systems

An ATS is designed to organize and speed the hiring the process. It can post and manage job ads across multiple job sites. These systems maintain a database of new applicants and people who may be continuing prospects for future openings. They aggregate information about candidates, including any communications, to create a single-view and profile of the candidate.

An ATS will also help sort and rank candidates. For example, it will conduct an initial scan of the candidates to select those who best meet a job qualification.

An ATS may be set up to automate responses, send out interview reminders and alert people in the database to new job openings. From the perspective, the system acts as a form of customer relationship management

ATS is a competitive market

The ATS market is competitive and crowded. There are at least 100 ATS vendors. IDC reports that revenue from talent acquisition technologies -- including ATS -- is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.6% from 2016 to 2021. It forecast a global talent acquisition market of $6.8 billion in 2021.

The term "applicant tracking system" is in wide use and is considered part of a "recruitment management system." The latter term acts as an umbrella term for any technology that deals with recruitment. This can include candidate relationship management systems. Candidates in the ATS but not selected for an immediate job might be considered part of the talent pipeline and available for future opportunities. The candidate relationship management system maintains a connection to the prospect.

The technology that led to ATS arrived more than 20 years ago. It began "with the advent of resume scanning systems that took paper-based resumes and parsed them into a relational database," wrote Bersin by Deloitte, the research arm of Deloitte Consulting's human capital business.

How the applicant tracking system process works

An ATS helps an employer manage each step of the hiring process, from writing the job ad to making a job offer. This includes integrating with major job boards to streamline job postings. These systems organize applications and create profiles for each candidate. They keep track of all the activity that takes place around the candidate.

HireRight, an employment screening
company, explains how an ATS works.

The ATS may be used to encourage people to apply. Some systems use chatbots to interact with candidates and help them complete the application. They may also attempt to keep candidates engaged, update job seekers on their status and alert them if additional information is needed.

An ATS will use varying degrees of intelligence to sort the candidates. The technologies range from keyword matching to algorithms that take a deeper look at a candidate's data. The ATS may, in response to a resume, send the applicant a series of questions to help learn more about the candidate.

An ATS is also collaborative. This allows anyone involved in the hiring process to stay abreast of the progress in filling a job, as well as contribute to the candidate selection discussion. 

ATS technology is becoming intelligent

ATS technology is increasing in sophistication. Job seekers may be as interested in how an ATS works as employers.

An ATS is "often the first 'eyes' on their resume, but they are not sure what the eyes of the ATS may be scrutinizing," said Amanda Cornwall, assistant director of career development at Northeastern University, in a 2018 blog post that offered advice to students.

Over 75% of resumes "do not make it through [an ATS] to be seen by a human," Cornwall said. She recommends students make liberal use of job description keywords to avoid rejection.

But keyword-based screening is seeing competition from systems using machine learning approaches. Some vendors are building in capabilities that analyze a firm's past hiring decisions. The systems attempt to discover characteristics of top performing employees. This data on current employees is then used to inform the ATS algorithm. It searches for patterns in work history and education indicative of success. This technology is also applied to job ads to avoid wording that subtlety discourages a man or woman from applying.

The goal of these ATS technologies is to reduce bias, unconscious or otherwise, in recruiting and hiring. Bias is a major issue in hiring, according to researchers. "It's well known that people have a bias in favor of preserving the status quo; change is uncomfortable," wrote academic researchers Stefanie Johnson, David Hekman and Elsa Chan, in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article.

Job sites are also adding ATS-like tracking features. These sites are moving away from the idea that they are just "job boards." Some are ranking applicants to how well they meet qualifications in the job ad. These job sites may also offer integrations with an existing ATS.

This was last updated in May 2018

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Do you trust applicant tracking systems to screen applicants?
Thanks Margaret! Really usefull.

In your opinion, what are the ATS's most famous and the most used?

Thank you Margaret!
We at our company have tried many different paid ATS's and none convinced us until we found Osclass. It is a free, customizable and online! Our HR staff is quite happy with it and is working fine for our recruiting!
Great info. Just downloaded Osclass and plan to put it to work quickly. Exactly what we needed. HR is looking forward to using it.
I guess, as with any tool, it really depends on how one uses it. If the judgment is automated the results typically aren't very impressive.
Just curious, do modern ATS have integrations with online resume databases?
How use full ATS in any organization? And to maintain this system?


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