I, Robot: How Vulnerable Are Recruiters to Automation?

A recent study from Oxford University suggests that almost half of all job categories are at some risk of being automated within the next 20 years. That includes telemarketers (99 percent certainty); accountants (94 percent), real estate agents (86 percent); airline pilots (55 percent), and even actors (37 percent).

At low risk are jobs like clergy (0.8 percent); dentists (0.4 percent) and recreational therapists (0.2 percent). What is a recreational therapist anyway? The authors of the study don’t define the job, but it sounds suspiciously like an euphemism for a profession popular in Nevada, which would explain the low probability of the job being automated.

The study doesn’t mention recruiters except to say that big data analysis will result in better predictions of performance, especially of students, and will make recruitment more efficient.

The invention of the ATS and even the job board was supposed to do away with recruiters, or at least reduce the need. Back in 2000, a VP of HR at a Fortune 500 company asked me if they could fire all their recruiters now that the company was implementing an ATS. That vision has been peddled by vendors in one sense or another for a long time. At least one company sued an ATS vendor for promising this recruiter-less world, only to find out it wasn’t going to materialize anytime soon.

The Robot Recruiter

So are recruiters at risk? The question is easy to dismiss as frivolous. After all recruitment is highly unstructured work involving lots of creativity. Right? But to think we’re not at risk is to bury our heads in the sand. Unstructured tasks can be defined by best practices that can be standardized. Standardization means that a complex process can be reduced to routine components that can be automated in part or full. Consider driverless cars being pioneered by Google and other car makers. Driving is a complex task, but the technology already exists for cars to automate tasks like traffic sign recognition, lane departure warnings, and pedestrian spotting. Cab drivers will be rare in the near future. As for creativity  big data can simplify spotting sources of talent or identifying candidates that are not easily recognized by other means.

Even if a job is not fully automated, the need for people to do it can be greatly reduced. Barely a hundred years ago 70 percent of Americans worked as farmers. Farming isn’t extinct as a profession, but today only 2 percent of people work in it, and produce far more food than that 70 percent did. Today, the threat to recruiters is from big data. With the volume of data being collected on social networks and in the Android universe by Google one can see a situation where a slate of prospective candidates can be identified by algorithms trolling through social media profiles, emails, phone traffic, texts, etc. Marry that with telemarketing technology that can place calls and it leaves little for a recruiter to do.

One can argue that no one wants to get a call from a robot about a job. It doesn’t have to be a voice call — it can be a text conversation, which has already been automated by companies like Virtual Person. A third of Americans prefer texts to voice calls (which would at least eliminate those awkward situations where a prospective candidate has to walk away from their cubicle to take a call or is reached during a meeting). In this scenario the system could eventually hand over the conversation to a recruiter, but it would make the number of recruiters needed far fewer than today. Is it really unlikely that these technologies will not come together at some point?

So what does it mean for recruiters? First, while the threat of automation is not imminent, it’s certainly real. The profession has to evolve to one where we add more value in more unique ways. Finding new ways to use data and making better use of social networks to connect with candidates, such as through talent communities would be a clear path to follow.

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If that doesn’t work we can always become recreational therapists.


On a personal note I’d like to mention that I have been away from writing on ERE for some time. I suffered a debilitating accident last April that left me paralyzed. I was not supposed to live and then I was told I would never walk. Today I am learning to walk again and can cover 50-100 feet with the aid of leg braces and a gait trainer. My therapists expect me to be on a conventional walker in a matter of weeks, and on crutches sometime after that.

To get this far requires 3 – 5 hours of physical therapy and walking practice seven days a week, leaving me little time to do much else. I expect to recover in full. What will I do then? Go to an ERE Conference (what else?).

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.


10 Comments on “I, Robot: How Vulnerable Are Recruiters to Automation?

  1. When it comes to traditional recruiters being replaced by automation, it’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “when.” Given the pace of technological advancement and the arrival of user-friendly big data tools, I’m convinced it will be a lot sooner than most think. In 5 years, most of the current recruiting functions will be completely automated. There will still be a few highly-specialized niche recruiters here and there–just as there are a few people still making a living as travel agents–but by and large recruiting as it’s currently constituted will be gone. The disruption is already well under way. One need only open their eyes to see it.

  2. Sure the ATS is being used by most companies, but what I am starting to hear is lack of quality hire. that is because the ATS is not using people behind it to really look at candidates as they come through, some of the very best candidates are passed over because they do fit within the narrow constraints of ATS or the 20’s something looking at them.

    Talent is what drives a company, with processes, it’s fine distinction but it exists

  3. I know how this story will end.

    Robots will end up hiring other Robots and they will be focused on terminating all humans who clearly lack the emotionless decision style that will rule the future. And the curse of humanity will finally be eliminated.

    Sorry to say, but I know how this story will end. Robots will soon dominate in many disciplines/industries and will end up hiring other Robots. And Robots, by their nature, will be focused on terminating all humans who clearly lack the emotionless decision style that will advance a “robotinized” civilization that will rule the future. And the curse of humanity will finally be eliminated.

    Our only hope is to join a neo-Luddite community who will be dedicated to going backward to go forward. WORD!

    So, who’s with me? Your (our) recruiting future is at risk. Day by day the robots are scheming and positioning themselves to first, enslave – and then to eliminate…me and YOU.

    Let’s go back to the day before spell-check and floppies.

    Let’s go backwards to go forward.

    PS – Raghav, Sorry to hear about your accident and GREAT to hear about your determined comeback. Such unfortunate experiences can crush you OR actually broaden and deepen your appreciation for getting back to a new normal with continued improvements and mending with time and personal effort.

    Somehow, telling you, you were not supposed to live…or ever walk again…was the spark to prove them so wrong. I look forward to hear about your progress because it sounds like you’re in 6th gear.

  4. There’s so much that technology can do to help recruiters get the most return on their recruiting time.

    Thanks for the article, Raghav, it’s great that you are back writing. I look forward to hearing more from you around how recruiters are finding new and unique ways to add value and how technology can support them.

  5. Thanks Raghav. I am glad you’re back. I knew when we last spoke that you’re iron-willed determination (aka incredible stubbornness) would move you greatly toward your full recovery.

    Once again we agree-: though complex, recruiting can be broken down into a finite number of steps and processes, many of which can be analyzed so as to create “best practices”- recrui8ting is not a completely new environment every time.

    I’ve also been saying for years: “If you’re not prepared to pay someone $50+/hr to do a given recruiting task- it can be (and probably SHOULD BE) “tran-sourced”- no-sourced (eliminated), through-sourced (automated), or out-sourced (sent away), usually for far less than the cost of U.S. minimum wage.” On the other hand: if you do high-touch, high-value add activities, like advising and mentoring hiring managers, creating, improving, and stream-lining hiring practices/procedures, building relationships, and closing- these aren’t going away anytime soon.

    Here’s(re) the rub(s):

    However, I don’t think most of us need to despair quite yet. In a sensible world, much of this would already have taken place, but we don’t live in a sensible world- we live in a world where lip-service is made to logic and rational-decision making, and where a great many major hiring decisions are made by Founders, CXOs, Senior Executives, and Hiring Managers trapped within their own GAFIS (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, Ignorance/Incompetence, and Stupidity). In other words, as long as you can find employers who are committed to paying you to do things THEIR WAY and not the RIGHT WAY, you can probably continue to make a decent living just as before, maybe wrapped up in bright new jargon…

    Keep Fighting, Raghav!


  6. Retained Search will never be automated.

    “Famous Last Words”

    I just can’t imagine six figure executives responding to I, Robot.

    Sorry, Isaac. No offense, intended.

  7. As a vendor of an ATS, I was once asked by a contract recruiter, in all seriousness: “Will this software put me out of a job?”

    My answer at the time was: “Only if you’re a really bad recruiter.”

    If you’re a bad recruiter, technology will help you do more of the wrong things, faster. And if you’re a good recruiter, tech will help you do more of the right things, better and faster.

  8. Is the argument of technology versus recruitment agencies currently being won by technology because they have a new and interesting story? Investment in innovative technology and the advances it’s making is the news companies want to hear.

    The recruitment industry needs to have a clear and compelling narrative to counter the PR machine of fashionable tech news.

    What advances are agencies making, what do the value-add services bring to the recruitment process, how are they better than the technology being managed by admin staff?

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