5 Very Old Lessons from the History of Resumes

How early were computers used to match resumes with job openings? Or how far back did someone realize that job interviews weren't such a great tool, and tried to do something about it?

The last 100 years of job search and resume history are full of surprises...

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If you google "History of resumes", the relevant results are all pretty similar to this article. It's clear that someone has done some original research, and most other links are just rehashing the same material. I wanted more, so I decided to dig deeper.

The resume is a tool created for educated people in an urban context. As we'll see, it really took off in the 1960s. So what have we learned over this time period? The internet is filled with "resume tips for 2016", but what about tried and true advice? What about things that have been proven to work for decades? Wouldn't that provide us with more strategic advice?

Not only did I want to come up with a more detailed history of resumes, but I was indeed looking for something we could draw actual lessons from. A second article looks at how things have evolved over 100 years of job search. (There's also a job search history infographic, which covers a bit of both texts.)

I started by looking for old resume books...

1976 resume writing books

These are the oldest job search books I could put my hands on. They're both from 1976, which you can probably tell by the design and colors. But that only brought me 40 years in the past. I wanted to go back 100 years. That's why I subscribed to the New York Times archive. Which is (quite brilliantly) called the Times Machine.

Times Machine (New York Times archive)

The Times Machine allowed me to travel to the early 20th century, in a world where looking for work was not so standardized. Back then, it had that human, face-to-face, handshake vibe. A stark contrast with today's distant, systematic and sometimes overwhelming process, with its keywords and job boards and many gatekeepers.

While the way people connected was very different, employers were still looking for the best potential candidates. And many principles from generations ago are still widely used today. Some job search practices actually go back much further than we imagine.

(I couldn't cover here every meaningful result from my research. In another article, I will focus on how things have evolved.)

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Our journey begins in 1921, with a book review: The Science of Getting or Changing a Job
(New York Times, August 14, 1921)
Among other things, we learn that, in those days, $2,500 per year was a hefty salary. In this book review, we read: "The author ranks unsolicited letters of application so high... [he] considers them the best of all means of approaching a prospective employer..." There is a story about a man who sent 25 unsolicited letters to get, only three days later, 23 requests to call.

"The jobs had been there all the time. The trouble had been that he had waited for the jobs to come to him; he hadn't gone after the jobs."  

A lot of networking advice today encourages job seekers to be proactive and not wait for job postings. It's been true for a long time, it seems!

(That being said, don't trust what they say about the hidden job market nowadays.)
Let's now turn to 1939.
(Job Seeker Tested by Clinic Experts, New York Times, December 6, 1939)

Job seeker tested by clinic experts

In an article, we find eleven cardinal principles for the young lad looking for employment. Here are a few:
1- Use a fast, attention getting opening in letters
4- Dig deep for your hidden assets
7- Appeal to the self-interest of your prospective employer
10- Anticipate your interview and prepare thoroughly for it

These caught my attention because I use and teach a lot of these principles today, and they're widely used in many areas of sales and marketing. For example, opening with a hook (point 1), or focusing on "what's in it for them", i.e. the benefits (point 7).

And my favorite piece of resume advice, which is the foundation of the 3 Laws of Resume Writing, is illustrated in point 4, and more precisely in the example provided of Mr. Burt's letter. His "letter of application was criticized for being too general... and leaving out specific examples of what he has accomplished."

To be honest, I was fairly surprised to come across the idea of accomplishments at such an early date. But I'm not really sure why. It probably has to do with the fact that, in my view, it's a marketing principle applied to resumes... so I didn't think it would pre-date the Mad Men era...

Accomplishments are really the backbone of any resume. Your resume will never have too many accomplishments, as they are what differentiates you the most from your peers.

Are job interviews accurate?

Now we're moving forward to 1948 (only one year after Jackie Robinson became the first colored athlete to play professional baseball).
(New Method Developed at Bloomingdale's For Scientific Examination of Job Seekers, New York Times, June 27, 1948)

It struck me how, in the 1940's, they were already bothered by the limits of job interviews in predicting skills and proper fit.

The article is about Bloomingdale. "... the store is well on the way toward developing a standardized objective method of determining fitness of applicants for sales positions...." The objective is "... supplementing and strengthening interviewers' judgment rather than eliminating it."

How do you go about that? With a test, of course! It covered "clerical aptitude, interests, personaity and mental abilities of the applicants." And they did it with a "great deal of help from psychologists and statisticians from ... N.Y.U."

Mr. Mitchell, vice president in charge of personnel and industrial relations, claimed that their test was working. And while he agreed that it wasn't perfect, he remained happy to have "scientifically separated most of the wheat from the chaff."

1948, Interview fail; psychological tests are introduced

One key word still missing

Interestingly, up to that point, one important word still hasn't been seen: resume. When does the word "resume" first appear in the New York Times, in the context of job search? 1960.
(Job Seeker Gets A Proper Start With a Resume, New York Times, October 27, 1960)

"The career-seeking woman must realize that her résumé may be as crucial to her success as her small talk may be in acquiring a husband."

(Don't you like that touch of paternalism?)

Before the resume became central to the process, job seekers were pretty much knocking on doors and sending letters of application. But now, with a more educated population and companies getting bigger and more organized, the process had to improve. It needed streamlining, and resumes were the right tool for the job. Let's cut the wishy-washy you-know-my-uncle crap. Show me what you know and what you did, without wasting my time!

Too old for this?

In 1967, an article echoes something we still hear about regularly: a mismatch between openings and applicants.
(Paradox in Jobs: Age Holds a Key -- Worker Oversupply Is Noted Despite Many Openings, New York Times, March 12, 1967)

Today, when we read about this "paradox", it's usually connected to skillsets (the many unemployed don't have the skills to fill the many openings)­. According to Gartner: "By 2020, the US will see 1.4 million computer specialist job openings, but more than 70% of those will remain unfilled because our universities aren't currently teaching the required skills."

But in the 60's, the reality was different: "Companies want youth... while the workers seeking jobs have greater responsibilities, in general, and therefore require a larger salary than the newcomers. [...] President Johnson... called attention to discrimination in hiring on account of age and urged that employers avoid this pitfall."

Interesting to note that age has always been tricky. It can still be hard to get a job today if you have too much gray hair. Or if you're just out of school.

In 1967, there was "sharp demand for scientists, engineers and computer programers."

"On a dark, desert highway..." (1976)

Moving on to 1976, when Hotel California was a hip new song, and one year before Apple was incorporated. We're now turning to two books that address the job search and resumes. At that point in time, the resume was well on its way to becoming the main job search document, taking the place of the application (soon-to-be "cover") letter.

Again, we'll be looking at excerpts which demonstrate that our job search wisdom isn't all that new.

How to Get the Job You Want: A guide to résumés, interviews, and job-hunting strategy
(M. Donaho, J. Meyer, 1976)

The authors note that very few "thank you" letters are sent. Which is still quite true today. Thanking people who have interviewed you is a great way to stay top of mind, but very few job seekers take the time to do it. And a recent survey has shown that recruiters are fine with an email (no need for a handwritten note).

"An employer advertising in the Wall Street Journal can anticipate over 600 responses for any significant position." Heavy competition is nothing new! Today, Google can get 50,000 resumes on a busy week. And Procter & Gamble regularly gets 500 resumes per opening.

"In [1976] the work force is highly mobile, with numerous managers and professionals moving freely from one state to another." Some of us think this is a 21st century thing. Workforce mobility was already true 40 years ago!

Same goes for the idea of tailoring your applications: "... do not mass produce your letter of application... Duplicated letters show little initiative." It's critical today to tailor your cover letter, and your resume must reflect keywords from the job ad.

Résumé Writing: A Comprehensive How-To-Do-It Guide
(B. Bostwick, 1976)

"The average resume must make its impression in 20 to 30 seconds." While we sometimes hear that it's as short as 6 or 10 seconds in the 21st century, the idea remains: your resume will be scanned first, which means that your key messages must be very easy to spot. (Which is why I love the resume summary.)

"Successful resumes have been as short as one page and as long as six pages. It is conciseness, relevance and interest that matter." Again, numbers might be a bit off (6 pages!), but the principle is timeless: say everything that's relevant in as little words as possible.

"The description of responsibilities should always be followed by a statement of accomplishments." In the world of resume writing, nothing tops accomplishments as the best tool you have to stand out among your peers.

In the final pages of this book (Appendix B), we find "Useful Words and Phrases"  
"About you: dynamic, imaginative, talented, motivated, responsible, strategist..."
"About your skills: analyze, communicate, develop, lead, plan, train..."
To be frank, I'm not a big fan of "useful words and phrases" in general. But if you're going to focus on words, strong verbs are much more important than strong adjectives. In other words, zoom in on your skills and what you've achieved, not your traits (which are harder to substantiate). But really, it's about the house, not the bricks. Employers want to see the value which you brought to previous employers (the benefits). Show them by talking about your accomplishments.

So take the time to write well, but don't waste too much time on phrasing.

Calling upon technology

College graduates matched with job openings by computer

Ok. I saved a bit of trivia for last. Here's something about using computers to match resumes with job openings... The early days, if you will, of resume screening (which has become so prevalent). Try to guess when this article was written.

"... résumés were recorded with thousands of others on magnetic storage disks at the council's data center [...] Computers scan the résumés at a rate of hundreds a minute, acting on specifications sent in by employers in many types of industry."

Any thoughts at this point? What's coming might help you out a bit:

"The employers dial the computer and make their needs known over a teletypewriter."

The words "dialing the computer" and "teletypewriter" obviously don't belong to the Facebook era and might tip you off to how dated this is. So, when were computers used to help companies find the right candidates? As early as 1967.

Yup. We've been working on this for 50 years, and there's still LOTS of room for improvement!

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5 important lessons from 100 years of resume history

The job search is far from a perfect process. Both resumes and interviews have their flaws. The human factor also makes things more complex. However, if we're still doing things a certain way after 40, 50 or 60 years, it certainly means that it's working. So here's a recap of these time-tested solutions:

  1. Look for work proactively (unsolicited, targeted emails is a sound networking tactic).
  2. Focus on accomplishments and benefits (i.e. not just roles and responsibilities).
  3. Tailor your resume every time (since you’re competing with hundreds of candidates).
  4. Be crisp and relevant.

On the flip side of the coin, there are things we might dislike about the job search that are not going anywhere, mainly because of habit, logistics and financial pressure. There really seems to be strong trends behind the following two elements, so we have to learn to live with them.

  • Job interviews are lacking in many respects, but they have their strengths and they're still the most common "hiring decision" tool.
  • Technology is part of the mix. Professionals today have to know how to beat the job boards, and how to use LinkedIn efficiently.

While nothing here is trendy advice for 2016, it's been successfully applied for decades. The 5 lessons above really get to the root of strategic resume advice. They're a very reliable foundation to build on. Here's a second article, to find out more about the various trends of the job search over the last 100 years.

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