33 minutes | Aug 25th 2020

How Accenture Balances Between the Limits of Automation and Human Work

Welcome to the Recruitment hackers podcast show about innovations, technology and leaders in the recruitment industry. Brought to you by Talkpush,  the leading recruitment automation platform. 

Max: Okay. Hello everybody. And welcome to the recruiter hackers podcast by Max Armbruster. And today I'm pleased to welcome on the show the global talent acquisition capability leader at Accenture, Jason Roberts. Welcome Jason. 

Jason: Thank you. And thank you for saying all of the words in that title. I know it's a lot. 

Max: Can we mix them around? We can move them.

Jason: You got it exactly right and t's a bunch though.  We were just talking and it's a whole lot of words. I'm not sure that it says anything. So, What that means is that I have a pretty fun gig and that I'm responsible for processes and technologies and how we do recruiting for Accenture's customers. And we will do that for large organizations where we hire several hundred thousand people per year.

So we get to try out lots of technologies. We have a pretty nice clean standard process that we work from. And I get to, to be a part of that and work with smart people every day. It’s good.

Max: Yeah. Fantastic. You said a few hundred thousand people every year. And I guess that number is getting bigger than ever now where the industry is kind of figuring out how we're going to get these 30 plus million people back to work in North America and I don't know, it must be hundreds of millions worldwide. So the pressure is on to, to deliver you know, I'm gonna say a good, maybe a decent experience for most of them. 

Jason: Well, what's interesting is what I worry about with, with COVID is that candidate experience will stop being a priority because candidate experience is a big deal when you've got 3% unemployment and it's necessary in order to, to achieve the hires that you need to achieve. But when there's 25% unemployment or 20% unemployment, you don't need candidate experience, people just need jobs. So it's, it's one of those things where if I'm worried that we might lose ground in the candidate experience side of things. I think we all want to be in a position where we treat people well, and we had started seeing real improvements in that space. And it was because companies were making investments in the right things in order to make it happen.  I'm hoping we get to continue that, but there's a, I think there's a real risk that we'll take a step backwards in that space. 

Max: Yeah. I've definitely noticed that people are not getting back to candidates as fast as they should be and positions are being kept open even though they're not real. And so it's kinda like candidates sending beautiful offer letters and resumes and hearing nothing back, hearing crickets.

On the plus side, the candidate experience is improved by the fact that companies are not defaulting to asking people to come physically in person. And when you consider how time consuming that can be and demanding, that can be, well.. We were meeting in person. It was a lot of work for me. I mean, I had to take a plane to come and meet you. 

Jason: Well, no, you didn't have to. I was always great with being on video if you want to do that.  I found that suppliers really wanted to meet in person. And I've worked remotely for over a decade, probably 13 years now, something like that, that I've worked remotely. And I was completely good being on phone and people would just would want and meet, man. Okay, well, I'll meet with you. You know I actually had an office for the sole purpose of meeting with suppliers when they came into town. That's the only time I went to the office when I met with somebody that came in town to meet me.

Max: I remember that office. It was, it was a, We Work 

Jason: It was a We Work, We Work, right. That's why I only went there every once in a while. I just, I would reserve a conference room. And I think you, you came back to the actual inner sanctum. You saw the actual office. Yeah. 

Max: Yeah. Well I know you have a very cool job with Accenture today and you had a very cool job with Randstad before.  Can you tell for our listeners, give us a quick overview of, where you come from and how you got into this space? 

Jason: Oh, gosh. Yeah. So I started recruiting, my age will show for sure. 1997. Was my first,  my first piece of recruiting work.

I was, I had a person, a friend that I knew... The internet was still pretty new. Right. So,  like I got email for the first time in 1994, I think.  So it was, it was still relatively new and a friend of mine said, Hey, I'm a recruiter. And I, hear you can find things on this internet thing. Can you help me with that? I said, well, yeah, I can help you search the internet. 
So I became an early sourcer and it was with a staffing firm and,  that sort of, I progressed over a period of time so that, so that ultimately, I, I worked for the staffing firm full time then,  did some consulting then I spent about seven years with Cisco systems and started out as a recruiter. I recruited Sales and sales engineers for them. Ultimately we built our own applicant tracking system back then there were no web based ATS everything was client server. So we thought, okay, well we’re the backbone of the internet we should probably have something that's a web based deal. So we built our own and it was my job to be sort of the functional expert on that. And I worked in HR IT for a little while, built my own ATS with Cisco. And that was fun. 

Max: 2003 ish around that. 

Jason: Yeah. That's about right before Taleo showed up.

Max: Yeah, it must have been frustrating to see the startup Taleo pick up all this business thinking... 

Jason: Yeah you know what, we built my module and of course dot com bubble burst along the way. And things slowed down a little bit in recruiting. And we built the module that was basically how we take job orders and approve things and we hadn't built a lot of the candidates stuff yet. And Taleo came out and with a few other things there and and we were like, Oh, these things are way better. Let's not build the rest. Let's just find a way to connect to these other deals. And that's what we did. We never finished, we just did the sort of requisition piece. It was called cafe rec, was the tweaks that..

Max: Back then recruiting happened mostly in Starbucks. 

Jason: Well, apparently  that's how it worked. It was a good thing. And, I learned a lot. Along the way, I became a certified project manager and it was great and then I had a boss that told me, you know, I'd become the operations leader for Cisco. And my boss said, you can either have my job, which I don't plan on leaving anytime soon. Or go to a place that does recruiting for a living. And I said, Oh, that's not a bad idea. And I'd outsourced our recruiting along the way. And I was responsible for the relationship between outsource company and Cisco and I played that sort of client side role. So the company that went through the RFP process, they actually told me no, they said, yeah, I don't think we can help you much. What you're trying to do is, is really not exactly the right thing.
And there were a hundred percent, right. Like it was the, the worst conceived RFP and a terribly conceived sort of a model that we had designed and the only company that came back and said, this is a bad idea, we're going to bow out. We wish you luck and we'll help you with something else the next time. It was Accenture.
I thought, man, that took a lot of integrity to do that. So, when I went to look for a job, they were the first people that I called. And, they made a job for me. So I went to work for Accenture, loved that, did that for six years in various roles. And then went to Randstand Source Right. And I loved Randstand Source Right. That was a good time. 
I, I went over to lead operations for them. And I did that for a number of years, uh, moved on to the, Senior Vice President of Strategy. Uh, it was Strategy and Standardization because a big part of the strategy was to standardize. Um, so that was that. And then, um, ultimately I ended my run there as Head of Technology and Analytics, uh, around the globe and, uh, Accenture is a funny place, man. It, uh, it calls you back at some point. There's lots of us that are boomerang. So we've come back. That's the role I'm in now I really, um, I really like. I remember the guy who had the role when I was here before and, uh, I loved what he was doing and we where he got to spend his time.
So I, when that was open, I said, all right, let's do it. I came back back to Accenture. 

Max: Now, if you could go, you know, you go back 15 years. Um,  um, would you do what I'm doing and start, uh, an ATS company. I started one in 2008, 2009. I was, I think, a few years too late, uh, on my first run. 

Jason: You know what? I do look back and think, um, I wish I had been a founder.  I have a lot of respect for the founders that I know. And I look back, I think that quite a bit, um, I was, I had a family very, very young, uh, so, uh, we had our first child. I was in that spot. So the gamble wasn't my gamble. It was the whole family's gamble. So I, I never did it. And if I knew, then what I know now I might have, like, I understand the venture capital space. I understand how that all works. And I did, I was just so clueless back then. I had no idea. Um, but, uh, who knows? I have an idea. Maybe one of these days, I'll get to try it out. I do have and idea.

Max: Oh, don't do it. Don't do it, Jason. It's the worst, worst thing that can happen to you. No money. Uh, no, uh, I don't recommend it. 

Jason: Ok, that's good to know! My other founder friends are like do it, do it today! I’m gonna wait until we're not in a, you know, a crisis.

Max: Apparently recessions of the best time to start a business. 

Jason: Well, you know what a bunch of people that did that, did well doing that.  

Max: Yeah. Um, it, it sounds like, uh, throughout your career, while you were not an entrepreneur, you were able to tinker and build things and build toys. Um, and I picked up on the job title you shared with us. You said it was a Standardization in it. That doesn't sound too sexy, but there were also, um, some more creative exercises that you were involved in. Um, you were telling me before we started the video that you, learned about the limits of automation and where the humans were needed in an experiment that you ran a year or two years ago. Um, could, um, could you elaborate on that? 

Jason: Yeah. Well, we’re actually experimenting with that right now, even. Um, so the technology exists to fully automate the recruiting process, especially at the, in the lower level jobs. So think retail, uh, warehouse workers, things where you're not making big decisions on the skills and capabilities, but it's more processing someone through with a very low threshold of qualification. So we call those high volume, low skill. And so for those roles, it's possible to fully automate. There's not a lot of discernment involved that needs to be made, a human doesn't need to make that decision on “Do we hire this person or not?” Everyone is qualified if they hit some basic knockout questions, like, can you lift 50 pounds? Literally, “can you have work boots on your first day?” Um, those are the sorts of things you have to, you have to ask them.  So when that happens, uh, I remember I went to one, one interview center for massive distribution, uh, site, uh, one of the biggest in the world, I think. And, um, There's a building for interviews.

And I sat down with a lady who had been interviewing in that building, interviewing candidates every day. Um, for, uh, I think it was six years. She had interviewed candidates every single day. And I said, well, how often do you say no to a candidate? And this lady said, “Oh, I've never said no.”
She had never said no. She had interviewed for six years and never said no. So when that's the case, that you don't need the interview anymore, right. That discern was done necessary. So we tried this with a fully automated process. And what we learned is these sorts of roles. You always, you have dropout rates at certain points. You know, you're going to have a certain percent that fail the drug screen, way more than you would think if you do white collar work. You hear the failure rate, it would surprise you if that's all you've ever done. Um, But there's a failure rate of drug screen, you know, you're going to have, and then there's a certain number of people that just won't ever show up for the job.
And, um, what we learned when we fully automated is we could get people all the way through the process up until the day they're supposed to start and they just didn't show up. They didn't think it was real. Some of them would get nervous when filling out the background, check paperwork, thinking it might be a scam because they're asked for, you know, personal information, social security, and so forth, even though it was from a reputable company, they're worried that it's a scam. So in order to ground the position, we are experimenting with the right place to insert a human contact. So where do you insert a phone call to ground this, to be that it's a real position, a real job for someone? Not because you need to say yes or no, but because they need human contact to feel good about the job.

Max: Well, that's what the lady was doing for six years, right? It was, uh, she wasn't saying no, but she was saying here's, here's a human contact. 
Jason: That's it exactly right. That's what she was doing all the time. 
Max: Uh, yeah, I I'd like to insert more video in the process where you know, that human contact could be, Hey, check it out You know, here's the, the warehouse where you'll be working. You know, do a little phon, recording, and say, we can't wait to see you on Monday. And that, little video can be, it can feel personal, but it could be actually general, you know, you could send it to everybody. 

Jason: Yeah. I think you're right. I think you're exactly right. And we're seeing more of that. In fact, we're seeing, um, seeing a shift to video interviews for certain, um, a lot of companies are just using zoom or Skype or not Skype, but Microsoft teams, the Skype, Skype got replaced, uh, Google meets for some, but they're, they're using sort of their conferencing platforms to do that instead of, uh, instead of the the formal sort of modern, higher and higher and things.  But it's a little bit broken, right? When they do that, because they don't have the formal scoring, they don't have, they don't have the staff, the they're not able to what's happening like the candidate, your platform. Um, they it's, it's not as strong of a solution.
Um, so I was talking at one point with, uh, With one of the founders of another one of these companies. And they said, they said we're running into companies that have sort of the scrappy solution. And  they're using zoom. And then the ones that are, that were prepared for something like this, um, the adoption rate just skyrocketed.
So people, cause video, I always had trouble getting people to use it and getting people to actually lean into it because you still have to review the videos. But once we, um, once we hit this pandemic, everybody seems way more comfortable or, you know, it's become a necessity in their world at least.
And they're accustomed to it. 

Max: Yeah. Yeah. We've, we've done a lot of zoom and team integrations and then, um, have the live video call asynchronous video. Um, I still, I'm still a luxury for, a lot of positions they're more interested in getting people through binary, you know, outcomes or multiple choice questions and getting them to move to a human interview through a phone call. Um, and also still a lot of markets where asking people to log in for a zoom call would be too, um,  demanding on the bandwidth. So they do phone calls instead. And, uh, you know. 

Jason: Well you're, in markets that where that's a significant challenge. Right? But you guys have WhatsApp integration, correct? 

Max: Yes. Yes. WhatsApp integration allows for collecting video, but asynchronously, you wouldn't be able to do a live video call connected through the business API. You can do it person to person, in the consumer market, but it's not yet supported for businesses. Unfortunately. Uh, same way that, uh, Facebook picture, you know, otherwise. Yeah. I mean, all those companies, whether you're, you're an ATS and CRM, um, uh, social media or a communication platform, you all have video now and everybody has it and everybody can switch it on and it's relatively cost free. So I don't understand how the Highervues of the world are going to stay in business if their story is we're good on video. So is everybody else.

Jason: Yeah, that's true. No, it's true. 

Max: Yeah. Um, Very commoditized. 

Jason:I thought they needed to do something different. Um, but yeah, we're we are seeing more video. Um, SMS is big for us in the US um, of course, different mediums elsewhere as well. So, uh, we're seeing a lot of that shift as well.

Max: The, um, uh, continuing on what we were talking about, the lady, um, that says yes. Um,  um, do you think her job will still be around in, uh, in 10 years time? Or do you think that, uh, eventually, you know, um, we can go to a full automated process with no human contact. 

Jason: Um, I think probably not. I think probably her role probably doesn't exist the way it is. What I think we'll end up with is, you know, instead of a 40 minute actually interview candidates were scheduled for an hour, an hour time slot to come in and do your interview. I think we're going to have 10 minutes, um, basically, uh, uh, Welcome calls. They're their introductions. We're welcoming them to the company. “Oh yeah we're ready to make you this offer. It's already been sent to you. Welcome to the welcome home. And here's your, here's all the stuff you need to know. Here's where you show up what you do” but it's a 10 minute make somebody feel good call, um, and not an interview. 

Max: Yeah, that's a big productivity gain potentially there.
Um, and I've seen, uh, for, uh, some people doing group interviews as well. Because then you have that human factor, uh, you know, you were saying, is it real? Well I mean, there's 10 other people logging into the call and I can see their faces and it's probably real. 

Jason: Yeah, I saw I was, um, there's, uh,  uh, one of the big online retailers, uh, they were doing this thing where they would do a drug swab. This was years ago. This is before I came back to Accenture. Um, they were doing a drug swab. Yeah, as a part of their interview process. So they would have these massive hiring events. They still do it right now, I think. And, um, basically you go, you sit down, you watch a video about working at this, at this place.
If you're good with it, um, they have like a long Q-tip. You swab your cheek, it's a drug test. You put it back in the package, you seal it up. You sign an offer letter and you're done, like, that's it. That is the whole, that is the whole process you've been processed and the way that they were paying their suppliers was based on the number of return offer letters and, uh, drug screens that they got.

Max: Wow. Well, I mean, I just had to do my first swab, uh, coming into Hong Kong  to check, they were checking for my coronavirus. Uh, yeah. Um, but that uh,  sounds brutal. And I guess these drug tests have had to, I mean, those are private enterprises can ask whatever they want. Right. it's they can decide what drug tests they ask. There's no, restrictions on state law or anything like that. 

Jason: No, it's strange. You'll have more stringent drug screening requirements for Businesses than the States in which people live. Yeah. So there might be a state where marijuana is legalized, for example, but it's not legal for the drug screen.
Well, tell that to the, you know, 18 year old warehouse worker that they're interviewing for those warehouse job, you know, they're really just picking up boxes. They’ve been moving them from point A to point B. And I'm not sure that whether or not they smoked it makes much difference in that, but that's there oftentimes there's rules that say, yeah, you can't hire them

Max: After a stressful day of carrying boxes.

Jason: It may be, I don't know, but it's, there are these more stringent things, but if it's legal in your state is if it's legal where you are, I guess nine, 18 year old, usually usual is 21. So 21 year old warehouse worker, I guess she could have a problem. You could, you, it's not as big of a deal in my mind, but the 18 year old, shame on them, they should wait till 21 based on that wall.

Max: It should be the other way around. Absolutely. We should have a world where it's illegal in the state, but it's legal as soon as you come inside the company. You know,  Basically an office where we only accept people here who smoke cigarettes all day long. 

Jason: So you joke, but, um, one of the big tobacco companies I did work with years and years and years ago, um, And the first time I walked in there, I saw the ashtrays on the desks, the whole thing.
So, yeah, I don't know if they still do that, but this was way back when. But yeah, it's the only company I ever walked into with ashtrays on the desk, because that had sort of gone by the time I made it into this line of work. 

Max: Yeah. Well uh, I've experienced that as well.  I've had business meetings with cigarettes, um, in Asia. So  it does feel, uh, like you're, traveling in time when that happens. 

Jason: Well, I've had business meetings with cigars.  That's a different story. 

Max: Yes. Yes. I don't get invited to those then. Okay. Um, before we wrap it up, 

Jason: Max I’m pretty sure that i invited you to one at some point along the way.

Max: With cigars? 

Jason: Yeah. I'm pretty sure along the way. Maybe when we were in San Francisco, but I don't know. 

Max: Oh, I missed it. Well, okay. Talking about the, uh, the current events and where you see the market going a few months ago when, uh, the world uh, was collapsing. You, told me that the RPO industry had rebounded strongly in 2008 and 2009 and had its best run right afterwards and gave me some hope for your industry, our industry. Uh, coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, um, um, has your, um, yeah.  Are you on track with your predictions or, um, or you, uh, surprised with, uh, the pace of the slowness of the recovery, I guess, um, how do you anticipate the next few months will pan out for people in staffing and in the RPO world in particular?

Jason: Um, so yeah, uh, I don't know what the starting point of the sort of rebound is. Right? So coming out of the 2008 slowdown, um, 2009, when companies started bringing you back. Uh, employees, um, the recruiters came back first, right. And, uh, when the recruiters came back, the ramp began very quickly. And a lot of times they said, okay, well, let's bring people back, but via outsourcing. That's why outsourcing grew so much at that time. What's difficult about this one is we're not yet at the place where I think we're ready for the rebound. I think  um, we're still sort of in the low point. Uh, and we're, nobody's really sure when, we sort of swing out of this thing, I'm confident that we will, right?
I'm confident that yeah. Eventually everybody gets to take off their mask and go back to their jobs. And there are some hurdles that have to be reached along the way for that to happen. So I'm confident that the world will go back to what we were accustomed to one day. Um, but it's not something that happens, you know, in three months or four months, it's something that happens, uh, over a long period of time.

Max: There’s a cycle to recruitment. And normally, you know, end of the summer, everybody gets ready for the big shopping push towards the end of the year. 

Jason: October. Yeah. 

Max: Yeah. So now is when people need to, normally when they start ramping up and start you know, setting up the machine. You’re saying well, maybe it's taken a little longer this time.

Jason: Well, what's funny is the online machine is ramping like you wouldn't believe. So the people who do your online shopping through, and then who fulfill those orders on the back end. Yeah. That that's going strong. It hasn't slowed down. In fact, um, It's where we're seeing the most competition for workers, uh, warehouse workers are right now.
Like it's like a software developers and Silicon Valley in the early two thousands. 

Max: No, I don't know if I want to go into a, you know, carrying boxes or data science. 

Jason: Seriously. What I think is going to happen is those wages are going to start increasing really significantly. Much to the chagrin of my customer base, but they, I think that, um, you know, we're, we're being asked in some cases to monitor, um, uh, to monitor salaries or offers like what the, the offer that people are making to candidates on a daily basis. Because Amazon, when you drive past has billboards that say I'm offering X number of dollars per hour and they change. And sometimes they'll change uh, there'll be a different number when you go into the office from versus when you come back and yeah. Yeah. If that's how fast this, this thing is moving and it's not going down, it's all going up. Uh, and the reason that we think that is that, um, These jobs used to be the jobs that were, you know, the next level, they were the good paying jobs. If you didn't have an education necessarily, um, but uh, you wanted something that could actually pay your bills. Um, it's sort of the, the first job that was able to do that most of the time, um, you know, just above you would see the grocery stores and things paid just above minimum wage. And these jobs were always several dollars per hour or more.
What's happened is Target, Amazon, even Walmart now have pushed that based salary up to, you know, if anyone wages somewhere in the eight or $9 range, they've pushed to 13 or 14, a minimum wage, the California minimum wage, I think through the end of this year, end of next year. Uh, it will be $14, right? 

Max: So they as high as high as, as a logistics or, yeah.

Jason: Right. So it's, it's now you can, you can either, you can either work in a really, uh, challenging environment in a warehouse where you're lifting things a bunch and you're, um, it may, it's probably climate controlled. They've all added climate control, but there's these big Bay doors. So where the trucks have to pull in. So, uh, it's you can't get that completely cool or, uh, completely warm in the winter time. Um, so you've always got to deal with the weather to some degree when that, when that happens, you can't have total climate control. So you've got those jobs that are uncomfortable and require more physical activity versus, you know, the, the grocery store chain, the, uh, big box retailer, those, those other ones paying the same amount of money. So all those people that have to work with your packages from the Amazon people who have to load them to the, uh, delivery drivers, to the, uh, uh, you know, the UPS guy, whoever, um, all of those, workers, um, they're in great demand. Cause there's more, we need more of them, but their salaries are deeply compressed because of what's happened with all of the retail salaries. Yeah. 

Max: Yeah. Well I'm, um, you know, from an economic standpoint, I think increasing minimal wages, does uh, accelerate the pace of automation and ultimately, um, force companies to automate more. Uh, so that's probably the response as well as, you know, um, in the short term an increase in, uh, and paper hour, but we know that, um, it's going to drive more automation and will eventually, potentially cost a few jobs. 
Uh, but if those are the hard jobs, um, that may not be such a bad outcome, it's just that, as you were saying if you have no education, um, and you need to pay the bill, those jobs are very precious. So I don't know. Um, I'm not, uh, a policy guy, but, uh, um, it sounds like you're in the right market. Even though you're fighting some, uh, difficult trends. 

Jason: It's fascinating, right. If it were easy, the clients wouldn't call us to help. Right? They'd be able to do this themselves. 

Max: So many times after eight hours in front of my webcam I'm like, Oh man, I wish I was outside doing physical work and I always thought that that would be like a good employee branding employer value proposition. Come in to work in our warehouse and check out, our guns, you know?

Jason: You know what you need to do? You need to go, and I don't know about tha EVP, but the next time you feel that way, go dig a ditch and see how you feel afterwards. Because one time I at one  was hiring people who would bury the lines for the phone company and they literally were ditch diggers and I could not think of a worst gig. And they, uh, so every time I, when I look at this, I think. I could be doing that job. That would be terrible. Yeah, it's exhausting by the way. 

Max: I, uh, when I was, uh, 16 years old, I had a chance to go work in, um, an, a modeling agency to just to do intern work. But then my mother insisted, I go instead, go work in our plastic factory so that I would understand the cost of physical labor. And so  I did end up going to school afterwards and pursuing an education. 

Jason: Wow, How old were you when you could go to the modeling agency? 
Max: 16. Yeah, peak of my purity. 

Jason: At that age. I think, I think your mom might not have done the right thing. 

Max: Um, I'm pretty sure she will not be listening to our conversation, but, uh, if you are, I'm still so grateful for, uh, for your choice, mom, and I'm very grateful for your time, Jason. Today and in previous conversations, helping, helping me understand the macro trends and the limits of automation. Uh, thank you very much for joining us today, uh, on this podcast and looking forward to our next chat. 

Jason: Happy to do it. Thanks. 

Max: A treat talking to Jason Roberts from Accenture and, and learning about the new dynamics of the marketplace currently shaping, uh, North America with the pickers and the people working in logistics in higher demand than the engineers of the Silicon Valley.

Who would have guessed? And if, uh, if you liked this interview, please subscribe for more on recruitment hackers, podcast, and share with your friends. Hope to see you here again soon.
Play Next
Mark Played