It’s been twelve months since I’ve had work. The last consulting project I had was in March 2020, working with a luxury car company that was launching a unique, high-end car experience in Manhattan. I also had three proposals out to prospective clients for future projects. Then the world shut down and the hospitality industry came to a screeching halt. The business I had worked so hard for, my entire adult life, disappeared.
Today, I am one of 10 million unemployed Americans searching for one of 6.9 million jobs. Since the restaurant industry in New York has been decimated, I’ve tried searching for positions in the non-profit sector and the growing retail cannabis industry. I have over 30 years of experience working in the hospitality industry, and skills in operations, project management, HR, training and development.
What I do not have is a college degree. And what that means is that on job search websites, my resume is overlooked or never seen.
The reason for this is the way we apply for most jobs today: We don’t actually email a person or HR department where someone reads our cover letter and reviews our resumé. Instead, we apply online through an applicant tracking system, which compares the skills listed on your resumé with the keywords and phrases mentioned in the job listing. This means long hours customizing your resumé to fit every job application, or the applicant tracking system will just skip over you. But if you do fit your resumé to their specifications, the applicant tracking system translates it to fit their format, erasing anything unique in your resumé and turning you into just another applicant among the masses for the algorithm to sort.
And that’s the best case scenario. Research has found that applicant tracking systems, which were supposed to root out bias in hiring, often end up replicating the very biases they were meant to erase. Moreover, they put people without a college degree at a distinct disadvantage—something I found out over the past year.
One site would not let me submit a job application without entering a college degree. In the education section, I had to enter my degree and school. There was no option to put in N/A or no degree, so I aborted my application, even though I was totally qualified for the position.
I could have lied about my education, but that is not who I am. How would I explain when asked? There was no one to explain to that all of my education, experience, and professional achievements have come from working in the hospitality industry, not from sitting in a classroom. When I’m applying for jobs, I might be up against a young adult with a BA in Art History who has the educational credentials but only a tiny fraction of my knowledge and skill.
I’m not alone in this regard. The restaurant industry has always offered opportunities to hard-working people, regardless of their education. A few years ago, I created a program in Harlem called Hospitality Pathways to train disenfranchised young adults to work in guest-forward restaurant positions. I knew my industry was desperate for new talent and I saw how entire populations were being overlooked for front-of-house positions due to lack of experience.
My students had the desire but not the opportunity. I knew that once they had the training and skills, they would rise up and be a huge asset to their organizations. My students often told me, “Miss B., no one has ever spent this much time training me and investing in my success.”
The pandemic has upended my plans for Hospitality Pathways, so I am reimagining the curriculum to train students in soft skills they can carry with them across industries.
In the meantime, here I am, like my Hospitality Pathways students, being overlooked because I do not have the college degree that optimizes me for the algorithm.
I have survived the pandemic on two PPP loans, unemployment, and what savings I had. But in January, I could not afford to renew my apartment lease because it would have meant taking on debt. I sold most of my belongings and have become a minimalist and a nomad, relying on friends and family to keep a roof over my head.
I understand why employers are using applicant tracking systems: They are more efficient. With so many people unemployed, I understand employers have the luxury of searching for the “perfect fit.”
And yet, there are so many candidates that have the portable skills they are seeking and also a fresh approach that can greatly improve a business.
To employers out there, I would like to say: Try to be more open-minded and take a good look at a candidate’s resume. You will be pleasantly surprised what happens when you give someone the opportunity.
Beatrice Stein is a hospitality consultant specializing in service and training and the founder of Hospitality Pathways.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.