The Cancer of Fake Resumes in American IT Staffing

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Many of us in the technology industry are as opinionated as everyone else - so dissent among our ilk is just as common as within members of the larger public.

But if there's one thing that just about all of us agree on, it is that the cancer of fake resumes - especially in the IT staffing industry - is growing rapidly.  To say that the situation is now terminal is not an exaggeration.

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Yet, not much has been written about it.  Nor has there been much reporting in the media.  Most of us know it exists, so we have agreed to move on, helpless that we can't fix it.

The Basics:  What Do We Know About The Problem?

A CareerBuilder survey in 2014 said that nearly 58% of resumes overall were suspected to be fraudulent, with 63% of resumes in Tech earning this dubious distinction.   Three years later, in 2017, CareerBuilder said that this problem was on a rise, with nearly 75% of all resumes being somewhat fake. But it did not include a breakout for IT workers.

On a more anecdotal level, there was a superb piece of video journalism by the NBC local affiliate in the Bay Area.  In Sep 2015, it ran an investigative story about a company called Beta Soft which was alleged to have charged job-seekers $1,000 to train them in a technology field and then create fully fake resumes to place them in contract IT jobs.

There is one other reference:  John Sule of Horizon Technology Partners, one of the oldest and largest IT staffing providers in Chicago, said in a March 2017 blog:  “Resume fraud happens in every industry, but it is rampant in IT.”  

So what exactly is resume fraud?  In the traditional sense, this happens when candidates exaggerate their contributions to a company,  elevate a skill set or claim credit for what was the effort of a team, betting that hiring managers will not verify the claims.

Fake Resumes in American IT Staffing

The fake resume in American IT staffing takes fraud to a whole new level.  It starts with candidates adding several years of experience on their resumes just to make their profile look stronger.  Job titles, work performed, dates of employment, skills used and honed, achievements - everything is fake.  In such resumes, the name of the company worked for and the location are both accurate.  But the candidate probably has never even seen the place, far less worked there.

The trick works because large companies, such as Bank of America and Cigna, which  regularly use staffing companies to fill IT roles, have not taken the problem seriously.  Across America, Indian-owned companies specialize in recruiting and placing IT contract resources.  These "body shops" rarely contract directly with the big American corporation but are tiered two or three levels below, sub-contracting to the prime staffing vendor.

The growth of these boutique body shops can be traced to market forces as corporate America demands inexpensive, short-term IT labor to coincide with an increasing supply of Indian-origin tech workers.  While the number of H-1B visas continues to be capped at 65,000 each year, most of which are grabbed by the big IT majors from India, what fuels the staffing company labor pool are Indian and Chinese graduate students who are designated 20,000 additional H-1B visas not included in the 65,000 annual cap.

Then, there are thousands of students with graduate degrees on the so-called OPT-STEM training visas.  In 2008, there were 29,000 students on this visa, but in 2017, there were 149,000 students on it, with multiple chances to convert to H-1Bs.  The OPT-STEM visas are granted for a 1-year term with generous renewal terms for up to three full years, so, collectively, there are nearly 450,000 students eager to find and keep employment.

Finally, since 2016, President Obama’s H4-EAD visa benefit released hundreds of thousands of H-1B spouses in to the workforce, all anxious to work even under substandard conditions.  Employment under H4-EAD is largely unregulated.  Beneficiaries can work in any industry and for any wage, even if below market.

Taken together, all of these groups amount to a pool of nearly 1 million candidates, each eager to out-shine the next to appear the most employable.

So, How Does It Work?

On fake tech resumes, the "Marketing Team" of the staffing company - say ABC staffing - carefully creates a resume which is completely false.  The resume makes explicit mention of a big name client (say, Bank of America) where the candidate is supposed to have worked but buries the actual employer name - ABC staffing company - somewhere deep in the resume.  A JP Morgan Chase hiring manager evaluating the resume is encouraged to call ABC staffing for verification, not the Bank of America supervisor.  When the call is made, ABC staffing not only validates the candidate’s claims but also provides positive feedback on the candidate's performance.

ABC staffing provides another valuable service to the candidate - it prepares him with a series of canned technical responses to the Chase interview drawn from a question bank.  Both the question bank and responses are maintained by more experienced ABC consultants who have worked at Chase and are familiar with its managers, systems and processes.

Thus hired, the candidate shows up at work, ever nervous that his lack of integrity and competence could be exposed at the most innocent of moments, such as at the water cooler.  The real risk is during the conduct of actual duties.  A candidate who has faked four years of experience into the resume is expected to possess a certain set of competencies which the new employee just does not have.  Eyebrows are raised when the employee makes elemental mistakes, or worse, acknowledges through actions that he is inept at performing the task, risking dismissal.

The Bottom Line

Faking resumes is not illegal in America.  But in life, the legal bar is often lower than the ethical bar.  In an intensively competitive Darwinian job market where the person with the most attractive resume survives - however fake - it is sad that it makes it impossible for genuine candidates to shine through and become recognized.

Much like real cancer, there are no easy cures for the fake resume problem as well.  Much like real cancer, there is hope if there's a concerted effort among all the players to limit its spread.  But for this to happen, someone has the bell the cat.

The Trump administration has taken some steps unknowingly which can indirectly help.  It announced recently that students on the STEM-OPT visa effectively cannot seek employment where they are trained by a third-party client of the staffing company.  In other words, JP Morgan Chase cannot train the candidate because the training responsibility falls squarely on ABC Staffing which maintains an employer-employee relationship with the candidate.  This rule unfortunately makes thousands of candidates with real resumes ineligible to work in the IT staffing industry, altogether, but it certainly eliminates the problem of fake resumes among these students.

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