Thursday, May 30, 2013

The End of Job Applications As We Know Them

First, a word in defense of Thomas Friedman (and his taxi drivers). Although he has the human tendency to seek points of view that reaffirm his own, at least he's sticking his head outside of the bubble and listening to somebody other than like-minded talking heads or agenda-driven "confidential sources". I also agree with Friedman's general conception that the job market is changing, as are the means by which people will find jobs and maintain their positions (or should I say, salaries) over their working lives. That said, in his column about a new website that tests the skills of job applicants... I think he's a bit too credulous toward the creators of the site he touts in his zeal to endorse a new era of employment.
The way HireArt works, explained Sharef (who was my daughter’s college roommate), is that clients — from big companies, like Cisco, Safeway and Airbnb, to small family firms — come with a job description and then HireArt designs online written and video tests relevant for that job. Then HireArt culls through the results and offers up the most promising applicants to the company, which chooses among them.
The problem I see with that is that designing tests isn't a one-off. If you want tests that are measurably effective at assessing worker's skills, you have to do a lot more than create a test for a given job. You need to test the test. Further, let's say you create a test with "the right questions" - how do you grade the answers? If we were talking about tests of math skills, that could be automated. But we're not - at least as highlighted in the column, these are subjective tests:
HireArt asks candidates to do tasks that mimic the work they would do on the job. If it is for a Web analytics job, HireArt might ask: “You are hired as the marketing manager at an e-commerce company and asked to set up a Web site analytics system. What are the key performance indicators you would measure? How would you measure them?”...

Sample question: “Kanye West just released a new fashion collection. You can see it here. Imagine you had to write a tweet promoting this collection. What would your tweet be?” Someone applying for a sales job would have to record a sales pitch over video.
Really, more than a test, that's more like creating a standardized set of interview questions and giving applicants time to think through the answers. In essence, rather than just submitting résumés, the applicants would be interviewing in writing. But who would review the answers, and based upon what criteria? Enter the human element. Or perhaps even the computer element - if you get 500 people applying for each job, odds are that the initial "scoring" is going to be a computerized process, or performed by somebody associated with the website as opposed to a person who would actually be making a hiring decision. If you were hiring a salesperson, how valuable would the pre-recorded pitch be, as opposed to tasking a candidate to make a pitch during the interview and seeing how they respond to you in the role of customer? How much time would you save, reviewing perhaps hundreds of videos from applicants as opposed to interviewing leading prospects?
So what does she advise? Sharef pointed to one applicant, a Detroit woman who had worked as a cashier at Borders. She realized that that had no future, so she taught herself Excel. “We gave her a very rigorous test, and she outscored people who had gone to Stanford and Harvard. She ended up as a top applicant for a job that, on paper, she was completely unqualified for.”
From which I infer, she didn't get the job.

For some of us, the idea of somehow being tested before applying for a job is old hat. I can't recall the last job I applied for that did not want multiple writing samples, a sample document of some sort relating to the work I would be doing, or something else that would suggest qualification (or lack thereof) before I was selected for an interview. And I haven't applied for a job in a very long time. Perhaps outsourcing that sort of pre-screening will work for some employers.

However, I think the future lies in a somewhat different direction. While large employers may well continue to reach out to new college grads through sites like the one Friedman describes, more and more jobs are going to be filled through personal connections and networking. A commonly recited statistic is that 80% of job openings are never advertised. I see a future in which that rises well over 90%, as people rely more and more on sites like LinkedIn to find and check references on people who may not even be aware that they're being considered for a job offer. The test will in no small part be your actual accomplishments, as documented on your profile and as verified by trusted people in your extended network.

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