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Employee Testing: Send in the Clones

What should employers be looking for in prospective IT workers? The answer's all around.

If there’s one thing they’ve got plenty of in California, it’s shortages. Indeed, over the past few years the Golden State has been struck by an endless series of shortfalls, including water, gasoline, grapes, and, most recently, electricity.

But last December, Ron Komers was facing an entirely different kind of shortage. Komers, who oversees the hiring of technology workers for Riverside County in Southern California, needed to fill a growing number of IT job openings at the municipality. In the past the county’s full-time IT recruiter, Melanie Hanisco, had generally been able to fill tech vacancies as they arose. But a high turnover rate — coupled with a mushrooming need for computer specialists — suddenly left Komers with 60 vacancies scattered across several departments.

At first Komers went through the standard channels, posting the listings in newspapers and on Internet job sites. Although he received a number of responses, he didn’t fill many of the positions. After several weeks of frustration and few hires, Komers decided to take an entirely different tack. In January the county HR staff began administering a preemployment IT test to current workers — most of whom had little or no tech experience. The online exam, from ePredix, measures cognitive ability, vocational and mathematical skills, and verbal reasoning. Komers’s reasoning was that the test might uncover a hidden well of IT talent right there among the clerks and typists and office administrators.

He was spot on. “We had social workers and stock clerks who scored well on the [aptitude] tests,” reports Komers. “That proved to us that there’s a lot of untapped talent out there.” Guided by the test scores, Komers has selected some current, nontech staffers who are now being trained to fill 20 of those 60 vacancies.

While administering preemployment examinations to current employees is fairly unusual, applicant testing is not; companies have long been using various psychometrics to rate job candidates. In fact, in a survey published in Human Resource Executive, a trade magazine, 69 percent of the respondents said they used some form of preemployment testing to screen potential hires.

Mostly, however, the tests have been given to candidates applying for jobs that involve customer contact (service representative) or excessive stress (air traffic controller). Since IT positions don’t usually fall into either category, and since technical work usually requires considerable expertise, employers have tended to look more at résumés than Rorschachs. “You’ve got managers who think, ‘This person has three years’ experience with Unix and this person has five, so I’ll hire the person with five years’ experience,’ ” notes Joy Hazucha, senior vice president with Personnel Decisions International, a human resources and consulting firm. “The problem is, they don’t consider that these people also have to work with a team, and in some cases, as a project manager or a software developer.”

With the salaries of IT workers skyrocketing, however, some employers are now attempting to get inside the heads of job applicants. Sprint, the Kansas City—based communications company, administers a battery of psychological tests to prospective tech employees. According to Bill Donkersgoed, manager of selection systems at Sprint’s national staffing and technology group, the exams include cognitive and motivational testing combined with structured interviews. By conducting these assessments, Donkersgoed says, the company’s managers get a more complete picture of a candidate.

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