For the manager trying to find the most effective way to make hiring and training decisions, part of the answer lies in foundational skill assessment. Foundational skills are the skills needed to some degree in every job—skills such as reading, writing and math. Many companies use personality and skill tests in the hiring process. You can’t change an employee’s personality—at least, not without the help of deep psychotherapy, religious conversion or brain surgery. But it is relatively easy to change a skill level, provided you use training that is well designed and targeted to the specific skills that need improvement.
Effective employee development starts with selecting employees who have foundational skills that can be built upon, so linking skill testing with training should start at the employee hiring and selection stage. This is why CLOs should be a part of the human resources selection planning process, HR professionals need to understand and participate in skill development, and both groups need to be clear about the factors, including skills, for which they will select and train. Technology, in the form of computer-based testing, learning and knowledge management systems, helps by giving learning professionals quicker analysis of skill gaps and training targets and by managing the flow of information about company and employee needs, knowledge and performance over time.
Why Skills Are Important
Three main factors indicate an employee’s ability to do a job, and each reveals different employee qualities. (See Figure 1.)
The most difficult-to-change qualities are at the lowest level of the pyramid. Moving up the pyramid, skills are more easily and directly trained, because foundational skills provide the basis upon which more job-specific skills can be built. Selecting employees based on both personality fit and skill-development potential results in a higher level of employee satisfaction, job performance and organizational productivity. Many employers tend to focus almost exclusively on job-specific skills, often ignoring the foundational skills, which enable employees to absorb and put training into productive action on the job. Besides the foundational skills already mentioned–reading, writing and math–other important foundational skills such as teamwork, observation and listening are virtually ignored until the employee is on the job.
Knowing that their employees are proficient in foundational skills should help CLOs sleep better at night because those skills influence training effectiveness, employee retention and ultimately, the bottom line.
Skill Testing in Selection and Training
Effective training programs begin with hiring and selection. When HR professionals in charge of hiring send unprepared workers to CLOs for training, the training doesn’t stick, and employee retention suffers.
Skill testing has been used in hiring and selection practices for a long time. Job-specific skill tests, such as police lieutenants’ exams, are often used in selection and promotion. Work-habits skills, such as interpersonal communication and self-management, are often addressed piecemeal with training but are rarely assessed in any integrated way.
Foundational skills are often overlooked in the selection process, mostly because businesses assume if an individual has a diploma or a certain set of courses on his resume, he has foundational skills. This is a dangerous assumption. A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Education showed that one-fourth of high school seniors had below-average reading skills, 35 percent had below-average math skills, and almost half were below average in science skills.
Also, some foundational skills are not taught in the traditional classroom. Take listening, for example—a skill necessary to understand and convey workplace information. ACT tested a group of high school students in the Midwest in 2000 and 2001. Results showed that many of them had high job-ready skills in reading, math and writing, but only 40 percent had the listening skills required for half of the 10,000-plus American jobs in ACT’s job profile database.
In related research, ACT studied the national skill gap in locating and synthesizing information, a skill that in today’s world of massive information availability deserves the status of becoming the fourth “R,” along with reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. The skill involves being able to analyze information found in the workplace, such as charts, graphs, gauges and diagrams, and draw conclusions. ACT’s research involved more than 5,000 jobs analyzed over a five-year period, and more than 147,000 examinees who were tested between September 2002 and August 2003 using ACT’s WorkKeys Locating Information assessment. That assessment yields four levels of performance, ranging from the lowest skill level at which businesses would hire, to the highest skill level found in ACT’s research. (See Figure 2.)
Among the findings:
- Three percent of the jobs profiled were found to require the top level of locating information skills, but less than 1 percent of the examinees achieved that level of performance.
- Moving down the scale to the second-highest level, 25 percent of jobs required that level of skill, and 14 percent of examinees achieved it. And at the third-highest level, 49 percent of jobs required that skill level, while 46 percent of examinees achieved it.
- In the lowest part of the scale, there were equal percentages of jobs requiring and examinees receiving the required score. However, there was also a substantial group (18 percent) of examinees who simply failed to achieve a high enough level of performance to fit any of the jobs profiled. If the “80/20 rule” holds and 20 percent of the jobs consume 80 percent of the labor, then the competition for talent in a skill such as locating information will be fierce at several job levels in the future.
Similar patterns have been found in other foundational skills, as well. Thus, the pipeline for prospective employees is extremely variable on the important dimension of foundational skills.
The first step in solving the skill gap dilemma is knowing the skill requirements of specific jobs. This is accomplished through a job and task analysis that identifies both the critical skills and the skill levels needed. Because of the skill gaps and variability present in today’s workforce, using foundational skill measurement in selection is a necessary step. Once skill requirements are established, companies can start assessing prospective employees, starting the process of achieving competitive advantage through strategically selected human capital. Further, assessment of incumbents can provide for very focused and efficient training.
Assessment-driven selection and training can be very productive when done right. One ACT client, a producer of precision gears, was able to reduce supervision by 50 percent while doubling the number of operators. The company attributes those benefits to training incumbents and changing the selection process to include assessment of foundational skills. Another, UP Special Delivery, reduced training time required by two to four months after implementing foundation skills testing. It also reduced department personnel turnover by 85 percent.
Technology’s Role in Managing Testing Programs
Technology offers an added dimension to the link between testing and training, especially when computer-based testing is used for both selection and training. Many companies use computer-based testing use scores for hiring and selection, but those scores can also be reused to target training with the help of a learning management system (LMS) or a knowledge management system (KMS).
Computer technology enables the effective use of test data and efficient implementation of decisions based on the results. Technology tools exist to help with all components: job analysis and skills profiling; test delivery, scoring and reporting; and data management. A good job analysis and skills profiling tool can help manage task lists, coordinate input from remotely located subject-matter experts and handle the rating and ranking activities needed to establish sound descriptions of job requirements—the first step in effectively using test results.
In the delivery of tests, automating the presentation of test items may or may not be desirable depending on the organization’s security needs and logistical constraints. But automated scoring (which avoids labor commitment and human-introduced errors in checking answers and recording scores) and speedy reporting of results are always preferable. Further, management of testing data, associated with targeted training performance and job assignments, can be leveraged through an LMS.
Finally, the ultimate cycle of managing aggregate data for the organization’s benefit can be handled through a KMS. In the KMS, individual jobs and aggregate job clusters created from common skill requirements can be identified and compared to the recruiting pipeline and incumbent skill levels. Identified gaps between required and existing skill levels in the pipeline are leading indicators for the training and development plans for individual applicants and employees. Aggregated across individuals and tied into learning objects that can be maintained in the content manager of an LMS, these data can be used to form precisely targeted curricula to build strengths and correct weaknesses in the “goodness of fit” between a company’s job-skill requirements and the skill sets of its employees.
The primary goal of employee learning is performance improvement, but with strategic positioning it also plays a key role in employee retention. And the single most important issue in employee retention is the fit between the person and the job they’re required to perform. Linking skill testing with training is effective because it creates specific, defined learning goals. It sets the standards that need to be met and provides a clearer signal when the skills have been achieved. Doing this right can pay off handsomely.
Take, for example, Creative Extruded Products in Tipp City, Ohio. In the midst of high scrap expenditures and employee turnover, the company underwent job profiling to determine where employees were falling short. Once the skill levels were determined, employees were tested. It was found that one-fourth of the workforce needed skill training. After training, most incumbents achieved the desired skill levels, and the company realized great results. Job training time fell from six months to two months. Overtime hours dropped 95 percent. Turnover fell from 33 percent to 2 percent, and scrap expenditures decreased 65 percent. According to Bill Cordial, manufacturing manager for Creative, “It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
Dr. Oliver Cummings is director of test development for ACT’s WorkKeys system. He has more than 20 years of experience in test development and performance consulting. WorkKeys is a job skill assessment system used by organizations and individuals for hiring, selection, training and skill improvement. ACT is a nonprofit organization based in Iowa City, Iowa. Contact Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org.