The buyer's guide to...Skills testing

Hiring levels may still be down but the use of skills testing in the application process is on the increase as recruiters seek to verify that candidates have the required competencies for a job and their stated qualifications have not been exaggerated.

With the focus on recruitment costs certain to continue, skills testing is likely to be brought into the recruitment process even earlier to prevent recruiters wasting valuable time on unsuitable candidates.

Laurie Dobson, managing director of test provider ISV Group, reckons it won’t be long before job boards offer testing as an add-on to recruiters and candidates; other developments include Innovate CV’s move to allow candidates and recruiters to link their CV product to an online testing and training centre so candidates can demonstrate their skill level in specific areas before a shortlist is drawn up. Being able to use a third party to verify a candidate’s qualifications for a role is proving popular as a differentiator as well as making the recruiter’s life easier, points out Adam Lewis, chief operating officer at Innovate CV. “It’s an extra way to screen candidates during the screening and filtering process,” he says, claiming that around half of candidates who build an Innovate CV make use of the skills testing facility.

Despite their obvious benefits, however, too many recruiters still think of testing as a “nice-to-have” according to Peter Farrow, UK managing director of Thomas International. “It may be possible to identify candidates without testing, but you are leaving a lot to luck,” he says, adding that using a robust skills test demonstrates to clients you are serious about finding the right candidate and have thought carefully about their needs. “Once hired your candidate has a much greater chance of making it through the probationary period if their skills are up-to-scratch, meaning your commission is much safer.”

One of the challenges surrounding skills testing for recruiters though is the sheer volume of such tests in the market. Deciding which route to take can weigh you down when already faced with a busy workload. A certain amount of market research is necessary though to ensure you put in place the most cost-effective skills testing package for your firm and your clients.

The basics
As with anything, ’basic’ constitutes different things to different people. Typically, a basic test will focus on areas such as numeracy, literacy and IT skills, the latter often based on competency in specific programs such as Microsoft Office, Excel and PowerPoint. Basic tests are widely available and can take from as little as five minutes up to half an hour. Costs will vary dependent on volume but can be as little as between £2 and £5 per individual test and coming in around £12-£15 per candidate. A range of cost options are available such as licensing and the purchasing of tokens. The best advice is to try to predict your level of usage so you can secure the best ’package’ deal rather than shopping on an ad hoc basis.

Most recruiters will have a good handle on what they should be testing for but never overlook the basics. Jonathan Brown, head of client services and head of assessment and selection at RPO provider Alexander Mann Solutions, reports that one of the main growth area for skills testing is among the clerical professions and in addition to grammatical knowledge, this can involve testing a candidate’s ability to spot mistakes in written work. “This increase is perhaps driven by a perceived drop in education standards with employers no longer willing to assume that jobseekers will have the necessary core skills that in the past may have been taken for granted,” he explains. But skills testing isn’t solely for office and IT-based roles. For more practical jobs, such as those in the engineering and construction sectors, Brown suggests recruiters could test for manual dexterity and the ability to solve physical problems.

Without doubt one of the major growth areas at this level is in online testing, which is fast and convenient for the candidate and delivers results to the recruiter far more quickly than traditional testing. Farrow reckons providers which haven’t moved their testing online are lagging behind. “Our clients find the flexibility of being able to email assessments to candidates in advance saves huge amounts of time,” he says.

The enhancements
Add-ons and extras in the skills testing arena are less about courses and more concerned with additional services including consultancy, benchmarking and assessment centres. Farrow says that Thomas International offers all of these as well as interviewing processes that incorporate their skills tests. Recruiters may also want to integrate skills testing with some form of behavourial, personality and aptitude assessments which, as he points out, provide the “next layer” of candidate information.

An enhanced service could also incorporate a more bespoke offering as Dobson outlines: “Offering customisation in the form of specific tests or branding and even integration with front office systems to make life easier,” he says. “The add-on tests most in demand are the ones clients can make themselves for specific clients. This allows agencies to have a sales edge.”

According to Dobson demand for training modules is also increasing and in line with this ISV has recently introduced a comprehensive Sage training package. This is also borne out by Innovate CV’s experience with its online training centre. Lewis claims that one of the most exciting options for recruiters when discussing Innovate CV’s branded service is the facility to offer courses to candidates. “It helps them to understand where the candidate is and to get a good view of the skills set of that candidate early on,” he says, adding: “Recruitment consultants at our partner agencies are pushing candidates to take these tests.”

Job profiling that helps ensure skills testing is precisely targeted is also likely to be a growing trend. A study commissioned by Cognisco and conducted by analysts IDC, shows that one quarter of employees do not understand certain aspects of their job function. Mary Clarke, CEO of Cognisco reckons employers need to have a clear picture of what potential employees “truly understand” versus what “they think” they understand. “Job profiling helps organisations consider the key behavioural requirements of each and every job and provides clients with a template into which they can slot or appraise an individual,” she says. “It provides an objective way to look at the type of individual needed for each role in an organisation.”

Vital information
Avoid selecting a test provider purely on the basis of price. Research carried out by ISV Group highlighted that checking out the reputation of the test provider, ease-of-use and ascertaining whether courses were either backed or recommended by the clients’ trade organisations are among the key requirements when buying tests alongside value-for-money and robustness of the product. Managing director Laurie Dobson also advises checking out the training and after sales service on offer. “The provider should be a partner not just a supplier,” he cautions.

Ensure tests are aligned to individual job specifications rather than applied generically across the organisation, says Jonathan Brown at Alexander Mann Solutions. He recommends that recruiters compile a job analysis to ensure each test suits the company and specific job and to ask providers for real-life case studies that could be compared against your own or client’s organisation.

“Try before you buy,” stresses Peter Farrow at Thomas International. “Sample the tests you think you will use most often before you commit, you want to be sure you’ll get the level of detail you and your client requires.”

Beforeyoubuy ask yourself…
How user-friendly are the tests?
Do they cover our needs and/or the client’s?
Am I convinced of their quality and robustness?
Can courses be individually customized and will this cost me more?
Can the tests be integrated with other systems?
What is my medium to long-term test usage likely to be? (so you can negotiate a more favourable price)
Will training be required and does the provider offer this?
How quickly can we be up and running?

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