Job tests for graduates grow in Indian market

By Paul Fain, for Inside Higher Ed

November 17, 2014

Angst over the perceived “skills gap” and a dearth of trained workers is growing. Meanwhile, many complain that typical college transcripts say little about what someone knows and can do in the workplace.

One way for employers to find better job applicants might be to require all potential hires to take a test. This “GRE-for-job” assessment could measure both soft and hard skills. Employers might even require all job-seekers to get a minimum cut-off score.

There is a growing market for such workplace readiness tests in the US. One of the most established is ACT’s WorkKeys. The suite of 11 assessments help employers select, hire, train and retain a “high-performance workforce”, according to the non-profit testing firm.

Yet few if any major companies in the US require college graduates to earn a minimum score on a standardised skills-assessment to get hired. This is happening in India, however, and US-based companies are on board.

More than 1.5 million people in India have taken a test called the AMCAT (Aspiring Minds’ Computer Adaptive Test). The assessment measures aptitude in English, quantitative ability and logic. (Click here for a few sample questions.) It also includes a variety of situational and judgement tests, which scrutinise personality types and soft skills to see how they might apply in specific fields.

The test is proctored and takes two hours to complete. It costs 750 rupees or roughly $12 (£7.70) to take.

Multinational conglomerates are among the 600-plus companies that use the test from Aspiring Minds, a firm based in Gurgaon, a city located near New Delhi. Some require all applicants and all employees to take the AMCAT, said Varun Aggarwal, Aspiring Minds’ chief technology officer and chief operating officer.

Accenture and Deloitte, two massive, US-based consulting firms, go a step farther by setting “standardised cut-off” scores on the test for job seekers in India, Mr Aggarwal said. So do other companies.

One is Sapient Global Markets, a business and technology consulting company. Sapient uses the assessment this way for all of its technology-related jobs in India. Prashant Bhatnagar, an India-based director for the company, said Sapient requires college-graduate applicants for tech jobs to hit a minimum score on the AMCAT to qualify for an interview.

Mr Bhatnagar said via email that this is just the first part of a multistep hiring process, which he compares to the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

The test is a “great leveller”, he said. It allows the company to be more fair in considering applicants who have graduated from different colleges, by relying on something other than an institution’s prestige, Mr Bhatnagar said. Sapient also uses applicants’ scores on the assessment as “our own yardstick, year over year”.

Aspiring Minds would like to break into the US market. Mr Aggarwal said the company has had conversations with American colleges and companies.

The testing firm has partnered with edX, the massive online course provider run by MIT and Harvard University. Indian students who complete edX courses can register for free on Aspiring Minds’ platform to take the assessment and seek jobs.

Mr Aggarwal is a product of both the American and Indian higher education systems. He earned a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. Aspiring Minds’ CEO, Himanshu Aggarwal, graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, as did many of the company’s 260 or so employees.

It won’t be easy to build a critical mass of users in the US, said Mr Aggarwal. The company has been operating in India for eight years, and only recently saw its test-taking numbers really begin to snowball. Aspiring Minds also operates in the Philippines, Ghana and the Middle East, among other places.

“It’s a market-making business and people don’t like tests,” he said.

Even so, Mr Aggarwal argues that the AMCAT helps make the hiring process more meritocratic, by verifying what job-seekers know and can do. It’s a way of identifying talent, which is crucial for both companies and the millions of skilled yet underemployed workers in India.

Aspiring Minds is one of a growing number of firms that want to tap into the market for post-college, workplace assessments. Many seek to measure non-cognitive skills and problem-solving. Like Aspiring Minds, they typically feature adaptive elements, meaning the tests change based on a user’s answers. The group includes Evolv, Gild and Knack.

Some startups seek to link undergraduates students with employers. One new addition, JobVille, is described as a combination of Candy Crush (a popular Facebook and smartphone game) and LinkedIn. Diana Cobbe, the startup’s founder, recently won a $10,000 prize from the Lumina Foundation for the app.

Cobbe said that JobVille will introduce students, beginning as freshers, to three types of jobs and one employer each day. “It takes about five minutes a day,” said Ms Cobbe. “They need to have employer networks.”

Colleges should pay attention to this emerging field, said Louis Soares, vice-president for policy research and strategy at the American Council on Education and head of the council’s Center for Policy Analysis. For one thing, students might be able to benefit from the assessments. Companies are using them as hiring tools, he said, and colleges could steer students toward the tests and cover some or all of the fees.

Skills assessments are also worth tracking because of what they say about the value of a degree.

“It calls into question the current credentialing system,” said Mr Soares. “They upend conventional wisdom.” 

Major testing firms will continue to a play a role in developing job-market assessments.

In addition to ACT, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has created two tests employers could use, although they are aimed at colleges. Another player is the Council for Aid to Education, which last year released a revised version of its College Learning Assessment, which is dubbed the CLA+.

WorkKeys was one of the first on the scene. So far it has mostly been used in manufacturing and other fields that do not typically require job applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees. But that may be changing.

The 11 WorkKeys assessments can be used by a broad range of employers, said Chris Guidry, ACT’s director of career and college readiness. And ACT continues to tweak WorkKeys based on expected changes in job markets.

The testing firm designs its assessments based on specific information about local hiring needs. It uses job descriptions from a federal database as well as research from its own trained job profilers, who are deployed around the nation. They study the tasks and skills associated with jobs in each area, said Mr Guidry.

The three types of assessments that see the most use are ones that measure reading for information, the ability to locate information and applied math skills. As a result, jobseekers who pass those assessments quality for ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). They can earn one of three possible levels of readiness on the certificate. So far ACT has issued more than 2.6 million of the credentials.

In addition to those three tests, ACT offers eight assessments measuring different skills, including ones in applied technology, business writing and teamwork. Companies can offer the tests that make the most sense for their employees.

Guidry said some employers use the tests when they are seeking to relocate to a new area. For example, the results can help “whittle down” 200 applications for 20 new jobs. Employers also test current employees, sometimes to remediate where their skills are lacking or to learn more about high-performing workers.

However, ACT does not recommend that employers rely solely on WorkKeys in the hiring process. And Mr Guidry said companies typically allow applicants and current employees to retake the tests multiple times.

“It’s not about excluding” anyone, he said. “People have good days. People have bad days.”

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